What Contemporary Worship Leaders Can Learn from the Gaithers

To whatever extent I might heretofore have had a modicum of street cred with Gen X and Millennial contemporary worship leaders, I am probably going to lose it with this post.  Oh, well.

I grew up in the 70’s and thus experienced what I would categorize as contemporary Christian music’s (CCM’s) pre-adolescence.  (For good, accessible reads on CCM’s birth, consider Don Cusic’s history The Sound of Light: A History of Gospel and Christian Music and a wonderful chapter in Richard Mouw and Mark Noll’s study of hymns in American Protestantism Wonderful Words of Life, “‘I Found My Thrill’: The Youth for Christ Movement and American Congregational Singing, 1940-1970.”)  By the time the first albums of Love Song (1972), The Second Chapter of Acts (1974), Keith Green (1977), and Amy Grant (1977) arrived on the scene, Bill and Gloria Gaither were already passé in my eyes (and those of countless Jesus People).

IndianaHistoricalSocietyPhotos057Sure, the Gaithers had contributed “Because He Lives,” “He Touched Me,” and “Something Beautiful” to evangelicalism’s musical lexicon (and, eventually, hymnals), but I didn’t feel they could offer much to my generation.  And even though my dad foisted their music on me–we had our own version of the Gaither Trio, with Dad as Bill, Mom as Gloria, and me as Danny/Gary McSpadden–I dismissed them as culturally irrelevant.

A few posts back, I mentioned a summer project of digitizing some newspaper and magazine articles, but I also have been transferring some audio cassettes to CD’s.  Because the Gaithers have been favorites of my mom’s for 50 years, I recently converted a couple of their live albums for her, Moments Are Forever (1977) and Live across America (1980).  Many years sufficiently removed from too-cool-for-school immaturity, I discovered that Bill and Gloria were terrific worship leaders–and not just for senior citizens–from whom contemporary worship leaders, if they will put their preconceptions aside, can learn much.  Here are three simple principles for worship-leading gleaned from those two Gaither live albums.  (Note: Although the musicianship of the Gaither Vocal Band in the 21st century far and away supersedes anything the Gaithers did as a trio in the 20th century, the worship-leading lessons show up more readily from that bygone era.)

1. Show some reverence for the past.  If your only exposure to the Gaithers comes through the 783 Homecoming DVD’s they’ve released (OK, maybe it’s 629), you might think revering the past is all the Gaithers do, so you have to reach back to those early years of the Trio to appreciate how smoothly their concerts flowed from songs that were, by then, universally loved and recognized to newer songs that, primarily because Bill wrote with Average-Joe congregations in mind, soon became eminently singable standards.  (The resurgence in hymns in the past 10-15 years in contemporary worship certainly speaks to this concept.)

2. Use thoughtful spoken transitions to enhance the congregation’s worship.  Gloria, in particular, was known for her lengthy monologues (see “There’s Something about That Name”), and contemporary worship leaders can’t take that much time in our producer-counting-down-the-allotted-time-in-your-in-ear-monitor culture.  But we can, and should, offer brief “verbals” (as one local megachurch’s worship team calls them) to help our congregations appreciate why we have chosen to put these particular songs on their lips–and we shouldn’t absolve ourselves from this responsibility by assuming everyone in attendance will connect the dots on their own and intuit the greater, overarching narrative threads of our worship without a little assistance.  (They won’t.)

3. Don’t shy away from emotions should they well up.  Listen to either Bill or Gloria speak and eventually you’ll hear them testifying through tears.  Darrell Harris, a founder of the Star Song label, for which the Gaithers recorded for a spell, says, “Both are very comfortable with their tears and never hold them back.  They will talk right through them, just letting them flow.”  In our tightly structured contemporary worship services, we can’t have a leader tearing up every other song, but if God’s faithfulness, provision, and love don’t cause worship leaders to get emotional every so often, someone might need to encourage them to let the passion wash through them and spill out onto the congregation now and again.

So, millennial worship leaders, now that I’ve convinced you to give your grandma’s favorite octogenarian church musicians a try, what songs might you consider?  Here are three (of many) that could be employed in contemporary worship today (in addition to Matt Maher’s renditon of “Because He Lives”):

1. “It Is Finished” starts with typical southern-gospel/Second-Coming/victory-in-heaven rhetoric but then ingeniously (“Yet in my heart the battle was raging / Not all prisoners of war had come home”) brings it back to today and the victory we have in Jesus right now.

2. “Canceled/Worthy” is a less-familiar offering but perfect for redemption celebrations.  Set in 6/8 meter, it’s hard not to get caught up in that rhythm, which underscores the goodness of having “all my debts canceled, Satan’s threats canceled”; “Now I stand worthy . . . through the Lamb” indeed!

3. “I Then Shall Live” sets Gloria’s lyrics to the familiar Finlandia melody of classical composer Jean Sibelius.  This is a perfect closing song for a service on the Church’s mission in the world (“may You feed a hungry world through me”) and, in my opinion, the Gaithers’ best lyric.

The Lord be with you, worship leaders!  And thanks, Bill and Gloria Gaither, for your many obvious contributions to the Church’s congregational song and many less-obvious-but-significant contributions to worship leadership!

About Warren Anderson

Emmaus Road Worshipers is written by Dr. Warren Anderson, Director of the Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts at Judson University (Elgin, Ill.), where he also directs the Judson University Choir. A Judson alumnus, he has served his alma mater in a number of capacities over the past 30+ years, especially the chapel ministry, which he led for 22 years. From 1982-2016, Dr. Anderson served six different churches--American Baptist (X2), Converge, Evangelical Free Church of America, Roman Catholic, and United Methodist--as a "weekend warrior" worship musician/pastor. He is a former member of the editorial board of Worship Leader magazine. The views expressed in this blog are not necessarily the views of Judson University.
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5 Responses to What Contemporary Worship Leaders Can Learn from the Gaithers

  1. Wow great post. I love some of those songs and I am 38 years old but I think they should be modernized a little. I think I might try singing one of these songs on youtube. I am going to start singing on Youtube. I am starting to read my blogs on Youtube and I will be singing at the end of my second youtube video. I am going to be brave and start acapella. I am more of a soul singer so it is hard to find music that suits my voice. I have a rather deep and raspy voice that is Jazzy. I have to make songs tailored to my voice so please pray God helps it happen. I need a church or band to sing in.

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  2. Blessings to you, Peggy. I pray God will open doors for you, and I pray patience for you until He does so!

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  3. Yee Ying says:

    We don’t get enough of the quiet heartfelt emotionalism that comes through simplicity of worship not just in style but in the language of reverent song. We need to cut back on the loudness and complexities and maybe employ more silences where God can minister in the stillness. Worship is deeply personal and perhaps the quieter moments will help enhance the communion of the heart of the worshiper with God even in the setting of a church gathering. On one hand we can’t get too dry, on the other we don’t want to drown out the voice of God. I guess it all comes down to where the heart is.

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  4. Pingback: Reflection #40 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church | Emmaus Road Worshipers

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