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I'm A Believer?

October 8, 2008

It seems to me that you don't need to be a believer in order to sing religious music masterfully. Plenty of great singers bring tears to the eyes of listeners while singing songs written within various world spiritual systems without necessarily subscribing to those beliefs. They do this by finding their own way to connect to the music and lyrics, which is, in a way, a form of acting. And no performance of any kind worth its salt is without some element of acting.

It was interesting, therefore, to interview a bunch of people from the gospel music community and hear their thoughts about the relationship between religious belief and the music they practice. Very few people I talked to think that it's possible to sing gospel music convincingly without being a worshipper of Jesus Christ. Here are some examples of answers I received to the questions: "Is it possible to separate the music from the religious aspects of gospel or must the two always go hand in hand? Is it possible to be a great gospel singer if you're not a Christian?"

Marvin Sapp, chart-topping gospel recording artist:

"I don't know of any gospel artists who aren't christians. Gospel music is about conviction. it isn't easy to have a conviction about someone if you don't have a relationship with them. I don't know of any great secular artists that are gospel artists. Al green is a better secular artist than he is a gospel artist in my opinion."

Donald Lawrence, gospel music songwriter and record producer:

"Someone who doesn't go to church can respond to lyrics that share good news. On the other hand, the music tends to talk about Jesus and God, so you may not want to be a gospel artist if you don't believe to avoid compromising yourself. Gospel music comes from heart so you have to have it in your heart to connect with it. It's the same for all art forms from country music to opera: you have to make the connection and train hard to be successful."

Rebecca Sherill, director of McCoy Memorial Baptist Church choir in Los Angeles:

"You have to feel and believe what your'e singing in order to make other people believe and feel what you're singing. The essence of gospel is beliving what you're singing. The two go hand in hand."

Janet Sutton, director of ACME Missionary Baptist Church Choir in Chicago:

"Anyone can sing gospel music. The record stores are full of recordings of "Amazing Grace" created by people who aren't believers. You can sing whatever you want to sing. But the message is more effective if you know what you are singing about. You can be a gospel artist if you aren't a christian. But if you haven't gone the whole way by declaring Christ as your lord you can't fully engage with it."

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