This year’s American Idol finals offered the nation 13 singers from across the country with different strengths, looks, backgrounds and styles. But six of them had something in common, aside from wanting to be the next American Idol: They all had experience as church worship leaders.
That included two of the final three competitors in the eighth season of Idol, which wraps up Wednesday with a two-hour season finale.
Danny Gokey, 28, was praise and worship leader at two Faith Builders International locations in Wisconsin.
And Kris Allen, 23, has worked with praise and worship teams at two New Life churches in Arkansas.
Gokey was booted Wednesday night, so Allen is the one who is going on to compete in next week’s final against Adam Lambert, long considered the front runner in this year’s race. And that was fine by several Christian music observers.
“I see the worship leader in Danny, but Kris has more of the ability to be artistic,” said Joanne Brokaw, a Christian music writer who brought the preponderance of worship leaders in this year’s Idol field to light with a Feb. 27 post on her Beliefnet.com blog that asked, “Is this the season of the worship leader?”
Other artists in this year’s final group who have Christian music backgrounds were dueling pianist Matt Giraud, blind musician Scott MacIntyre, oil rigger Michael Sarver and Memphis mother Lil Rounds.
“The thing that really struck me was not just that they were Christians, but they were church worship leaders,” said Brokaw, who has since predicted Allen will win the finale, already being characterized by some as David vs. Goliath. “These are people who have actively been working within their churches as musicians.”
And that work can give a singer a leg up on the competition.
“If they’re a church worship leader, they already have the experience of standing up in front of people,” says Christopher Cool, frontman for the Versailles-based Christian rock band Eyesuponus. “So many people come in, and they may be really good singers, but they’ve never sung in front of people, or not much. So when they get up there in the audition, it freaks them out and then they don’t do well.”
From early rock ‘n’ roll pioneers like Elvis Presley to the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, to pop divas like Whitney Houston, churches have long been training grounds for pop singers, even if they didn’t go into Christian music careers. And since Idol started, it has launched several contemporary Christian music careers, including those of Mandisa, Chris Sligh and Richmond native Phil Stacey, who recently signed a recording contract with Reunion Records, the Christian label whose roster includes Michael W. Smith. Stacey blogs about American Idol for the Herald-Leader and LexGo.com.
Idol itself acknowledged its Christian connection last season with a group performance of the worship classic Shout to the Lord.
Mike Vandemark, the worship and programming director at Southland Christian Church, says the strong relationship between Idol and Christian music is probably a result of a growing emphasis on quality in church music.
“Churches used to be musical training grounds,” Vandemark says. “But when contemporary worship came in, excellence sort of took a back seat. Now, it’s coming back.”
While singing in front of crowds and honing skills in worship groups are all vocational reasons church musicians succeed on Idol, Quest Community Church assistant pastor Justin McCarty and worship director Anyerin Drury see a spiritual side to it, too.
“Everything doesn’t hang on winning for them,” McCarty says of worship leaders who audition. “I remember watching the early seasons, and some of the people who would get turned down, you’d watch them fall apart. And I thought, something’s missing there.”
Drury says, “A lot of people are looking for answers to their lives on American Idol. They think, ‘If I win, I’ll have everything I need,’ and even if they do, they find it’s not fulfilling.”
Christians, they say, go in more grounded in their faith, confident God is guiding their paths. It’s a serenity some observers can see guiding competitors through the later rounds. Cool, of Eyesuponus, notes the way Allen has shrugged off devilish judge Simon Cowell’s exhortations to be less humble and how Gokey was able to laugh at his horrendous missed note when he sang Aerosmith’s Dream On in the May 5 show.
Vandemark and others all say they have had friends take a shot at Idol.
Drury is no stranger to Idol. The recent transplant from Australia auditioned for Australian Idol several years ago. “I did an Elvis song, and I think they just thought I was an Elvis impersonator and said no,” he says. His brother Seth made it through several preliminary rounds last year and is going to take another shot.
So, clearly, these Christians have no qualms about being involved in the show, even if the word idol has negative connotations in Christian circles.
“Yes, Christians can sing that well, so let us,” says Cool, who notes he is well past Idol‘s eligibility ceiling of 28. “Let’s get out there and represent.”
Ultimately, some say Idol exposure might benefit churches. Drury says he still meets people who think of churches as only pipe organs and hymns.
“They might look at these singers and say, ‘Maybe church isn’t what I thought it was,'” Drury says. “‘Maybe I’ll give it another look.'”