The Poverty Mentality

Mickey Gamble has an interesting post up over at Gospeleer about what he calls “the poverty mentality” of southern gospel:

There is a widely held belief in our genre that degrades both the value of the artist and the level of support that fans will indulge.  That belief is that our fans live lives of economic struggle and are not willing or not able to support the artists’ work at a level equivalent to other genres of music.  In addition, artists are restrained from appearing wealthy or talking about wealth as a positive thing (with a few exceptions, notably busses and clothes).

Mickey’s post is worth reading for what he has to say about the implications of this phenomenon. One thing you get is a self-fulfilling spiral toward inferior product quality:

If a promoter follows a pattern of putting on concerts in gyms with poor sound and lighting, he is going to draw crowds that are only comfortable with very low ticket prices and looking only for “bargains” at the record table.

But it goes deeper than this, too. I recall watching Connie Hopper sing  the second verse of “Thank You, Lord” at NQC. She sang: “You know I’m not wealthy, these clothes they’re not new, I don’t have much money, but Lord I have you.” All the while looking, as I wrote at the time, “like a million bucks” in obviously not old clothes (and the Hoppers are definitely not on the list of sg people without much money).

The story both bears out what Mickey says and complicates it. Big hair, caked-on make-up, plastic surgery, bejeweled clothing, coordinated costumes, pleather furniture settees on remnants of plush carpet at the NQC exhibition hall (emphasis on exhibition),  buses worth more than the value of several decent homes … even the conspicuous parsimony of the sort Claude Hopper is not coincidentally known for … these  are all ways of indirectly signaling wealth - or, more often, someone’s attempt to match unwealthy people’s idea of what wealth looks and acts like - to a culture that, as Mickey notes, can’t openly appear to prize material wealth the way the rest of the world does.

Thus do performers get on stage - trailing clouds of AquaNet, with their industrial strength make-up melting in the spotlights, a $500,000-bus idling on $4-a-gallon  fuel in the parking lot, and five figures worth of product out at their table - and then stand there and regale their audience with tales of how they care nothing for this ole world of sin and materialism and the seductions it affords … they just want to sang for Jesus.

To outsiders, this paradox is so much obvious charlatanism, and this is undoubtedly true in some cases. But it’s easy to dismiss something as entirely hypocritical on the basis of a few frauds. Far more difficult to try to understand the underlying dynamic.

Compared to most artists in other genres of professional music, southern gospel is musical bankruptcy.

Nobody knows that as well as the folks trying to keep fuel in the bus and make payroll  every week (lots of time to consider the balance sheet when you’re applying make up and fixing your hair before a set). And measured against the conspicuous prosperity of CCM and country music (to take the two nearest neighbors to sg), professional southern gospel artists may not have as hard a time as you might think telling themselves (and really believing) that the conspicuous consumption required to keep their show on the road really is (to quote myself) a ministerial pillow of stone.

As Dolly Parton is fond of saying, it takes a lot of money to look this cheap. And when you don’t make much more than it costs to meet expenses, this pricey cheapness can begin, after a while, to feel like a genuine sacrifice for the kingdom.

Update: Only because it intersects in very general ways with questions of faith, wealth, and the conflicts the two engender, I’d bring this story to your attention. It’s apples and oranges in many ways, but interesting for our purposes all the same, if only because money is being used as a proxy to scrimmage over a whole range of cultural and political issues, which isn’t entirely unlike what happens in southern gospel culture.

Later update: Daniel Britt and his morning show colleagues try to take up this topic this a.m.

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  1. David K. wrote:

    Boy that nailed it. I see it as hypocrisy, they say it as one thing and portray it another. If it really is a sacrfice doesn’t the word of God tell it to keep quiet. let not the left hand know what the right hand does. what are they out there for, To get people saved, that may be part of it, very little. but it’s to make a living. But they say i’m doing it for the Lord. Really, i wish they’d quit lying. It’s not a ministry, it’s entertainment.

  2. quartet-man wrote:

    When I was 19 years old and later a 20 something, our church choir director started a solo ministry. She dressed like a million bucks. Later, a pianist she hired who was far more wise to the industry (CCM, SG etc.) got into debates with her and told her that no one would believe she needed money if she dressed that way (even if it was a gift.) He told her the wise thing to do was to dress just a bit better than the audience, but not as much as she was doing. She disagreed and kept on as she was doing.

  3. Montana Man wrote:

    No. 2, what happened next? What was the conclusion of the matter? Did she make a lot of money, or did she have to shift down?

  4. Seaton wrote:

    It is a shame when success is frowned upon.

  5. CRAZYJOE wrote:

    I don’t think it’s hypocrisy at all. I think many of the groups 1st generation founders came from very humble beginings and still think of themselves as poor. It’s also a generational and regional perception thing that our religious leaders should look the best as they represent God himself. With this in mind they appear very successful and gawdy because thats what their fans want and that is how they think God wants them to represent themselves in appearance.
    The 2nd and 3rd generations seem to care less for this and dress much more casual and are less frugal in their ways.
    That could complete the evolution of sogo music and lifestyle to CCM.

  6. quartet-man wrote:

    #3 I don’t really know. He told me the story after the fact (that they had had the conversation.) She did do concerts for several years, but never really rose much success wise. I don’t even think she has done anything as far as concerts for maybe 8 years or so. She is sort of a Sandi Patty (whatever the spelling is these days. :) type of singer. She did her songs, Steve Green, a little bit of traditional and some original songs. She did sing Sandi’s part with Larnelle on I’ve Just Seen Jesus at one of his concerts and she sponsored his singing in town back during the day. I don’t think she sang it with him there, but maybe. I can’t remember. The time she DID for sure do it might have been after the local concert (where she had him in at my High School and opened for him.)

  7. Yeah... wrote:

    This is an age-old dilemma. Pastors go through this as do their families. It may be hypocrisy sometimes, but certainly not always. If you haven’t lived in the fish bowl, I can honestly tell you that you have little right to criticize.

    Yes, many rural churches - long ago and now - are peopled with folks of very modest means. Lots of churches today are a microcosm of society in general, and have people from every socioeconomic group represented. It is a continual and ongoing struggle to know how to dress, what to say, etc., as in every single audience there will be some who resent any signs of success, and there will be others who - if you don’t appear to be as successful as they are - will immediately think that you aren’t all that much. Quartet-Man, (#2) the advice that the lady’s pianist gave her was excellent. Being in front of an audience, it would be expected that she dress a bit better than the average person sitting there. The problems come when there’s excess. Many pastors have found that a key to “offending less” is to try and maintain their lives at around the median point of the congregation. But, there’s the additional element of “show business” in singing, which allows for a little more leeway.

    As for the bus(es) sitting outside, that can be harder. Yes, they may be worth the price of several nice homes, but it is a home for 5-10 people three or four days each week, and longer on extended trips. Until there were megastars in country, it always intrigued me that a lot of major, established country stars traveled in buses far more modest than some run by the bigger names in sgm. Maybe conspicuous consumption is easiest to spot in coaches, but still, it’s all part of a continual dilemma for many. And, it irks me when some judge - and seemingly so easily - when it’s someone else. I’d bet that 95% of it is nothing more or less than pure jealousy.

  8. CRAZYJOE wrote:

    …oh BTW, nice use of the word parsimony Doug! I had to look it up….

  9. apathetic wrote:

    Post #1, “it’s not ministry, it’s entertainment” if one is making a living from their “ministry”. So that means any full time pastor, evangelist, singer, etc. that is making a living from their ministry is not really a ministry but entertainment? Flawed logic there.

    Second issue, what exactly is Wealthy and who defines it? Wealthy in West Virginia is different from Wealthy in California. It’s all subjective. I think the definition of wealthy from President Obama is down from $200,000 a year to $50,000 a year now (for tax increase purposes anyway).

  10. Janet B wrote:

    I have a question: Who owns the vineyard?
    I sincerely doubt that the majority of sg artists out there got into the industry thusly: “You know, Mabel, there’s a hunk of money to be made singing southern gospel. Let’s get us a group together & tap into this windfall!”
    As for those that are doing well financially, well, God blesses as He chooses to. You really want to argue with that?

  11. lilinsider wrote:

    I like what you have to say about Mickey’s post here but keep in mind the point he is making is to ask the question of what value do artists put on their art. You seem to want to harp on the old argument of wealth and hypocrisy when the real point he is making is what kind of mentality do groups embrace in order to place a value on themselves as performers. This is a valuable point that is part of an overall philosophy that Gamble embraces of how to improve your viability through your approach to business. Your comments are actually misleading to the point he is making. I wonder if you didn’t read it, or just didn’t pay attention.

  12. Irishlad wrote:

    Surely the economics of sg were much the same 50/ 60 years ago with a hand full of the top groups taking the lion’s share,the rest literally starving.Today people may be better off but in a small pool like sg the old axiom stands; a big fish will clean up….or something like that.

  13. CVH wrote:

    Some good thoughts worth pondering - but I’m sorry, when I got to this line, “(lots of time to consider the balance sheet when you’re applying make up and fixing your hair before a set)”, the first thought I had was EH&SSQ.

  14. Andy wrote:

    To be honest… i dont see a lot of “ministry” within the industry. It is a show, ask Hovie Lister. Ask Bill Gaither, who is a business mogul. I think if Bill was concerned about ministry, he would be singing in churches, not in areas and stadiums! It is all about money, which i am fine with… because it is that way for all singers, regardless of genre.

  15. William wrote:

    #14-What was Billy Graham in it for? How many churches compared to stadiums did he preach in? How many people come to stadiums, arenas, etc. that wouldn’t step inside a church? Who needs ministry more-people in churches or stadiums? Just thinking and pondering. I’m not sure I know.

  16. David K. wrote:

    #9 singing is not, i repeat not a ministry. look it up. preaching the gospel is, not singing, pleazzzze look it up. ephesians if you will. flawed thinking there. please come to the table with your thoughts in order and correct.

  17. Kyle wrote:

    Why do you think Martin Cook has driven that old pickup truck around North Carolina for years?? On that same token, Conway Twitty used to drive around Hendersonville in a Pacer….the guy built an entire complex for himself and his kids’ families, and he drove a PACER! It’s not because they couldn’t afford a better car, it was because they know how important the fans’ impression of them are.

  18. cdguy wrote:

    Andy — Gaither quit doing churches in the late 60’s or early 70’s, because churches couldn’t hold the crowds. They had several situations where they’d been booked into 300-500 seat churches, and 1,000 people showed up. They were selling out 5,000 - 7,000 seat auditoriums at the time, at $10-15 per ticket, so those same fans would jump at the chance to see the trio for free.

    I believe Hovie said it best, it’s both ministry and entertainment. Depending on the artist, the audience, the venue, etc., folks frequently are ministered to by the music. Maybe not some who post here, but that may be because of your own hard hearts.


  19. angela wrote:

    #19, if singing isn’t a ministry, why, in the Old Testament were the Levites supported just as the priests were?

    It isn’t easy to put all your energy, a bulk of your time and a great deal of your extra money into a music ministry. And then people like you call it “flawed,” when that is how God called us to minister?

    I am a singer, it is the gift that God has given me. Many, many people have been blessed by my music MINISTRY. I convey the message through songs and singing, and of course by how I live my life for Him. And don’t tell me that I’m not “ministering” when I’m praying for people and laying hands on the sick, and counseling the hurting and lost. “Preaching” isn’t the gift or the talent God has given me, singing is. This this the way God’s called me to reach out to the people.

    Don’t put God in a box. The bottom line is, you have a ministry WHEREVER God puts you.

  20. quartet-man wrote:

    cdguy is right. As Gaither’s crowds grew, so did their venues change. In fact, he wanted time to do songwriting and other things that are further reaching and since they did limited dates, wanted to make them count as far as singing to as many people at once as they could. That way, they could still sing to all who wanted to hear them, but not spend so many days on the road at the expense of songs, families, etc.

  21. jbb wrote:

    Great post Angela. Just what I was thinking. We sing also.
    Try telling the church we sang at Sunday night that we were entertaining and not ministering. I think they will disagree also.
    Trust me, we don’t know how to entertain or put on a show, but, we do know the God we sing about and minister about.

  22. Yeah... wrote:

    Angela, jbb, and others - amen. I might be wrong, but it strikes me that so many of the commenters here are so clueless as to what this is all about, that it seems obvious that they have no idea of what it means to sing Christian music or minister in any way. The sit in on this as armchair quarterbacks on a Monday morning, and it can discourage or frustrate you if you’d let it. So, don’t! Just fulfill your ministry, stay close to the Lord, and be encouraged. Posting negative comments on the ministry of others won’t bear eternal reward. True ministry will.

  23. chester long wrote:

    David K. - I took your challenge and looked it up - preaching doth not a “ministry” make - that word has been abused by so many. “Ministry” has been the gateway to non-profit status for greedy preachers and singers. Webster defines the word as “the work, profession or office of a clergyman”

    For reference sake - a clergyman is defined as an ordained minister, priest or rabbi.

    There is nothing wrong with being in business as a gospel singer.

    Ministry, ministry, ministry . . . please, let’s use another word. The world we are claiming to minister to is laughing.

  24. Pedantic wrote:

    As difficult as it may be to accept, “Webster” is not the definitive resource when trying to determine what constitutes ministry.

  25. Yeah... wrote:

    chester long: I agree with Pedantic. Webster’s is a fine dictionary, but it does little justice to Scriptural ministry. The best way to define “ministry” in the New Testament is to use the word “service”.

    To further illustrate my point, please tell me where in the Bible you’ll find the word “clergyman” or even “ordained”. Webster’s defines this word using the vernacular of the day which should be easily understood by most.

    Any service that is rendered to the Lord or His church is ministry…service. And thus, your argument falls.

  26. jbb wrote:

    #22, You hit the nail on the head. If I took to heart everything that was posted here, I would never sing again because we don’t have 1. a band 2. we are not full time 3. we use canned music…the list goes on. Thanks for the encouragement.

  27. chester long wrote:

    Sorry to all the eloquent Christianese speaking folks onboard here. I thought we were reaching outside of Churchianity.

    My mistake.

  28. cynical one wrote:

    re the gift of music: I remember several years ago, when Reba Rambo (whatever last name she was using at the time) had a song titled “He Gave Me Music” (covered by Gary McSpadden). The first verse listed the gifts of the Spirit, then the chorus started with the title/hook, “He gave me music.”

    One friend really had a problem with that song. He said it was as if she were calling musical talent one of the gifts of the Spirit. I can see that, even though the talents we are given are gifts.

    Any thoughts?

  29. Yeah... wrote:

    chester long - at times we have to reach out to say what a word really means. No need for the sarcasm, friend. Some feel that singing Christian music is only and always entertainment, with no ministry involved. Others disagree, and they’re often the ones actually doing the work. They’re the only ones who know their true motivation, right? If some go into it only to entertain, then that’s their business, but most audiences will see through it quickly. Others honestly sing to minister, and it’s obvious as well.

    Cynical One - #28: I believe that the true gifts of the Spirit and found in Romans 12 and I Corinthians 12. And nowhere do you find music listed as one of them. It’s a talent, in my view. But having said that, it can fall into the Gift of Helps in the view of some. But, as a gift of the Spirit of God, it doesn’t seem to be that. It is, however, a grand gift to be shared with the church, and I’m sure thankful for it!

  30. chester long wrote:

    No sarcasm here. That is what I really meant. You see, the real world uses dictionaries for definitions of words.

  31. wackythinker wrote:

    chester long #30 — The “real world” may at times use dictions for definitions of words, but the fact remains that Webster omitted a lot of the reality of what ministry is. That definition is quite short-sighted.

    Ministry is not limited to the professional clergy. We all, as Christians, are called to minister to everyone we come in contact with every day. And we often do it in simple everyday tasks, like holding a door for someone, thanking the grocery sacker, giving the beggar at the gas station $5. in Jesus’ Name, a smile as you pass a stranger on the street, visiting the sick and lonely, etc. All that (and more)is a part of ministry. Sometimes it’s sending a note to a discouraged friend, or singing an encouraging song in a public setting.

  32. Yeah... wrote:

    wacky - #13: Your thoughts are far from wacky! You perfectly expressed what I was trying to say. And chester long - of course we all use dictionaries and a thesaurus as we have need. We live in the real world too. But wacky thinker is right, in that at times a definition given for the masses may be accurate as far as it goes, but in a setting defining Scripture, it can be found to be fairly lacking. Wacky’s descriptions of the neat services we can render in everyday settings and situations were perfect, and he’d be the first to admit that it was only partial. All Christian service is true “ministry”, and the bottom line of this discussion is that when Christian singing ministers, it’s the same category.

  33. chester long wrote:

    Then why don’t we all just call our SG contributions our “service” - better term. And when one of us falls short - it is our service that is soiled - not something errantly called “ministry” - which envokes the notion of pastoral “service” - and pay income taxes like every other business.

  34. Robert wrote:

    Southern Gospel music is the most poor genre of music. Period. Why? I’ll list as many reasons as I can think of in no certain order.
    1. The product has to be worth the price.
    2. The ministry vs. entertainment argument in itself is stupid. For some reason in SG even those that are diehard fans think artists should be poor, concerts should be cheap, and the finances of the artist should fall from heaven instead of coming from them.
    3. Most SG artists have no economic sense.
    4. Looking poor will not make you rich. That does not even make any sense. Martin Cook doesn’t drive an old pick-up to look poor. He drives it because the same reason the Inspirations drove the same bus for 50 years. The old one worked just fine.
    5. It will not get any better as long as we cannot even come close to some kind of agreement on why SG is so poor. One thing is for sure. Mention money alongside SG as a discussion point and an argument will insue.

  35. quartet-man wrote:

    #34 Robert, of course dressing poor won’t make you rich. However, dressing well, driving expensive vehicles and such in SG (and maybe some others starting out) will probably get you less money. At least when asking for donations, love offerings etc. It also might get you accused of selling out or doing it for the wrong motivation by some in SG. It is a fact. In some ways getting any money from much of the SG audience is tough. If they do, it is because they either have to or sometimes they might want to help out a mininstry. Unfortunatley the former seems more often with the majority. These people want to get what they can get for the best price they can get. If they go to love offering concerts, they throw a dollar or two in the plate so as not to be outed as cheap by those looking at them and feel like they have done their part.

  36. quartet-man wrote:

    Sorry, my typing is bad today “unfortunately” and “ministry” :-)

  37. insider wrote:

    Just wanted to say I take offense to the part about $500,000 buses idling in the parking. My bus costed alot more than a measely $500,000, and you better believe I’m proud of it. Just like I’m proud of my home. Nothing sinful or bostful about having wealth and success. If more people would get closer to God and just do the simple things He asks in regards to reaping and sowing, they would have the same riches some of us have. I don’t feel bad at all for bragging on God, and the $800,000 bus he’s alowed me to purchase.

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