Does the Church Provide the Key to UK Gospel’s Success?

Roy Francis explores the rise of gospel in the UK, the impact of CCM on Black worship, and challenges gospel artists to create music for the church instead of pursuing elusive chart success

Recently, a friend invited me to accompany him to a church he had considered joining since moving to a new area. Located on a busy high street, the church’s bold, imposing structure showed it had been in the same spot for a long time – in fact, since the reign of Queen Victoria. Despite its external façade, gone were the traditional pews, replaced by comfortable easy chairs and, with a large media screen and soft lighting, I knew I was in an evangelical church. Evangelicals share many similarities with Pentecostal Christians – both emphasising being ‘born again’, and having a personal relationship with God.

We were warmly welcomed, offered tea, coffee, and biscuits, and even invited to take them to our seats in the main auditorium. At precisely 11am the service began – soft, gentle, reflective and prayerful. It was all remarkably familiar and comforting. The sermon was both relevant and thought-provoking, complementing the two readings – one from the Old Testament and the other from the New – leaving us with plenty to contemplate for the week ahead.

In many evangelical churches, the traditional organ and hymns have given way to new worship styles. Instead of the familiar hymns in this church, a Black worship singer guided the congregation through the chosen songs, singing to backing tracks downloaded onto her mobile and played through the church’s PA system.

This experience with technology was entirely new to me, and I reflected deeply on the choice of songs. While some resonated with the congregation, others posed difficulties. Among the latter were songs typically crafted for soloists or smaller groups, inherently unsuitable for congregational singing. This highlights the evolution of worship music in churches today – including Black Pentecostal churches – where the adoption of Christian Contemporary Music (CCM), primarily composed for groups and soloists, often struggles to integrate seamlessly into Black Pentecostal congregational singing and worship.

Yet, it wasn’t just the music in the church that caught my attention; rather, it was the broader question of the evolving role of music in Black Pentecostal churches. How does it intersect with the changing landscape of modern worship, and what role does gospel music play in it today?

To answer these questions, looking back at the path and evolution of music in the Black Pentecostal Church might be helpful.

In its early years, the music was introduced to Britain by Windrush Christians who sang hymns and choruses, either unaccompanied or with perhaps only a tambourine. As new members arrived, including those who were musicians, some churches could boast a mini orchestra of individuals who played the piano, guitar, banjo, saxophone, trumpet, and, later on, the drums.

The significant transformation came in the 1960s – as it did in many ways in Britain and the Caribbean community – with the US release of ‘Oh happy day’ by Edwin Hawkins in 1969 and the arrival of gospel music from America. The song went global, sparking interest within Caribbean churches. At first, church leaders refused to embrace the song because of its secular success. However, they reluctantly accepted it, mainly because they knew it in its original form as ‘O happy day that fixed my choice’ – a song they sang at their baptismal and altar call services. What the song did was introduce a new type of music to the Caribbean Christian community – not so much to the church, but to the young people in it, who, inspired by the global success of Edwin Hawkins’ song, formed their own choirs, showcasing their music to audiences, mainly outside of the church.

At first, the leaders were reluctant to support the new music. They eventually acquiesced when the choirs began to attract national attention. The publicity they brought to the church and the community was irresistible, and the objection of leaders soon changed with the support of the media and record companies behind the choirs. At the same time, the rising popularity of Tamla Motown music was also influential, and along with the popularity of gospel music, it further influenced perceptions of Black people in Britain.

Before this cultural shift, the public’s perception of Black people in Britain primarily revolved around their socioeconomic struggles and experiences of racial discrimination. However, it was difficult not to be captivated by the joyful performances of young people expressing their faith enthusiastically and singing about it so joyously as if at a pop or rock concert. That’s how the British public in the 1980s saw gospel choirs and their music. It was pivotal and transformative, fostering a new appreciation of the music and of the Windrush Christian community.

The influence of gospel music also spread to English churches, especially the evangelical ones, where they modernised their services and freed up space for a more relaxed and informal worship experience. The organ, so long a feature of church music, was quietly put to one side and replaced by modern instruments, pioneering a new soft, folk rock Christian sound. 

White Christian groups also upped their game, especially in their performances and the commercial development of their music. Word Records and Kingsway Music – two major Christian labels – got behind evangelical artists, and artists like Graham Kendrick came to the fore, appearing on People Get Ready, the first Black gospel music series on British television, indicating its popularity.

Gospel has thrived in Britain, maintains widespread support, and continues to have a presence on television. Today, thousands of people enjoy singing gospel and its related music. The problem is that once the music emerged from the church, it followed the record business template, with an emphasis on producing hit records and albums.

Since then, UK Gospel artists have followed this commercial model, and its legacy looms large. It dominates the music’s development and the artists’ thinking, and accounts for the ineffectiveness of the music today. Perhaps it’s time to assess this legacy; if only because the changes in the record industry, the Internet, and social media have altered the music business completely, and the once likely chance of artists – let alone gospel artists – being signed to a major record label is becoming more and more remote.

Also, at the level that most gospel artists operate, they don’t need the backing of a record company to be successful. They need churches – the natural audience for their music – and there are plenty in the Black Pentecostal community. It will, however, require a new mindset and an entirely new way of looking at gospel music. Perhaps gospel artists should take a leaf out of the book of white Christian artists; their music is written for and regularly sung in their churches. They have had nothing like the profile and accolade that gospel music has had, nor is their music viewed in the same way gospel music is – as an art form – yet their artists regularly write music for their churches, perform in them, or, should I say, ‘lead worship’ in them, and are enriched by their talents.

African churches tend to fare better than Caribbean churches in this regard. Today, in African churches, Muyiwa, Sinach, and Nathaniel Bassey’s songs are being sung. African Christians also tend to prefer CCM. This is because their journey to Christian music was influenced by white praise & worship artists, whilst the Caribbeans’ journey was led primarily by Black gospel artists from America.

The preoccupation of CCM by African churches will, I suspect, continue as they remain successful, but where does it leave the music that grew out of the plantations in America, mixed with Caribbean indigenous music, brought to Britain in the Windrush era, which became a worldwide phenomenon in the 1960s, and is today one of the best ways of spreading the Gospel of Christ? This is a question every gospel artist in Britain should ask themselves, for they have a responsibility to the music and to the churches that gave rise to it in the first place.

Gospel musicians can play a helpful role in this regard. Many have played at the highest level and performed worldwide, accompanying many of the biggest names in the business. Some have even earned good money, too. They would have gained tremendous knowledge and experience. I’m not sure, however, that they recognise their historical role and the debt they owe to the music that gave them their ‘break’. What, for example, are they now giving back? How are they equipping the next generation of artists and musicians? What knowledge are they passing on? What are they doing about Britain’s shortage of ‘good gospel songs’? How many of them are writing and arranging songs to be sung in churches rather than trying to achieve that elusive hit record?

While it may have been necessary in the past and was an indication of the talent in Caribbean churches that record companies were willing to invest in their artists, it is no longer the case, nor do gospel artists need any more to rely on record companies to be successful. The music business has changed, and so have churches. Gospel artists have so much now in their grasp, but it takes eyes to see it.

Roy N Francis is a former BBC TV producer, founder of Roy Francis Productions and is author of Windrush and the Black Pentecostal Church in Britain. Visit www.royfrancis.co.uk

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