What I Learned from Bill & Gloria Gaither

Zac HicksHistory of Worship and Church Music2 Comments

Two weeks ago, at the National Worship Leader Conference in Kansas City, I had the opportunity to interview music legends, Bill and Gloria Gaither, in front of a large group of worship leaders and songwriters. Among the Gaithers’ many accolades, they’ve been named the ASCAP Songwriters of the Century (yes, the century), which is not insignificant. Besides their songwriting, they’ve been faithful “platformers” over the years, responsible for the birth of music careers of not a small amount of artists.

If you’re like me, you’re tempted to write off the names of folks like Bill and Gloria Gaither. They may have been influential at one time (and may still be now), but their music and ethos feel to us like fourth cousins twelve times removed, we think. Modern worship leaders may have faint recollections of who they are or what they’ve done, but they don’t have any bearing on or connection to what we do now, we believe. How we feel might be exemplified in the typical comment I received on Facebook after posting some pictures of my interview: “Wow, my grandpa LOVES them!” The Gaithers are for our grannies and pappies. 

Cycles of Sameness

The author of Ecclesiastes is instructive here: there is nothing new under the sun (Ecc 1:9). What I quickly realized as I prepared for and interviewed Bill & Gloria was that the same issues in every generation of worship leading end up recycling themselves, and it is only we who are young and rather arrogantly naive who think that we’ve stumbled upon THE answer in response to the previous generation’s worship errors. The Gaithers have been able to witness several cycles of reaction and counter-reaction, and they were, for me, a treasure trove of wisdom and insight. 

One of the first questions I asked them was, “When you began your songwriting, what were YOU reacting against?” They said they were responding to a de-personalized faith. They wanted the church to be able to sing songs that hit them on the ground, where they were, in their experience. They were aiming at a more concerted authenticity (sound familiar?). And then the Jesus Movement came around, reacted to Gaither-ized worship, looking for something, well, authentic…something that matched their experience. Then the Jesus Movement music transformed (and, in the words of Worship Leader founder, Chuck Fromm, became “routinized”) into an industry just in time for another generation to rise up and respond with cries for more authenticity. Enter “modern worship.” And we’re seeing the tide turn again, and more reactions occur. This historical observation, perhaps best articulated by folks like the Gaithers who have lived through these cycles, is important for us to ponder.

A Few Surprising Insights

One of the songwriting nuggets from Gloria came in the context of her admonishment of some of the anemic songwriting that inevitably accompanies every generation. She encouraged songwriters to, among other things, study mythology. She spoke of how mythology has a way of opening the mind and imagination to think in layers of meaning and communication, expanding what our songs can do. Mythology encourages thinking in pictures, symbols, and metaphors, and it is in the realm of such word-imagery where great lyrics (for worship songs or any song) are born. This rang true with my own experience, recalling that after reading Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I found words flowing from my mind and hand that were workable, imaginative, poetic, and profound. Reading mythology can be like weightlifting for songwriters.

Gloria also challenged our individuals and institutions to value songwriting as an art and craft worth studying, honing, and shaping. Songwriters should be masters of their language, and more Christian colleges should have songwriting degree programs, she said. This sentiment flies in the face of at least one popular philosophy of songwriting that basically says, “Jesus gave me this song; it’s from my heart; therefore, it’s good.” Hmm…

The Sum

All this (not to mention the entire conference) was a good reminder to me of how we need to hear each other out across traditions, generations, and persuasions. There’s a temptation, in the midst of our tribalism (and I’m one who believes that lines and distinctions have their place), to believe that our tribes are all that there really are, or all that God really cares about. What can result is a kind of blind patriotism to our tribe that fails to see and savor the rich ways the Spirit is moving and shaking beyond us. Events like the National Worship Leader Conference always cause me to lift my head from micro-inspecting the tree that I’m in to see the forest that’s all around me. And this year, the Gaithers were a big part of that. Thank you, Bill & Gloria!

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