Last Saturday, I participated in the Praise and Power Concert, which benefitted the building fund of New Bethel Ministries. I was invited to participate because a good friend of mine from high school was largely responsible for planning the event. He had always been supportive of my musical endeavors even when I wasn’t fully convinced of the gift that God has placed within me. His support worked to my advantage since there was no other way that I would have been able to perform in an event with so many up-and-coming gospel artists in the Philadelphia area.
In a lot of ways, I think my friends and family were much more excited about the event than I was. They were regularly telling people, “Spencer is having a showcase,” even though I kept reminding them that it wasn’t actually my event. Their responses were always interesting.
“Well, you’re the only reason we’re coming,” my mom said, “I don’t know who any of these artists are.”
“Either way, you can use it as a launching point for your music,” my frat brother said, “You also need to get back to working on your mixtape so that you can finish it sooner.
“It’s still exciting,” my cousin said as she attempted to sell tickets to just about everyone she knew.
Based on their excitement, I realized that I would have to plan my own showcase later in the year. In the mean time, I had to make sure my set would actually be something respectable. I would be singing three original songs–two that had never been heard outside of my church. My background singers and I would be performing to tracks that I created. There was supposed to be a house band, but after the bass player’s wife went into labor a few days earlier, that fell apart. There was really only one problem as I saw it–the audience.
If you have been a long-time reader of this blog, you know that I tend to feel that I do not really fit in well at most traditional African American churches because tend not to be all that emotional in my delivery. While I knew that I wouldn’t have any trouble singing my songs, I was concerned about my ability to speak between them. After all, events like these tend to favor people who can shout and cry on cue. I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense. I’m just aware that my personal style of praise and worship doesn’t always go over well in that kind of environment.
My concerns were further substantiated when a praise and worship set that was supposed to be 20 minutes long lasted for almost an hour. The crowd was pretty much in a praising frenzy with the exception of many of the people who came with me and were a bit distracted by the horrendous sound system. (There was no sound check because things were running behind schedule, so we all were concerned.) Needless to say, I was a bit frightened when event staff informed me that my set would be next.
I am not going to bore you all with the details of my actual set except to say that it went well in spite of the poor sound system. It went a little too well. People were smiling. Youth and young adults were dancing. When my set was over, I immediately told the audience “God bless you” and pretty much ran to my seat. That’s when Marc Britt, the MC of the event, brought the hook to my song back in and kept it going for what had to be about 30 minutes. I was shocked. Not only had my songs survived in this environment, but they were actually embraced. My family and friends noticed to puzzled look on my face as I heard Marc Britt and the musicians transform my song into a choir song with 3-part harmony before morphing it into shouting music.
That night, God taught me a valuable lesson–even though it is not my preference, I do have a place within the traditional African American church. I may be a bit different, but my overall message is welcomed–especially by youth and young adults. It made me wonder why I was so concerned coming into the event. Then it all came back to me. I was pretty awkward during my childhood and always stuck out. Church was a big part of my life then. My personality quirks allowed me to do well in classes, but not in relationships with people my age. Parents often compared their children to me and as a result, their children often disliked me and would go out of their way to make that clear. Since I didn’t understand what was happening, I internalized it.
Things only got worse when I went to college. I came into my own as a singer while I was living in CT–the same time I preached my first sermon. Unfortunately, I came into my own as a singer in a place where people were far more judgmental than usual. While they could not dispute my singing ability, they made it pretty clear that I did not fit their ideal image of a minister. My appearance wasn’t the problem, my personality was. My introversion was perceived as disinterest and the implication was that my generally stoic expression was proof that something was lacking in my relationship with God. I never quite understood what caused the rift, but I credit my mentors (and one of my therapists) for helping me to understand that it wasn’t my fault.
In the 4+ years that I have been out of that environment, I have become more comfortable with the fact that there are multiple expressions of praise and worship to God. Some are loud and emotional, some are quiet and contemplative. What is most important to God is sincerity. For now, it is clear to me that I have a lot of ministry-related hangups that I need to work through. I am just thankful that God chose to use the Praise and Power Concert to remind me that being different isn’t always a bad thing.