Worship, Art And Business, Part 2

Worship, Art And Business, Part 2

In 1998, the Gospel Music Association published the following definition of gospel music and stated that the definition would be used to determine whether songs were eligible to be nominated for a Dove Award going forward:

Gospel music is music in any style whose lyric is:
substantially based upon historically orthodox Christian truth contained in or derived from the Holy Bible;
and/or an expression of worship of God or praise for His works;
and/or testimony of relationship with God through Christ;
and/or obviously prompted and informed by a Christian world view.

There was a huge outcry from the Christian music industry. The GMA was trying to “stifle creativity” they said. The definition was used in 1999, but by 2000, the definition was cast aside and the method used to determine eligibility for Dove Awards reverted to the previous model.

Here’s the irony. Within five years, the worship movement had saturated the industry. By 2005, almost every artist who would have been considered to be a “star” in the late 1990s had either cut back their touring schedule and started to fade from view, or they had embraced the change by releasing a worship album. Michael W. Smith, whose performance of “Love Me Good” at the Dove Awards had a great deal to do with the GMA choosing to come up with a definition in 1998, jumped in with his CD titled Worship in 2001. Phillips Craig & Dean and NewSong got on board as well.

New artists began to emerge. Mercy Me had a crossover hit with “I Can Only Imagine,” which isn’t a typical worship song in and of itself, but the title of their CD was The Worship Project. Chris Tomlin, Casting Crowns, Hillsong and others followed.

At some point, the songs started to sound like the songwriters were just shifting around the worship magnets on the refrigerator. (See that Scott Dente quote from Part 1.)

In other words, the artists who fought so hard to get the GMA to drop the gospel music definition they found to be “limiting” turned right around and limited themselves. Lyrics and chord structures became simplistic. The “art” element of the equation started to fade away in favor of melodies a younger congregation could easily learn and sing along. I attended a couple of concerts where a group sang the same chorus slowly for 15-20 minutes.

Meanwhile, the Southern Gospel artists were largely oblivious to what the GMA was doing and the subsequent reaction to the definition. The two driving goals of an up-and-coming Southern Gospel group during the early 2000s were to sing on the main stage at the National Quartet Convention and appear on a Gaither video. “Making it,” though, meant scrambling for bookings in an ever-shrinking market of churches caught up in the new worship styles. I’ll explore these thoughts some more in Part 3.

David Bruce Murray

David Bruce Murray is a church music director in Ellenboro, NC. He is the author of Murray's Encyclopedia Of Southern Gospel Music and the owner of both SGHistory.com and MusicScribe.com. David plays piano for Southern Sounds Quartet and the Foothills Community Choir.

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  1. Bill Lancaster
    Reply July 11, 00:45 #1 Bill Lancaster

    Why did SG artist allow the contemporary/inspirational/rock/etc..takeover the GMA? I have only seen a few GMA award programs, and when they show vintage footage it is all of the SG patriarchs. Why can’t SG artists fill up huge venues like Mercy Me, Michael W. Smith, etc..? As soon as SG started calling themselves “ministries” they devalued themselves. Example: I taught in a christian school. The public school teachers teaching the same grade and doing the same work I did made %60 more than I did. I was in “ministry”. Do SG artist have to call themselves a ministry to be successful?

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