James Fortune has won three Stellar awards and has been nominated twice for a Grammy award. In 2004, his hit single “You Survived” was the second most played gospel song in the country; even now, 12 years later, it remains in the top seven of most-played gospel songs.
In 2001, three years before Mr. Fortune lit up the gospel music scene with “You Survived” and other popular tracks, he stripped his then-four-year-old stepson naked, beat him with a switch, ran a tub full of scalding hot water, forced the already-battered child into that tub, and held him there. When speaking to the 911 emergency dispatcher about the incident, he lied, saying the child burned himself by running the water at a too-hot temperature and getting into the tub. He pleaded guilty to the charge of felony injury of a child, but in a statement after the trial, stressed that he was never convicted of any felony charge. His trouble with the law didn’t end there.
On October 24, 2014, Mr. Fortune was arrested for aggravated assault of a family member with a deadly weapon. The family member turned out to be his wife, and the weapon was revealed to have been a bar stool. In 2016, through a plea deal, he pleaded guilty to the aggravated assault charge—a third-degree felony—and received five days in jail plus five years of probation. Other than some irate women commenters on websites that have covered the incidents, the response from the Christian community seems to have been a collective “So what?”
The “so what” factor isn’t entirely surprising but is nonetheless disappointing. A four-year-old child was burned on over 40% of his body and permanently disfigured, and a woman suffered broken bones and internal injuries. Certainly that child and that woman deserved more from the Christian community than they received. In fact, James Fortune in interviews has thanked fans for their love and support during those times, but where was the love and support for his stepson and wife? Don’t their lives matter?
This isn’t the first time a high-profile Black Christian has become entangled with the law or transgressed the law of God. Contemporary Christian music mega-star Israel Houghton admitted to committing adultery and causing the breakup of his 20-year marriage; World Changers Ministries leader Creflo Dollar was investigated for allegedly choking his teenage daughter during a verbal conflict at their home; Bishop Eddie Long was outed for allegedly having multiple sexual relationships with young men; Minister Thomas Weeks stomped then-wife and popular evangelist Juanita Bynum in an Atlanta hotel parking lot.
Grammy Award Winner Israel Houghton performs for a sold out audience. Houghton is one of many gospel greats that has publicly admitted to infidelity in his marriage.
Because of sin, potential scandal resides within the bosom of every follower of Christ, so the question becomes, “What say we to these things?” because more definitely needs to be said and done.
First, acknowledge that sin is real, and the struggle to overcome it is real. It causes real damage and suffering. Here language makes a difference and often reveals hesitation to call a thing a thing. Too often the “all” in “all have sinned” only includes others, and the “sinned” gets labeled as episodes of misspeaking, misconduct, mistake, and other non-culpable acts.
If sin is named and claimed by the perpetrators, true healing and restoration can begin. Which leads to the second necessary adjustment: change the objective of accountability. The legitimate reasons to hold James Fortune and others in similar positions accountable are to restore them to right fellowship with God and with their fellow believers and to heal the heart of susceptibility toward that sin.
Humiliation, disgrace, and revenge or vindication are not acceptable motives for calling anyone to account for sin. If violence, non-marital sex, lying, manipulation, and such are treated as sin, the connection between the problem and the remedy becomes much more apparent.
Third, restore biblical church discipline. Talk to almost any Black churchgoer, and you’re liable to hear a story of someone in a leadership position being “sat down” for some wrongdoing. But just sitting a person down doesn’t necessarily produce restoration for the guilty party, nor healing for the victims.
Authentic church discipline scares people because it violates two long-held and sacrosanct views of addressing problems and trouble in the Black community—keep it quiet and don’t judge. Moreover, secular ideas of shame have crept into the thinking of many church leaders and congregants alike, resulting in a laissez-faire approach to dealing with sin and its consequences.
Finally, remember the victims. Seeing James Fortune’s plight play out in the media is an opportunity to re-examine compassion and grace but also to reconsider justice and healing. There are many James Fortunes, Cheryl Fortunes, sons, and daughters living through similar circumstances.
They need justice for the sin committed against them and healing for the devastation wrought within them. Their pain needs to be acknowledged and addressed within the context of meaningful accountability and action, and we must be able to depend on Christian leaders to shepherd people through these processes.
Have you witnessed instances of authentic, effective church discipline in your congregation?
Have you ever been part of an accountability group or reconciliation process?
If the church isn’t addressing these issues effectively, what legitimate role does the state play in getting justice for victims?
The 58th Grammy Awards were everything we expected filled with great music, interesting acceptance speeches (Taylor, we’re looking at you.), and phenomenal live performances. And in case you missed it, here’s a recap on which of your favorite gospel artists walked away with the highest honors during music’s biggest night of the year.
“Destined to Win [Live],” Karen Clark Sheard
“Living It,” Dorinda Clark-Cole
“One Place Live,” Tasha Cobbs
“Covered: Alive in Asia [Live] (Deluxe),” Israel & Newbreed- WINNER
“Life Music: Stage Two,” Jonathan McReynolds
“Worth [Live],” Anthony Brown and Group Therapy
“Wanna Be Happy?,” Kirk Franklin- WINNER
“Intentional,” Travis Greene
“How Awesome Is Our God [Live],” Israel and Newbreed featuring Yolanda Adams; Neville Diedericks, Israel Houghton and Meleasa Houghton, songwriters
“Worth Fighting For [Live],” Brian Courtney Wilson; Aaron Lindsey and Brian Courtney Wilson, songwriters
Contemporary Christian Music Album
“Whatever the Road,” Jason Crabb
“How Can It Be,” Lauren Daigle
“Saints and Sinners,” Matt Maher
“This Is Not a Test,” Tobymac- WINNER
“Love Ran Red,” Chris Tomlin
Contemporary Christian Music Performance/Song
“Holy Spirit,” Francesca Battistelli- WINNER
“Lift Your Head Weary Sinner (Chains),” Crowder; Ed Cash, David Crowder and Seth Philpott, songwriters
“Because He Lives (Amen),” Matt Maher
“Soul on Fire,” Third Day featuring All Sons & Daughters; Tai Anderson, Brenton Brown, David Carr, Mark Lee, Matt Maher and Mac Powell, songwriters
“Feel It,” Tobymac featuring Mr. Talkbox; Cary Barlowe, David Arthur Garcia and Toby McKeehan, songwriters
Roots Gospel Album
“Still Rockin’ My Soul,” the Fairfield Four- WINNER
“Pray Now,” Karen Peck and New River
“Directions Home (Songs We Love, Songs You Know),” Point of Grace
ALL THE KING’S MEN: (From left) Israel Houghton, Donnie McClurkin, Kirk Franklin, and Marvin Sapp.
Earlier this week, audience members of The View were given a taste of Sunday mornin’ on the ABC talk show, as urban gospel heavyweights Kirk Franklin, Marvin Sapp, Donnie McClurkin, and Israel Houghton blew the roof off in a Gospel Brunch-inspired segment. The multiplatinum Grammy, Dove, and Stellar Award-winning crew showcased their talents and their love for the Lord Tuesday, as they spoke candidly about their ministries, their struggles, and their recently announced tour, cleverly titled “The Kings Men.”
Franklin, who partnered with mega-concert promoter Live Nation to bring the tour together, said, “This is their (Live Nation) first time in history doing a tour like this, and so we’re calling it inspirational entertainment. So I had to go get my bros that I knew could really fill the vision, and I’m very humbled and honored that they said yes.”
View co-host Sherri Shepherd asked the quartet to weigh in regarding the tragedy and pain surrounding the shootings in Colorado.
Sapp, still grieving the recent deaths of both his father and beloved wife, said, “My position has always been in these types of situations the only thing that can really get us through is prayer. The Bible is right where it says, ‘If my people, which are called by my name would humble themselves and pray, turn from their wicked ways, seek my face, then I will hear from heaven.’ He’ll forgive our sin and heal our land.
“If we’re going to be healed, it’s going to take a corporate group of individuals that really have a clear understanding of prayer and really seeking God for direction and focus.”
Jamie Grace, a new up and coming Grammy nominated Christian Artist also performed her smash hit, “Hold Me,” and also shared her testimony as a youth on fire for Christ. The 20-year-old spoke about growing up as a preacher’s kid and singing at church, and the very real struggles she faced early on in life.
Diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome at age 11, Grace said that when she’s performing everything seems to settle. “When I was growing up it was difficult for me, but finding music was the best thing ever.”
She added: “Everyday when I wake up, whether I’m writing a song or whether I’m hanging out with my friends, or whether I’m doing a concert, I just pray that everything that I do glorifies God.”
Grace, along with Sapp, Franklin, McClurkin, and Houghton, turned The View set into a sanctuary of praise — and proved that although gospel music comes in many shapes and sizes, the message remains the same.
Gerardo Marti’s Worship Across the Racial Divide: Religious Music and the Multiracial Congregation is a sociological exploration of worship music ministry in multiethnic churches, and as such, its timing is critically important. There’s, of course, no shortage of resources that point to multicultural worship music as a panacea to cure what ails struggling churches, something that will help to usher in a glorious new dawn of cross-racial unity. What sets this work apart is its approach.
Worship Across the Racial Divide aims to be more descriptive than prescriptive. Through thousands of interviews of pastors, worship leaders, and congregants from a variety of multiethnic churches across the diverse state of California, Marti, a sociology professor at Davidson College, uncovers a series of principles and patterns gleaned from actual multicultural worship ministries. Rather than speculate on what should be, the book tells us a lot about what is.
And when it comes to multicultural worship music, what is — that is, the way things are being done — is sometimes at odds with what or how we expect things to be.
With the rise of diversity as a cultural value in churches, there has been a noticeable creative spike regarding worship musicians diversifying their sound. The prominence of Israel Houghton, especially, has opened doors for a host of other artists (Freddy Rodriguez, William McDowell, Tye Tribbett, etc.) who have in some measure adopted a similar, dynamic, multicultural sound, what some might call the sound of the new breed.
Yet, when it comes to the ways in which multiethnic churches are approaching their music, that Israel-and-New-Breed sound is far from the norm. There are many reasons for this, but one of the most important is the differences in philosophies regarding musical styles. According to Marti, there are four main philosophical models of music selection at play in multicultural or multiethnic (for the most part, those words are used interchangeably) churches:
a.) The Professionalist – where the style of music doesn’t matter as much, so long as whatever music that’s performed is done with excellence (high musical variety, low racial awareness).
b.) The Traditionalist – where the style of music performed is whatever the worship leader or the church leadership is most comfortable with (low musical variety, low racial awareness)
c.) The Assimilationist – where the chosen style is deemed to be “universal” and can connect with most or all kinds of people (low musical variety, high racial awareness)
d.) The Pluralist – where a variety of styles are deliberately chosen to connect with various ethnic groups (high musical variety, high racial awareness).
Most leaders who deal in worship music may find themselves somewhere in these philosophical models, maybe even incorporating more than one approach depending on context. But the key is to remember, not only is there no magic bullet for achieving multiethnic worship music, but among practitioners of multicultural worship ministry, there seems to be no consensus as to how to define it.
And while the Pluralist approach seems to be the most explicitly racialized, it’s also most susceptible to racial stereotyping.
Less Rhythm, More Relationship
Perhaps the biggest surprise in the book is how little it has to do with music, per se.
It’s become a common refrain that worship is more than music. What did surprise me was the extent to which not even the music itself is about music. Contrary to popular assumption, Marti’s research shows tha the success of multicultural church music ministry lies less in the adoption or mastery of a particular styleof music, and more in the use of music ministry programs to form lasting cross-cultural connections in the congregation. In other words, it’s less about the rhythm, more about the relationship.
That’s because worship music is defined less by a particular sound and more by the activity that encompasses it. Worship music is inherently participatory, and it’s in this participation that lasting bonds are forged. It’s true monoculturally, and it’s even more true cross-culturally. Especially because worship ministries are by definition high profile, it’s often common for racial diversity to show up first or in greater proportions with the worship ministry compared to the congregation at large, a phenomenon Marti refers to as “ritualized racial inclusion.” The more people of color are conspicuously recruited and displayed on the platform, the more welcoming an atmosphere is projected, and the more likely people of various races will want to call that church home. Which isn’t to say that the style or the sound doesn’t matter at all — it just means that it’s not necessarily the key element that guarantees success. People might come through the door because of how the choir or the band sounds, but what will keep them coming back will be the relationships.
Cautions and Warnings
Worship Across the Racial Divide is not an easy book to read. It gets bogged down in sociological jargon in places, and because of its reliance on interviews, sometimes after five or six quotes supporting the same idea it feels redundant. Also, it should be stated that, despite Marti’s intent to reach a cross-section of diverse churches, they were all still in California. I’m sure there are plenty of cultural differences that come into play when you factor in regional geography.
Nevertheless, this work is a landmark achievement that lends plenty of insight into how multicultural worship is being done today, and how it might be done in the future.
If I hear one more contemporary gospel song talk about God’s favor, I’m gonna lose it.
“Favor,” wails Karen Clark Sheard. “You will never want for anything.” “Nothing can stop the favor of The Lord,” proclaims Israel and New Breed. “It’s my time for God’s favor,” shouts Kurt Carr. “I ain’t waitin’ no more!”
Since these aren’t exactly new songs, let me offer instead an example from the world of holy hip-hop, a song called “Favor” by William “Duce” Branch, a.k.a The Ambassador (formerly of The Cross Movement), from his latest album entitled Stop the Funeral:
It wasn’t a fancy car, it wasn’t a diamond ring / it wasn’t friends or lovers at the end of the day / ‘cause we know this life’s hard, and it can bring trouble / in the midst of this trouble, no one can take it away / you need His favor, His favor, His favor, His favor
I don’t want to sound like Debbie Downer here, because the truth is, I really like each of these songs. They’re good songs. Musically and emotionally, they have been a blessing to me at various times.
But I’m concerned that by continually singing songs like these, gospel musicians might be unintentionally sending a bad message.
The truth about favor
The problem with songs like these is not that they’re not true at all, but that they contain enough truth to be dangerous. (After all, the worst lies are mixed with the truth.) So for example, I do believe that as Christians, each of us do have divine favor. We love and serve a God that is for us, and not against us. And this favor isn’t because of what we’ve done for Him, but because of what He’s done for us — specifically that He made us alive in Christ, even when we were dead in our transgressions.
But this news isn’t complete if we are not articulating more clearly and accurately the basis of God’s favor on our lives. After all, most Christians believe that God loves everyone, but I don’t think the folks who sing these songs believe such favor is universally accessible to everyone regardless of faith background or life experience. We sing these songs with the mindset that God’s favor rests exclusively on those who are … well … Christians.
In other words, God’s favor may not cost money, but it costs something. However one defines the Christian life, that’s what it supposedly costs.
The view from the outside
Unfortunately, what we on the inside see as a joyful celebration of God’s favor can appear from the outside to nonbelievers as either selfish gloating (“Favor? Why you and not me?”) or indulgent self-delusion (“Favor? Who are they kidding?”). This misunderstanding often comes because of moralistic therapeutic deism, which says, among other things, that good people go to heaven because they do good things (like going to church). So if you’re not socially accepted within your church circle, too bad. No church, no heaven, no favor.
This is clearly NOT the gospel message, but we shouldn’t be surprised when people get it twisted up. Gospel music has become so appreciated and appropriated by mainstream culture that the very term “gospel” means and connotes Black church style more than it does a message of salvation through faith in Christ.
I suppose it’s fair to say that different songs are aimed for, marketed toward, and enjoyed by different segments of people, so that a song written by and for Christians shouldn’t be evaluated by non-Christians, because that would be like an apples-to-oranges comparison.
Except that I compare apples and oranges all the time. (I like oranges better.)
And it’s also fair to say that one song should not have to serve as an overall theological representation of a particular artist, church, or organization.
But what if one song is all that gets heard?
In the marketplace of competing ideas and ideologies, we Christians can’t afford to ignore our public perception. We need to be aware of what it might look like to our nonbelieving friends on Facebook if or when the dominant themes reflected in the gospel songs we share are about a divine favor that looks and feels alien and inaccessible to those not steeped in Black church culture.
Theology from below
The truth is, God’s favor truly is open to everyone. Anyone can receive the good news and become a follower of Jesus. You don’t have to know the lyrics to “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” to get in on it. An authentic Christian life does not need to be stamped with cultural markers for divine approval.
So part of what we need is to be able to view our theology “from below” — that is, with the needs of the marginalized in mind so that we can make sure that what we’re saying actually sounds like good news to those who need it.
The bitter irony in seeing The Ambassador record a song about favor is that he operates within a cultural persona that is, in the Black church, particularly unfavorable. First, he is a hip-hop emcee, so by cultural association he is seen as loud, audacious, and overly confrontational (or borderline demonic if you ask G. Craige Lewis). Second, he has recently rebounded from an infidelity scandal that could have torpedoed his marriage and career, though thankfully both have survived.
Either way, his artistic and pastoral voice represents a growing segment of Black men who no longer feel at home in the church. So in the context of all the other songs about God’s favor that fail to address many of the social ills that afflict Black people, Amba’s song “Favor” seems like another example of a popular Black artist drinking the prosperity Kool-Aid in order to gain broader acceptance within the church.
Having listened to the rest of Stop the Funeral, I don’t really think that’s true.
But that’s how it looks.
My plea is for Christians who make music for a living to pay closer attention to the words and ideas they use, and do the best they can to be as accessible as possible to listeners of different cultural backgrounds.
Because Ambassador is right — God’s favor is a wonderful thing.
I just hope his listeners get the rest of the message.