Left to my cynicism, I’d guess the mission of the Gospel Music Workshop of America is to perpetuate the Gospel Music Workshop of America. The GMWA rakes in millions of dollars in vendor fees and recording company promotional fees, creating the very epitome of the noisy, commercial temple bazaar that so enraged Jesus [Matthew 21:13]. While the concept is certainly admirable, in practice, fairly little of the qualities of Christ are echoed at the GMWA convention, which is a hotbed of aggressive, arrogant, petty church folk blowing wads of cash in a pathetic grab at external validation.

Last year, guests were assessed a $300 "Off-Site" fee

if they didn't use the GMWA's designated hotel, The Gaylord Resort Opryland, whose book rates were significantly higher than the many discount chains in and around the convention site. It says so, right on the application (which had to be processed using only certified funds—no checks—no later than June 7 to qualify for the pre-registered rate; attendees were charged a "late fee" thereafter, even thought the event wasn't until the second Sunday in August). EACH REGISTRANT MUST STAY AT THE GAYLORD OPRYLAND RESORT OR BE ASSESSED AN OFF-SITE HOTEL FEE OF $300.

Musical pilgrims journeying to this, Gospel music's annual Mecca of self-absorption, are often struggling just to pay for transportation and lodging, doubling and tripling up inside cramped rooms at discount chains like Red Roof Inn and Motel 8. But, this year, the GMWA has found a way to squeeze even more money out of these folk, insisting all attendees stay at the pricey Gaylord (which is doubtless kicking back cash to the GMWA) or pay an additional $300 over the normal convention fee of $95—$300. Which does not include admission to the nightly events, for which attendees are charged an additional $10 per head per night, cash only, at the door. The gouging goes to such extreme levels, where, literally, everywhere you turn are tables of over-priced junk, that it both shocks and appalls me that the people running this zoo consider themselves to be Christian. Regional groups who wish to sing at the nightly events are assessed a charge—a *charge* to sing— then are assessed fees for photos. Of course, there are record companies on the scene, with product everywhere, but fairly little of that product has been discounted.

I'd think the record companies would be *giving* this stuff away, but they are, instead, gouging the attendees yet again. There are vendors of every imaginable stripe everywhere you look, hawking everything Church Folk could possibly imagine, and the convention is known as much for the hedonistic bed-hopping (one pastor—a *pastor*— I know of, in the midst of a divorce, attends with his mistress) as it is for its music.

This is an annual cesspool of ego-stroking done in the name of Jesus Christ, while the Gospel of Jesus Christ is preached mainly as an afterthought, if at all. This is an ego-fest glorifying Gospel "stars," a true oxymoron if ever there was one, and attended, in large measure, by star wannbes dropping the house payment and the kid's college fund on a shot at stardom. The evil—and that's a fair assessment—people running this thing prey on those hopes and dreams of Christians for whom Christ is not enough to make them feel whole and productive. These are folks who toss and turn all week, bags packed, hoping for a shot at the Big Time, which is, in and of itself, sad evidence of the emptiness of their testimony.

Of course, $20 million is probably wrong. It’s probably much, much higher than that. The truth is, I can’t find even one published financial report from the Gospel Music Workshop of America. But, doing the math, it’s not hard to speculate that this national entity that hosts, among other things, an annual workshop convention of 80,000 attendees, rakes in tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars each year, largely by shaking down gullible Church Folk. I couldn’t find an official mission statement on the GMWA’s national website. I found lots of information about paying money—to travel, for lodging, for admission, for membership dues—and I found info about how big the GMWA is and how important these Boards of Directors and such are. But not one word on a dollar figure for gross receipts or net profit. The GMWA's primary efforts seem focused on drawing the faithful to their annual convention, where the GMWA rakes in millions of dollars in vendor fees and recording company promotional fees, creating the very epitome of the noisy, commercial temple bazaar that so enraged Jesus [Matthew 21:13]. While the concept is certainly admirable, in practice, fairly little of the qualities of Christ are echoed at the GMWA convention, which is a hotbed of aggressive, arrogant, petty church folk blowing wads of cash in a pathetic grab at external validation.

Left to my own cyn­i­cism, I’d guess the mission of the Gospel Music Work­shop of Am­er­i­ca is to perpetuate the Gospel Mus­ic Work­shop of Amer­ica. While there is quite a bit of good done through the GMWA—clas­ses and work­shops and night­ly preach­ing and mus­i­cals—a good deal of that is off­set by all the Church Folk nonsense and competitiveness intrinsic to such huge gatherings of us folk. And, bottom line, the GMWA is about making money. Making lots and lots of it. Through its member dues, through its workshops, through its annual events and, most especially, through its CD sales and annual convention, the GMWA pulls in staggering amounts of cash, funding designed, presumably, to fund cultural resources, education and awareness of Gospel music. Lacking a clear accounting of what they take in, what their real expenses and salaries are, and what is done with the surplus, the GMWA comes across as less of a ministerial or cultural mechanism and more of a capitalist venture. In other words, on the surface, it appears the GMWA is there to make a profit for whomever runs the GMWA. Which may or may not be true, but, lacking any real effort on the GMWA’s part to clarify its mission and goals, we are left with an organization that appears, at face value, to be a ministry when it is, in reality, a business. One built on the oldest business model there is—the pyramid.

Local chapters assemble these nice, well-meaning folks together who work very hard all year, running here and there singing their hearts out, looking forward to the big GMWA convention where these folks will finally get the chance to sing before the national convention. The unspoken hope, of course, is that they’ll get a record deal and/or get to sing with the national GMWA choir when it makes its annual recording. What many don’t realize is, there are travel costs to the convention, entry fees to the convention, performance fees if your choir wants to sing at the convention. Want an official portrait? Another fee. Want a VHS or DVD of your performance? Another fee. If you want to sing with the recording choir, there’s a fee for that. Yes, you actually pay to be on the album recording from which you derive no royalties or other income. The fact is, from the moment your plane touches down, you are paying. You are constantly opening your wallet for the next week or so. Many if not most visitors are happy to do it. The convention seems more like a frat party or perhaps a trip to Disney—they’re excited, lit up like Christmas trees. Grinning and giddy about their chance to rub elbows with the stars and perhaps become one themselves. So very many of us pack up our hopes and dreams and head to this event, our CD or demo in hand, hoping to make a connection with a record company or artist.

And, yes, that happens. More Gospel recording deals are made at the GMWA events than are likely made all year long. Record company execs roam the campus as do famous acts, preachers and promoters. It is a high-energy, non-stop orgy of flashy sales pitches, slick promotions, cutthroat competition and high-volume, high-emotion charismatic church services.

Connections: Hasan James and John-McClure flank the "Princess of Praise" Maurette Brown-Clark
at GMWA-2011, Tampa.

The Point

Over the years, it has not once been reported to me that personal evangelism was being conducted there. Among the vast litany of vendors offering every conceivable church folk trinket or hat or sharkskin suit, it has never once been reported to me that anyone was offering Jesus. I suppose the presumption is that everyone attending this conference is already saved, but personal evangelism apparently takes a back seat to the general competitive nature of the event and the star-gazing at celebrity singers and preachers. And the paying. Every day, all day, out comes the wallet. Pay for your packets, pay for your lunch, pay for these photos or that recording. The major GMWA event could be fairly considered a racket. One designed to get Church Folks’ money, and Church Folk are both eager and willing to give it to them. So far as I know, the GMWA is not about evangelism. Not about ministry. Not about comforting the lowly or feeding the hungry. I’m prepared to fall on face and be flat wrong about this, but I find no mention of money donated toward AIDS or GMWA grants to support church musicians, scholarships for religious music education, or funds available for evangelism or church planting.

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Instead, all I see, all I hear, is how hot Israel Houghton is or PaJam’s new deal with iRocc or LaShun Pace’s new EMI Gospel project or Fred Hammond’s recording at The Potter’s House. Jesus said, if you love Me, feed my lambs [John 21:15-19]. James describes true religion this way: Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. [James 1:27]

Most everything about the Gospel Music Workshop of America seems, at my distance from it, to be inconsistent with the divine example set for us by Jesus Christ. With the principles espoused by the Bible itself. And yet, so many of us, so many good and decent and spiritual people, flock to this circus every year and give up millions and millions of dollars every year without even questioning where all that money is going.

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