By Jenna DeWitt
For the first time, the largest Baptist institution in the world will greet Gloria Gaither, one of the most influential names in Christian music history.
Gaither will be speaking in several church music classes February 28 to March 2 and will hold a public lecture at 4 p.m. Tuesday in Recital Hall II in Waco Hall.
Gaither, together with her husband Bill, has won the industry’s highest awards throughout her 50-year career as a performer and songwriter and has guided the careers of many of Christian music’s biggest names.
Through their “Homecoming” DVD series, world tours and recorded music, the Gaithers stay active in the Christian music industry to this day.
Gaither said she has learned that the secret is to keep her ministry focused on the people she is ministering to and help them with their real struggles.
“I think any ministry is people-oriented and not just music-oriented,” she said.
“Ministry is not about imposing your musical or artistic preference on some captive audience. Your job is to find whatever ladder reaches the burning building and to rescue the people on the second floor.”
Gaither said she hopes to convey this to Baylor’s church music students along with a sense of responsibility for the power their art holds.
“I think art is one of the most powerful tools to change a culture,” she said. “It may be more powerful than our government. Having said that, I take it very seriously and I hope that we can have some in-depth discussion with students about what they see their calling is and also some aspirations they might have to make this world better, to make a Christian statement in powerful ways, to change some of the thinking of the culture.”
Naturally, some changes have occurred in the past 50 years of the Gaithers’ music ministry.
Though their music was at one time considered revolutionary in style, their music has become the basic foundations on which the modern Southern gospel genre was formed.
Gaither said that the focus should not be on the style of music, however, but on the content.
“I don’t think it is about style. I think the wrapper that the message has come in is always changing,” she said. “I think as a Christian community we tend to confuse our music preferences with our theological absolutes. I can probably count on one hand the number of letters from people who said ‘We haven’t heard you for a while,.Do you still love the Lord?’ but we have all kinds of letters about style.”
Dr. Randall Bradley, the Ben H. Williams Professor of Music and director of the Center for Christian Music Studies, said he hopes his students will see the impact the Gaithers have made as inspiration to be a positive force in their own communities.
“You don’t get to where they are and influence generations by waiting,” Bradley said. “You start where you are and respond to the opportunities that come your way. She stepped through doors that were opened and left the result to God.”
Bradley also said he hopes his students will see the importance of faith in a cultural context and to stay true to the connection between their faith and education. He said the visit has the potential to encourage Gaither about the upcoming generation of church music ministers.
“I hope that she would be encouraged by the energy and enthusiasm of Baylor students,” he said. “I find that our students bring great hope to the church. I hope that Gloria will also sense that hopeful spirit where the church is going, the church of the future.”
One such student, Richardson junior Clint Kimmel, said he is grateful for the opportunity to meet Gaither after studying her music in his Congregational Song course.
“People are really going to enjoy talking to and seeing her because she is a living legend,” he said. “I hope she feels a sense of welcome and our sense of appreciation for what they do because everyone is looking forward to her being here.”
Kimmel said he has heard the Gaithers’ music his entire life, including hearing their music performed in Spanish while on summer mission trips to Argentina and Costa Rica.
Bowling Green, Ky., graduate student Jacob Sensenig emphasized how large of an impact the Gaithers have had on church music through mentoring other artists and songwriting as well as performing themselves.
“The name Gloria Gaither carries so much weight,” he said. “They have the ability to take simple words and craft them so well. That’s something that I don’t have and I wish I did. It is a gift that I think very few people have, to take words and make such memorable sentences and such memorable phrases out of them and to touch people’s hearts with them. It’s really interesting. I don’t know that there is any secret to that. Maybe it is just genius or divine inspiration.”
Gaither said her performances stemmed from genuine experiences and encouraged Baylor students to live out their lives in a similar way.
“I don’t think I have the right to say from the stage something if I haven’t lived it for years,” she said. “Go with your gift. Do what you love. Find that the Lord will put you some place. Witnessing is lived out.”
Gaither’s visit to Baylor is part of the Hearn Innovators Lecture Series. The lecture is held once every semester. Past lecturers have included John Bell, David Crowder, Pablo Sosa and Keith Getty.