Recently, I attended the Homegoing Service, celebrating the life of Mother Jean Reynolds. There, I met three generations of musicians, and we got talking about influences, hopes and fears for the next generation.
I began to wonder: should we be fearful about the future of the music within our churches?
LOOKING BACK AT THE FIRST TEMPLATES
When at funerals, it’s inevitable to take that look back on what was: Mother Jean Reynolds’ parents were the founders of COGIC (Church of God in Christ) UK, and she was the first National Youth president, which effectively made her the first young person of the Church.
Her vision set the template for the activities of music for a generation in the Church from the late 1950s to the 1980s. She sang in and encouraged the formation of vocal groups, and led the development of the COGIC Mass Choir – the first gospel choir of its kind to appear on BBC’s Songs Of Praise at Southwark Cathedral, under the auspices of the late Mayor, Sam King, who adopted the choir as his own.
My observation and research have shown that a number of District and National Youth presidents and senior evangelists in the different denominations have been pivotal to spearheading music activities that have affected their generation.
[Just a question: Have individuals in these posts lost that adventurous perspective on the role of music and the creative arts for the Church? Do write me if you have a view.]
Another two examples, therefore, are Justin Lewis, District Youth Leader of Handsworth Birmingham New Testament Church Of God, and Evangelist Eileen Hendricks of the Church Of God (Seventh Day). Lewis was inspired to start the Majestic Singers, who were hugely popular in the 70s to late 80s and, by their third album, were signed to Kingsway Music – now Integrity Europe. Now (Mother) Hendricks, like Lewis, did not sing, but she had the wherewithal to drive this group of young people to heights of excellence with the choir, who won the BBC Stevie Wonder Gospel Award in 1989.
Most of the musicians for these choirs are the ones who set the sound of British gospel music. And it was with a few of these seasoned world class proponents, as well as a number of the ‘young lions’ on the cutting edge of our music, that I spoke to and asked questions.
A REASON FOR HOPE – LOST AND FOUND
Jerry Brown, pictured (younger brother of Nicky Brown, Music Minister at Ruach City Church and record producer extraordinaire) is renown for his world-class drumming behind many pop acts. Now he is devoted to creating music within the church/Christian scene, with his full-time work at Hillsong. He attributes all his foundational learning from his brother, and being amongst the musicians he initially worked with in church.
Jerry Brown: “I’m between my brother, Nicky, who first made his mark as a drummer and my nephew, Matthew (Nicky’s son), who is also an award-winning drummer and is doing so well out there on the music scene right now.”
We talked about the gap that still exists, where many musicians and singers work away from the church stream to fulfil their living. Gospel music became more appreciated as a sound that was desirous and paid for by mainstream opportunities. This became the only route for many, who had no recourse to maintain their families and still be musically creative. Jerry stated: “Most of us didn’t want to play out of the Church. Sadly, the support wasn’t there.”
ATTITUDES OF THE NEXT GENERATION
But we are where we are now.
Maybe this article relates more to the Caribbean churches, who were the first set of prominent Black Majority leadership churches in the UK. I say that, because a number of African church leaders are taking greater interest – and it appears putting more investment – into providing resources for music and artists, etc. But it’s certainly not where it needs to be.
Jerry said: “Hopefully, in time, more church leaders of influence will see what’s inside of their house and nurture it, develop it.”
As I stood talking with Jerry, his nephew Matt and close friend Jonathan Truitt (both in their twenties) spoke of their own experiences. I was pleasantly surprised at their optimism.
Truitt, who plays bass and travels the world extensively with mainstream artists, like Emeli Sandé, often plays on a Sunday morning for COGIC Wood Street Tabernacle Church. He felt strongly about keeping the music ‘undiluted’. I didn’t immediately understand what he meant, but this is what he said: “People (like Freddie Thompson, Steve Thompson) have imparted into our lives greatly. We’ve got to make sure we don’t dilute the legacy as we pass it on. By this, I mean we should make sure all the elements of the truth of the music are held within that sound. Even if we embellish, we remain true to what the music means and pass it on.”
Jerry testified: “I hear nothing but good reports about these young guys that I meet across the churches. They’re solid, focused, not easily swayed, and they know what they know. It’s being private with integrity, righteous, working hard and coming out in public to let the fruit declare itself. This attitude has carried me through to where I am.”
Matt Brown added his hope by saying: “If there was a system and resources that were in the churches or among the churches that could back us, guys like myself would stay in the churches and build ourselves. We could work from that position of strength – based in gospel – to do things in mainstream. If we had our own record labels that could back us, that would be tremendous.”
His comments reminded me, and I said as much, of the numerous US acts and music producers, who had the resources and infrastructure from which they worked within gospel – but on their own terms – to interact with mainstream artists, like Andraé Crouch did with Michael Jackson (Man in the Mirror); Kirk Franklin with Bono; Mary J Blige and R Kelly (Lean on Me), and Mary Mary with David Banner (Superfriend).
My hope is that WE BELIEVE in what God has given us here in the UK: we can write GREAT Songs, produce AMAZING sonic sounds, deliver EXCITING and INSPIRATIONAL events – whether worship based or concert based: all of these provoking and demanding attention from audiences in and outside of Church. We DO ALL because we WORK IT and MAKE IT HAPPEN!
FACING THE FEARS
Jerry was less enthused about the US model: “I don’t live there; I live here in the UK. We’ve got to get our own models and systems right. We’ve got to have right relationships and trust between artists, promoters, church leaders – everyone.” And he’s right.
What do I fear the most? I fear that we waste time defining problems, instead of consolidating those relationships to apply solutions. I fear not responding to the real needs of what some are calling Generation Z. [That’s a thought: Z, the last letter of the English alphabet – the last generation before the coming of Christ Jesus, maybe?]
I fear that allowing past hang-ups to deny the opportunities that working together can bring, for us to set up self-sustaining systems that are creative tramways, we need them to work and weave in and out of our sometimes exclusive church enclaves into the world and back.
I fear that the fear of risk-taking with the arts and creativity paralyses our availability to let the Lord do beyond our limited imagination. We need to strike out our fears.
I end on my biggest framework for HOPE, based not on an idea but on a Scripture, that should make us fear less at not doing what we ought to do. In Matthew chapter 25, Jesus spoke some of His greatest known parables that relate to the Church, His people and the End Times. He describes the servant (in verses 26 and 27) as wicked, slothful and fear-filled, and casts him into outer darkness, because he didn’t sow in unexpected, hard ground.
I pray that we will repent, and sow into areas and things that at least look like somewhere to sow and reap, for our Lord’s sake. Let’s do it right out there, in the centre of the darkness. That’s where Light belongs. Let’s be brave, while there is HOPE to work and labour, and give our music all we’ve got for the sake of this and the next generation. . #nofear.