Gospel Music is not just for the young

“We’ve got a serious problem in our industry; I’ve noticed this problem for some time. It’s a problem of ageism… For too long in our churches, music has been seen to be ‘a young people’s thing’.”

Gospel Music is not just for the young by Juliet Fletcher

Juliet Fletcher explores why churches won’t fully utilise mature, gospel artists, and suggests how congregations can embrace the talents of all – no matter what their age

We’ve got a serious problem in our industry; I’ve noticed this problem for some time. It’s a problem of ageism. It’s a problem of a neglected generation of music makers and music lovers. For too long in our churches, music has been seen to be ‘a young people’s thing’.

As a result, four key things have happened. We’ve missed out mature vocal voices leading on the scene. We’ve missed out on a generation of senior choirs. We’ve neglected a generation of creative writers and composers, whose rich wealth of experience and knowledge should be speaking to this and the next generation. We’ve neglected a whole audience of over 40s, taking from them the opportunity to see the artists who inspired them from their youth; buy their music, and be blessed by their ministry.

Why has music in our churches been relegated as a ‘young people’s thing’? I believe it’s a backlash from the 1980s, when some behaviour changed among concertgoers, and the activity was viewed as frivolous. Eventually, it was taken that concerts were something to keep the young preoccupied, until the serious attitude to life – worship and the Word of God – set in to indicate Christian maturity.

When was last time you bought an album with a front cover featuring the face of someone over the age of 45? Some of our great vocalists from the 70s, 80s and 90s have not been able to carry their music forward into their later years, when their voices would probably be at their best.

The opposite exists in the US, with named greats like Andrae Crouch, Fred Hammond, Marvin Sapp, Vanessa Bell-Armstrong and Karen Clarke having had their careers nurtured and prolonged through their engagement with ‘the Church’ that invests in people, creating robust music departments, and which pushes the boundaries of artistic excellence. Churches utilise choir competitions for all ages, strategic events, and activities that provide academic and informal training for singers, musicians and composers. It goes across denominational and organisational boundaries, and it’s firmly connected to the commercial enterprise that undergirds the US gospel music industry.

The outcome is that US gospel artists are known and respected, both for their longevity and for their art. They are not relegated to the sidelines; they stay in the centre of the gospel music arena, and are able to pass on the very best of who they are to the next generation.

Earlier this year, I heard the original line-up of West Midlands female group, Divine, singing at the late Frank Stewart’s funeral service. It was glorious. They’d lost none of their power and brilliance over the 20 plus years since I’d first heard them. The audience – including many young people – responded with excitement. In their younger days, artists like Divine would have found it extremely difficult to continue because they had received little support.

I remember someone saying to me that Raymond and Co were passé! That was three years ago! Can you imagine if we treated Muyiwa, GuvnaB, Four Kornerz and Lurine Cato as we have done others; they wouldn’t have a lot of time left to their careers!

Speaking with Lurine on the matter, she said, “Personally, I have not had that problem. But yes, it’s sad that there is this trend. Gospel music is timeless and limitless. It’s not just a genre; it’s a subject that can fit into any style – reggae, country, r’n’b. Therefore it suits anyone of any age. We should not let that (age) get in the way.” And she is absolutely right.

We desperately need a transformation of our mindset and practical approach to make our music what it should be, and we can be all involved so that it can truly bless our world and us.

I’d like to encourage pastors, church bookers, promoters and event organisers to support mature gospel singers by including them in more events as featured guests; to look at new ways to increase the number of joined-up training and education programmes across local branches or even local church networks. Developing a long-term approach will bring dividends.

If you’d like help in thinking through the issues, contact the Gospel Music Industry Alliance by emailing info@gmia.org.uk, or call 020 8123 8014.

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