The Gaithers' 2003 Praise Gathering was not what I expected. The first surprise was the radical ecumenism of sound. As it turns out, the Gathering's five-hour evening concerts are not praise-chorus extravaganzas. Nor are they Southern gospel hymn fests. Those stereotypes were laid to rest in the first 15 minutes as a rocking swing band called Denver and the Mile High Orchestra took the stage with a unique compliment of horns and electric guitars.

This was an arts festival. There was Southern gospel, but there was also just about everything else. The vocal harmonies of a college glee club (Voices of Lee) were still hanging in the air as squeals of feedback announced the presence of Latin rockers El Trio de Hoy. A 20-minute classical ballet was sandwiched between a bluegrass group and a powerhouse performance by pop star Natalie Grant. If you didn't like the formal liturgical stylings of Christ Church choir, well then how about the hip-hop groove of Out of Eden?

There was something for everybody but, more to the point, there was everything for everybody.

"If we don't make musical schizophrenics out of you, we haven't done our job," Gaither announced. He told me privately that he began these events 29 years ago because a lot of gospel fans—people who liked his music—needed to have their horizons expanded. It struck me that this original goal was now sometimes being fulfilled in reverse: the Praise Gathering introduces fans of Christian pop to samples of the gospel music with which Gaither himself remains best associated.

Still, what impressed me most about the Praise Gathering required a moment's reflection. We had no program for the event, no advance list of performers for any of the nights. Few people seemed to know that CCM superstars like Michael W. Smith or Avalon were going to be there. The big-name performers just showed up, taking their turn in the mix like everyone else, and this lent a purity to the event that is seldom witnessed in our celebrity-conscious society. How many places can Amy Grant come on stage and not be a star? But there she was, and no one in the audience had come to hear her. It seems like a cliché, but they really had come for Jesus, to hear their Lord and Savior lifted up in song, and to hear the mighty works of God proclaimed in diverse musical languages.

Give Gaither his due on this one: he has succeeded, somehow, in putting together an event that fulfills for the performers the hope of John the Baptist, increasing Christ through their own diminishment (John 3:30). It was a special moment on a Friday night when the hot-at-the-moment pop band Mercy Me arrived to play its big Top 10 hit, "I Can Only Imagine," but it was no more special than hearing gospel diva Vestal Goodman belt out the hymn "Eastern Gate" or being coerced by Lutheran Ken Medema into singing a silly camp song. By these and every means, the gospel was proclaimed and God was praised.

Related Elsewhere:

Also posted today is an article about Bill Gaithers' tremendous success in the music industry.

Gaithernet has more information about Bill and Gloria including an email newsletter, events calendar, Homecoming information, the Homecoming magazine, and sales information. has a massive collection of the Gaither's music, videos, and Homecoming paraphernalia.

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