by Robert Earl Houston
DISCLAIMER: I need to begin this post by saying that I am speaking from a position as a not only a Pastor, but a musician/choir director/minister of music since I was 17 years old. I was raised in a gospel music environment provided by New Hope and Morning Star Missionary Baptist Churches in Portland, Oregon and sat at the feet of gifted people – Bill Jackson, Marci Jackson, Glenda Jackson, Naomi Houston (mom), Carolyn Allmon, Saul Kelley, Sr., Lorene Wilder, Dorothy Davis, Gilber Gill, Darlene Warren, Norman Wooding, Calvin Lowery, Michael Stone, and many others from our church and community. Further, I have maintained my gospel music training at every church I have served at – going from apprentice musician to a senior musician.
As I sit here, I believe that Gospel Music is in trouble. I’m not talking about the plethora of workshops and organizations – I mean the art and craft of gospel music. It’s becoming like some preaching – watered down, fad-like and off center.
Recently, someone sent me a video (and it’s one among many) of where a minister took the secular song, “Blurred Lines” and replaced the words with the Christian standard “Jesus is on the mainline.” Several in the audience were “whooping it up” and it was hard to distinguish, in my eye, between worship and twerking by some of the participants.
Gospel music is deadly serious to me. We have a generation of musicians and songwriters (mostly male) and in some cases, some of these same musicians and songwriters attend nor support anybody’s church. Groups are forming every day that have no problem leaving the sanctuary of their home church to “perform” somewhere else, especially if it’s a paid performance.
The trademark of Gospel Music has always been relational to three things:
a. The powerful story of Jesus Christ.
b. The powerful witness of God the Father.
c. The powerful abilities of the Holy Spirit.
However, much of gospel music is written by one-hit wonders, who mix songs in the basement using drum tracks, and creating words that neither glorify God or invite others to praise our God or, fore mostly, are biblically correct.
I don’t mean any harm . . .
I don’t need a little more Jesus – I have the complete package at my conversion.
I’m not looking to go back to Eden – that state will never be realized again.
Pharrell Williams’ song, “Happy” is “turning up” in praise and worship settings across the country – but if you can’t tell me simply that Jesus is the one who makes me happy within the confines of lyrics, then, to me, it’s not appropriate for a worship setting. Worship is not about us, it’s all about Him.
Although it gets a lot of verbal abuse, for those of us who have attended the New Music Seminar and Mass Choir conferences at Gospel Music Workshop of America, we appreciate the “standard” that has been used to select music that is to be presented. A song may appear and after hearing it, it’s never heard again – because those delegates want to take home music that edifies, encourages, and reaches the soul.
I’ve had the pleasure to work with and be in the number of choristers with people like Virgie Carrington Dewitty, Bishop Kenneth C. Ulmer, V. Michael McKay, Donnie McClurkin, Margaret Douroux, Dr. Patrick Bradley, Dello Thedford, Walter Scrutchings, Damian D. Price, Oscar Williams, Malcolm Williams, William Barks-Dale, Terry Davis, Rodney Teal, ESQ, Rodena Preston-Williams, Steven Roberts, Helen Stephens, Shirley M.K. Berkeley, Eddie A. Robinson, Dr. Erral Wayne Evans, Bishop Richard “Mr. Clean” White, Teresa Aton, Kevin B. James, Carrie Lasley, Oscar Dismuke, Varanise Booker, Lan Wilson, Gregory Troy, Christopher Watkins, Anita Stevens-Watkins, Wendell Craig Woods, Professor Craig Hayes, Ronald J. Materre, and a plethora of others who write, re-arrange or present good, solid church music. Unfortunately, most of the stuff you hear on Christian radio will never be heard in a church because it’s fury no sound, beats without a rhythm, and a song without lyrics.
I love most forms of Christian music. I love the hymns of the church – and my church is right now going through 70 hymns in 70 Sundays because I don’t want my congregation to lose that link to our heritage. I love traditional gospel music, quartet music (my father and my father in the ministry were both quartet singers), anthems, shake-note singing, powerful traditional songs, and some (not all) contemporary music. My eyes will still swell up if a musician gets on the organ and with just one or two fingers start to line out “The Old Rugged Cross.” And yet, I can “Shabach” with you and I can “take you to church” with one of James Cleveland’s catalogue songs.
I pray that just like we say “Keep Christ in Christmas” that we won’t have to modify that mantra one day and say “Keep Christ in Gospel Music.” However, I’m afraid that time is fast approaching.
YOUR COMMENTS ARE WELCOMED
by Robert Earl Houston
Let me preface this blog by saying I don’t have conclusive statistics on this issue. I’m just sharing my casual, personal observation:
What happened to the female musicians in the church? As I visit churches and conventions across the nation (baptist), I’ve noticed that men have dominated the black church musician field in sharp contrast to when I started played in the 1970s.
Many churches utilize a band concept that resembles a band of brothers. All wear black to kind of “fade into” the background. There may be a female director, but the band and directors have become predominantly male.
If you visit various black megachurches you will find that to be true. If you watch carefully those who are on TV, the musicians are male. Even the tambourine player is male.
If you go to a Music Workshop, you’ll notice that most of the writers who present are male. Even most workshops are headed by men.
This is not a discussion about women in ministry. This is a discussion of women in music ministry.
At the church where my faith journey began, Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon, there were five choirs and only one man involved and that the choir director of the Inspirational Choir. All of the musicians were female. When I joined New Hope, most of the music ministry leaders were female with a couple of exceptions. The largest church in the city, Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church, had only one male musician in their vast array of musicians and directors. When I first started pastoring, the first musician I had was female (my sister). In the 1990s when I moved to California, my musicians were predominantly female.
In the mid 1990s when I moved south to San Diego, that’s when I noticed a shift was taking place. Most of the churches had employed men as their lead organist. There were no female drummers. And choirs were becoming accustomed to male choir directors.
When I started attending GMWA it was dominated by female musicians initially, but that has changed dramatically. Even the National Baptist Conventions – most of them have now men leading their music ministries.
What does this say?
I think it says that we as a black church need to immediately invest in the music education of young females. After watching the BET Awards, there was an undercurrent that our females should be “on the pole” and “ain’t loyal” and that is farther from the truth. Our African-American males are in trouble across the land, but our young sisters are shying away from the instruments in droves.
I think it also says that there may sexism may play a part in this phenomenon. Some pastors are stuck in the “let the women be silent in the church” era. Sirs, that era is long gone. Sadly, I know some pastors who have said privately, “I’ll never hire a woman organist – she’ll be a distraction to my members?” That’s crazy talk from a bygone era.
I also think it shows that Music Departments need to redefine their mission. No only should they focus on the Sunday (or weekly) ministry in performance, but they have to identify the young men and young women who have potential (I’m talking 7-10 year olds) and encourage (and in some cases pay for) musical lessons for their children. Studies are stunning – those who have an interest in piano/organ/music have a higher GPA on average.
I’ve encountered tremendous musicians across the country – Margaret Douroux, Mamie E. Taylor, Lorene Wilder, Gilber Gill, Mrs. O.B. Williams, Virgie Carrington DeWitty, Dorothea Wade, Ruth Sauls, Patrice Turner, Twinkie Clark, Mattie Moss Clark, Willie Faye Inniss, Cheryl Houston, Helen J.H. Stevens, Patriece Reives, Letha Jones” (some who are gone home to be with the Lord. I pray that their collective legacy is not considered “back in the old days” when churches had female musicians.
YOUR COMMENTS ARE WELCOMED
by Robert Earl Houston
DETROIT, MI – I am a blessed pastor. For a multiplicity of reasons. I have the privilege of leading one of the oldest congregations in the nation, the First Baptist Church of Frankfort, Kentucky. It’s an exciting time in the life of this congregation of believers.
As I sit here in Detroit and after some observation over the past two days, I want to celebrate what my musicians have lacked.
In pastoral ministry in the past years, I have had a tremendous cadre of musicians – starting with my sister, Phyllis Houston Smith, Danny Osborne, LaShell Aldredge, Professor Anthony James King, Audrey Bell, Edd Sullivan, Melanie Lanier, Rico Ware, Christopher Stallings, and my current minister of music, MInister Elijah Griffin.
They’ve all lacked one quality.
Unfortunately an arrogance – a diva-ness or king-ship – is cropping up in the ranks of those who give God praise via the instruments of worship. The Word of God declares that one thing that the Lord detests is a “proud look.”
When you are blessing with special gifts and talents, it behooves you to guard those gifts but it is also incumbent upon the musician to still be cooperative, loving, nurturing, and how about just being a friendly person? How about being cooperative? How about leading people into worship before the sermon instead of producing an “it’s all about me” moment?
Unfortunately some churches have become the hostages of gifted, talented musicians who believe that without them ministry cannot occur; they then play not with the Spirit of God, but with an arrogance and ownership that locks out the Holy Spirit. They don’t flow, they dam up. They don’t worship, they work. They don’t encourage, they terrorize.
Personally, I’d rather have a musician that doesn’t hit every note correctly than to have one that is so full of themselves that they literally become a distraction to the worship experience.
I’m blessed with a tremendous Minister of Music, Minister Elijah Griffin, and he has a heart for ministry. He really does. He is probably one of the best musicians I’ve ever seen – he studies music, he learns the chords, he learns the music – and I’ve never had any problem with him. He moved away a few months ago and recently returned to our church – and me and my congregation welcomed him back. When he left, I told my church that I was not in a hurry to seek another Minister of Music, that this is in the Lord’s hands, not mine. And He blessed us with him.
This week, I was asked to help a dear friend with a devotional period. I walked on the stage, with a cane, and the “band” looked at me like I was crazy (I had never worked with these musicians before – guess they didn’t think I was “their caliber”). They barely spoke. They demonstrated, to me, that they weren’t there to lift up the name of Jesus, they were there as a clannish clique looking for a check. I played, walked off the stage and thought to myself, “Lord, I’m glad I was never like this.”
Mind you, I’m a musician myself. I’ve been playing since 1977, and I’ve had opportunity to minister in music at national conventions, GMWA, and other venues. I was taught at the very beginning and mentored by gifted musicians like Lorene V. Wilder, Gilber Gill, Ken Berry, Saul Kelley, Michael Stone, Rev. William Whittied, Jr., and others at New Hope Missionary Baptist Church. Yes, each one was tremendously gifted in their own way. Some could read music, some couldn’t. But they taught me to not focus on your weaknesses, but focus on your strengths and above all – to consider being used by God in worship as a privilege and not a right.
I had the opportunity to sit on a panel at GMWA years ago which discussed the Pastor-Musician relationship and on that panel was myself, Dr. Melvin Von Wade, Sr., and Pastor Donnie McClurkin. I never forgot something Donnie said – “the Lord is the one who gets the glory in worship.” ‘Nuff said.
I was raised on gospel music. My mother, Naomi Houston, made sure that we were exposed to gospel music literally seven days a week. On Sunday morning, we had a steady diet of Mahalia Jackson, James Cleveland, the Caravans, Rance Allen, GMWA, and other gospel groups. As a result every member in my family was gospel-musically inclined. My father, the late Minister Phene Houston, played the bass guitar. My mother was a Choir Director, lead soloist, and dabbled in some piano. My sister, Phyllis, is a church pianist/NFL mom. My sister, Nora, is a soloist and bass player.
However, my tastes in music are no longer limited to just gospel music, but, gospel music are my roots! I love jazz, pop, R&B, opera – just about everything except for rap (just don’t like it – or at least most of it). I’ve lived long enough to understand than gospel music has genres – traditional, quartet, praise and worship, contemporary, instrumental, rap (yep, rap), and other forms of expression.
One of my favorite forms is praise and worship. Tonight, while watching a DVR of “The Stellar Awards” I watched (and wept) as Israel Houghton was leading a chorus of “Moving Forward” – one of the most powerful worship songs I’ve ever heard. The lyrics caused me to reflect on what was a very personal sermon from me on Sunday. I dealt with DELIVERANCE. I broke several “preacher rules” on Sunday – most of all, we didn’t have a traditional Invitation to Christian Discipleship. Instead, we had an altar call and asked people to come forward – not for church membership, but for deliverance.
It was a cathartic moment because for me, deliverance had just come about in a profound way lately. I’m no longer bound. No longer tied up. No longer tangled up. I’ve been set free. Yes – even Pastors can be strong in their delivery of the way and still have some spiritual issues they wrestle with. As I preached Sunday – if there is something that you’re dealing with and you provide the solution – it’s victory, but when the Lord steps in and provides the solution – it’s deliverance. I have experienced not victory, but deliverance.
Those words of Israel hit me like a flood tonight. Especially as he walked off stage and audience was lifting the rafters, spontaneously, and kept recording this chorus:
You make all things new
Yes, You make all things news and I will follow You forward, oh
You make all things new
You make all things new and I will follow You forward
I’ve come to declare that if God has either allowed you to discover victory or deliverance – go forward. Don’t look back at your past! Don’t grab or create any “souvenirs.” Whether it was from a sinful circumstance that you created or were dragged into; Whether it was from a relationship that was toxic or you were the toxicity in the relationship; Whether it was from a past habit or sin that you thought you could never break; GO FORWARD!
You don’t owe an explanation or elaboration. Matter of fact, I can tell you this from the last few weeks – that which God has set you free from will be that which God will allow you to help others realize that same freedom.
Brother or Sister Pastor – GO FORWARD!
Brother or Sister Church Leader – GO FORWARD!
Brother or Sister Layperson – GO FORWARD!
God will allow you to experience a peace that you’ve never experienced, by His grace!
Just because it is the Christmas Season – this is one of the best Christmas songs ever written.