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God & Music

The $20M Pyramid: What does The GMWA Glorify?

What The Fuss?

For years, now, I have asked the same question, over and over: what’s the point of the Gospel Music Workshop of America? Here’s what I see:

I see a lot of good, decent, moral, spiritual, God-loving people working very hard learning and perfecting music. I see these people paying dues and fees and travel costs to journey across the country to assemble themselves with other groups of decent, moral, spiritual, God-loving people who have likewise worked very hard learning lots of music and paid dues and fees and travel costs. I see these folks assembling somewhere in the country, where they’ll buy lots of things. Souvenirs, tee shirts, big Church Folk Hats (male and female), loud, shiny, embarrassing and expensive suits, and all manner of nonsense. I see these fine folks crammed into hotel rooms four and six to a room. I see these folks spending and spending and spending. I see them waiting for their slot on some nightly program where they assemble themselves with other likeminded groups who are not worshiping God so much as they are waiting to perform—a performance they paid a performance fee to do. Then I see these folks finally getting their twelve minutes to perform, these looks finally doing what they came to do—sing at the GMWA national convention. The excitement! The adrenaline! The lights! The fees! I see a congregation consisting mostly of other groups and choirs waiting for their chance to sing—fixing their hair, talking on cell phones, reviewing lyrics. I’m sure there’s some segment of the congregation that is actually watching the performance—and it is just that, a performance—but, in large measure, their attention is on themselves. I see these fine people being strictly limited to their twelve minutes, after which they are shuttled backstage where they are gouged yet again for photographs or a video of their performance, and then out they go. That’s, essentially, what I see of the Gospel Music Workshop of America. And, I wonder, where in this is God glorified?

From their website:
The Gospel Music Workshop of America is the largest International music convention of its kind. Each year, thousands will assemble in a teaching, learning and performance-oriented environment. Founded in 1967 by the late Rev. James Cleveland, the Gospel Music Workshop of America has more than 185 chapters in the United States, United Kingdom, the Caribbean, Europe and Asia.

Local Chapters (from various cities and countries throughout the world) are the basic unit of organization of the GMWA. Locally the chapter offers to its membership and others of the city in which it is located, performance, academic and ministry opportunities. A Chapter Representative heads each local chapter that follows rules and regulations established by the Chapter Representatives Division of the parent body.

I’m sure there’s a lot of good going on there. That the workshops are useful somehow and the classes are useful. But the overall mission of the GMWA seems to be, first and foremost, to make money for the GMWA, having left evangelism and kingdom building in the dust decades ago. It is, largely, a circus, attracting, largely, circus folk. It’s all about promotion: the “stars” promoting their new projects and getting their egos stroked. The star-wannabes stalking the stars while promoting their own star aspirations. Choirs and groups assemble from all over the country and beyond for that slim shot at fame; that somebody might see them and sign them to a record deal.

Meanwhile, the workshop itself records several projects on-site, and folks are excited about appearing on one of these recordings—even though they won’t be paid. In fact, these people have paid to get in; paid the GMWA for the privilege of being on this record the GMWA will make perhaps millions of dollars from. And these nice folks will return home beaming and grinning and fanning and pleased with themselves and with their experience. And, you know what? If that makes them happy, I’m all for it. But, again, my question: who does all of that glorify?

These local chapters collect fees and dues and pay out of that to regional and national entities. What these fees and dues do is a bit beyond me since you still have to pay to get in anyway, and since the major record labels and other entities are pushing so much cash into this, the biggest Gospel music convention of the year, the GMWA event could, conceivably, be completely underwritten and thus require no admission or registration fees. There is an enormous amount of money changing hands every year, and there s virtually no public accountability. The average GMWA member has no idea, none at all, where his or her dues money is going, since he or she still has to pay travel expenses, hotel and admission to the convention.

More than that, is the point of going to the convention, in and of itself, the actual point of going to the convention? If everyone is just standing around, waiting for their chance to sing, where is the actual worship going on? If the choirs are competing against one another, comparing spiritual gifts, choir robes, choir directors, who’s got the best musicians, etc., how does that magnify God? The over-priced, ridiculous Church Folk hats and the beyond-ridiculous-looking loud suits these folks pay through the nose for: how do they, in any way, model the example set for us by Jesus Christ?

The jealousy and rivalry and competitiveness, the rushing and the screaming, all the sexual hook-ups going on—straight and gay—the multi-tiered caste system where how well you are treated depends, essentially, on how big a star you are, the non-stop price gouging, the petty rivalries—where is God in all of this?

I know a good many fine people who are very excited about this workshop. Who have planned and prayed and saved and sacrificed and planned their summer around it. Whose entire family plans have been moved around to accommodate it. And I roll on the carpet wildly protesting: if this stuff makes you happy, by all means. But, somewhere along the ride, in your quiet time, in your moment of contemplation, you really do need to ask yourself: in what ways, precisely, does any of this glorify God?

Nobody’s telling you not to go. Nobody’s telling you not to send these folks your money. But, in everything we do and everything we are, there should be a desire to serve God and to please God. In the midst of your excitement, in the press of your practicing and rehearsing, in the rush of your travel, there should be a still, quiet moment where you can actually talk to God. To hear His voice. And to wonder if He’s wondering the same things I am: in what way does any of this chaos please God?

If that’s a question you’re now struggling to answer, that really ought to tell you something.

Holy Racket: Musicians gather at the Hammond vendor.

The Point

It seems, to me, that this whole business is about external validation of insecure people. People who need to be seen. People who need a title. People who need to hear someone applauding them. Who need to sit high on a dais and look important and be recognized. I’m not entirely sure how God manages to work through these folks, since to know God, to have a real relationship with Jesus Christ seems, in every measurable sense, to be counter to those qualities. Knowing God, knowing Jesus, doesn’t make you insecure. In a true walk with Christ, you don’t need someone or something to validate you. You don’t need to win a contest or beat out all the other choirs. Your singing doesn’t have to be the best; it only has to glorify God. That’s it.

You don’t have to spend all your money and neglect your family and rush across country and cram into hotel rooms and get caught up in all the noise and all the utter nonsense typical of most black conventions—including the utterly useless National Baptist Conventions, also pyramid schemes so far as their effectiveness is concerned. You need only to know God and to trust God, to know His word and what it really says about these things. And then you need to summon the courage of those convictions to reasonably compare the conduct of these operations with the reasonable guidelines of Christian conduct to see the glaring inconsistencies, the questions that demand an answer:

In what way is God glorified? Because, seriously, if you can’t answer that, what’s the point?

Christopher J. Priest
30 July 2006


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