Comprising a rich portion of American heritage, gospel music surged in popularity during the 20th century, reaching a much greater audience than ever before.
Though earlier songs were passed down almost exclusively through oral tradition, advances in technology and access to a myriad of different instruments allowed African-Americans to continue shaping and begin recording the music that has such a rich history.
Stylistically, they experimented with traditional European hymns and musical forms — such as jazz and blues — that breathed new life into old spirituals to inspire new compositions unique to the genre. African-American gospel music returned the favor and influenced several jazz and blues riffs in addition to producing some of the most famous African-American musicians, singers, and songwriters. Many famous musical artists, from B.B. King to Beyoncé, discovered their musical gifts at church in a gospel choir.
Additionally, several artists who devoted themselves strictly to gospel music emerged during the 20th century. Artists such as Mahalia Jackson, commonly referred to as “The Queen of Gospel,” in her mighty alto voice belted out one of the most powerful pieces of gospel ever written. Her rendition of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” written by Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey in the midst of grieving the death of his wife and child simultaneously because of complications during childbirth, was a favorite of Martin Luther King’s.
The rich tradition of worship through song continues today in many churches. Bible Way Piedmont Church of Christ celebrated its 61st anniversary this fall, having been founded Oct. 8, 1956, originally on Hampton Street in downtown Columbia. Bishop James Mack serves as the current pastor and Misty Mack as the choir director. The church’s current location is on Piedmont Avenue in Columbia.
A small anteroom welcomes visitors to Bible Way Piedmont, and then another few steps lead to the sanctuary guarded by two large doors with clear glass, offering a view into the house of worship. The vaulted wood ceiling with its deep varnish stain and exposed beams contrasts harmoniously with the ivory painted walls, offering an awe-inspiring environment for their services. Stained-glass windows feature large crosses imposed on an opaque background, shielding the congregation from the distraction of the outside world while casting their meaningful prisms into the interior. A red carpeted aisle flanked by rows of plush pews focuses attention to the front of the church, where a pulpit stands.
Bishop Mack’s sharp attire, imposing figure, and soothing voice exudes the presence of a natural leader who ably shepherds this congregation. The tradition of gospel music provides balm for a troubled spirit, both during past generations and in contemporary times. “Gospel music has always been a bridge during troubled times and has allowed us to embrace God in the midst of our struggles,” he shares. “Those songs were first sung in times of trouble, and they give us hope of reaching a point beyond our present situation.”
Each member of the choir began their musical ministry for different reasons, several as youngsters. Patricia Loyde, a long-time choir member, started singing when she was 12 years old. “I was 14 when I began singing in the church choir,” she says. “Oh, what a joy!”
Chelsea Cooper recently joined the adult choir after serving in the children’s choir. “I didn’t grasp it at first. I just liked to be up front singing. But now, gospel music has a different meaning. It helps me get through the day and any hardships that I might face,” explains Chelsea.
“I loved singing as a child and I still do,” agrees fellow choir member Sabrina Sanders. She comes by her musical affinity honestly as her father played records, eight-track tapes, and cassette tapes of gospel music between the hours of 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. before work, and her grandfather learned to play by ear any instrument on which he laid his hands. Sabrina also explains how her 11-year-old daughter taught herself to play keyboard by listening to gospel music.
Bible Way Piedmont choir members devote several hours during the week to practicing on their own, honing each individual voice before joining harmoniously with the group for choir rehearsal Wednesday evenings. Misty sends music to choir members ahead of time, and they are expected to practice before arriving Wednesdays to fine tune the pieces. They pride themselves on being a ministry choir as opposed to a show choir, glorifying God instead of themselves.
“When Bible Way Piedmont is on the scene, we’re not there to perform — we’re there to sing to the Lord. You can take four or five of us, and we’ll still sound like a full choir,” boasts Misty.
Before access to recordings on tape or vinyl, choir members would rehearse together for several hours Wednesday nights. Even with greater access to materials and condensed practice schedules, many congregants still have trouble finding time required to practice, making the traditional structure of a full choir difficult to maintain. Though Bible Way Piedmont still hosts a traditional full choir, many congregations are moving in a different direction.
“One of the transitions I see in respect to choirs is that they’re dissipating, and congregations are leaning more on ‘praise teams.’ We’re one of the few churches holding onto the choir philosophy. If you’ve got a choir, you’ve got to practice and learn to harmonize,” explains Bishop Mack.
Praise teams are a way to bridge the gap. They are comprised of five to seven members who create a mood of worship for the congregation. “The praise team is like a ‘nurse’ who prepares the soul for the ‘doctor,’ and pastor is the ‘doctor’ who will speak to the needs of the ‘patient,’ who are the folks in the congregation,” adds Sabrina.
Bishop Mack believes both the praise team and full choir are essential elements to worship. “Preaching is difficult if the atmosphere is not set.” He further explained how the praise team prepares the ground, turning over the hardened earth and exposing the rich soil underneath. Then the preacher plants the seed and covers it over, nurturing the spirits of the congregants and creating a safe place for faith to sprout. Finally, the choir waters the seed, providing the final element for God’s glory to grow in the hearts of the congregation.
As choir director, Misty is apt to change a particular piece to fit the message Bishop Mack needs to deliver, and the choir is expected to adjust. This technique serves an important purpose, though it isn’t necessarily easy or readily appreciated by choir members, who have invested several hours of practice during the week on another piece. Nevertheless, they remind each other of their ministry to the congregation and their role in God’s greater scheme.
“Sometimes a commander will go in with one battle plan, and then have to adjust to accomplish the mission,” Bishop Mack expresses.
When asked about any particular pieces of gospel music which stir the souls of these choir members, they name a couple of very familiar titles. “‘Amazing Grace’ is my favorite. It always pulls me through,” says Patricia. Several of the other choir members nod in agreement with a muted, yet powerful, “Amen.”
Misty recently lost a dear friend, and in her grief, she finds peace through the song “It Is Well with My Soul.” As tears well in her eyes and her voice begins to break, Patricia kindly retrieves a box of Kleenex.
Other pieces such as “After You Done All You Can, Just Stand,” by Donnie McClurkin, guided Sabrina through a divorce and helped her face the challenges as a single mother of two children. Bishop Mack says his favorite is “Throwing Out The Lifeline.” He admits his choice was a bit more passé compared to the choices of younger folks, but he still believes the powerful piece has relevance.
“There’s people need saving, and our job as Christians is to throw out the lifeline. We’re about pulling people up, not pushing people down. So when we realize we’re about pulling people up, the joy of helping another person survive the struggle of life makes life worth living,” he articulates.
Choir member Ashley Stack profoundly expresses, “Gospel is a language for everyone — a language of love, hope, happiness, and peace.”
Bible Way Piedmont offers a deeply humbling and spiritually moving environment. Psalm 98:4 says, “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praises.” Let there be little doubt of this command being obeyed by the congregation of Bible Way Piedmont Church of Christ.