Kenny Bishop grew up in an Evangelical home in Waco, Kentucky. As a teen, Kenny joined with his father and brother Mark to form the southern gospel group The Bishops. For the next eighteen years, The Bishops traveled the country singing at churches, concert venues, and conventions. I had the privilege of hearing The Bishops sing on several occasions, first at the Gospel Barn in Hillsdale, Michigan and then at an outdoor concert near Berea, Kentucky.
Music by The Bishops frequently wafted from our home during the 1980s and 1990s. My wife and I were raised in churches that loved southern gospel music. We’ve attended numerous southern gospel concerts, and while students at Midwestern Baptist College we attended concerts at nearby Emmanuel Baptist Church that featured The Happy Goodman Family and The Cathedral Quartet. In the late 1990s, our music tastes moved away from southern gospel as we began listening to contemporary Christian music, Christian rock, and praise and worship music. Today, I will, on occasion, listen to southern gospel music on Spotify, even though I don’t believe a word of the lyrics. There is something about the music that reaches me at an emotional level. Polly, on the other hand, prefers that the only time Christian music of any kind is played in our home is when she isn’t there. I find it interesting how each of us has a very different response to music from our past. For me, it’s not that the songs “speak” to me. I find many of songs lacking theologically and intellectually. But, there’s something about the harmonies that appeal to me. Polly? She’s definitely a secular rock aficionado. I love rock music too, but I am not willing to throw all the music away from my past. Does this mean that I am still hanging on to God and Christianity? Not at all. Music affects all of us deeply, often in ways we don’t fully understand. Southern gospel music was a part of our Christian life for over forty years. It should not surprise anyone that this music still appeals to me at some level.
Several days ago, I had a hankering for music from The Bishops. As I was listening, I thought, “I wonder where Kenny Bishop is today?” I knew he left the family group in 2001, began working for several politicians, and went through a divorce from his wife of fifteen years, but I had no idea what he was up to today. I suspected that he was still singing southern gospel music. Little did I know that Kenny had strayed far from his Fundamentalist Christian roots and was now a married gay man and a bivocational pastor at Bluegrass United Church of Christ in Lexington, Kentucky!
Talk about finding the unexpected — a liberal, gay Kenny Bishop. I definitely didn’t see that one coming. That said, I am happy for Kenny and his husband Mason. While I am no longer a Christian, I know that Christianity needs more Kenny Bishops. I have no doubt Kenny was eviscerated for his repudiation of Evangelical orthodoxy and their hatred of LGBTQ people. I know first-hand how it feels to be cut a thousand times by people who once loved you, people who were your family, friends, and colleagues in the ministry. Kenny, it seems, has risen above the anger and judgment and made a new life for himself. I wish him nothing but the best. He will remain my all-time favorite southern gospel tenor singer. And better yet, he is an example for people who still believe in God, but want to free themselves from Evangelical bondage. For people of faith, there are kinder, gentler expressions of Christianity. As Kenny Bishop’s life shows, one can still meaningfully believe in the Christian God without being Evangelical. While I can’t follow such a path, I don’t condemn others who do.
Let me conclude this post with several videos of Kenny Bishop. Enjoy!
Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.
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What follows are the lyrics for the Southern Gospel song, We Want America Back. Written by Fundamentalist Christian Jeff Steele, this song succinctly reveals how Evangelicals view the world. It’s scary to think that anyone thinks this way, let alone tens of millions of Americans. Jeff Steele is a member of The Steeles.
Something is wrong with America. She once held the Bible as her conscience and guide. But we’ve allowed those who hold nothing to be sacred, Like Sodom of old, to push morals aside. Where are the men who once stood for right? And the women who championed their cause? We must return to the values we left, Before this country we love is totally lost. We want America back. We want America back, From those who have no self-control, We want America back. This nation is like a runaway train, Headed down the wrong track, It’s time for the army of God to arise, And say we want America back.
Narrative to be used (before singing Stanza 2):
I love America. But I do not love what she has become. Scripture has said, Blessed is a Nation whose God is the Lord, and America has forgotten the Godly foundation upon which she was built… Something is wrong Our children are asked to attend public schools that in many cases resemble war zones, without even the most basic right of any soldier… the right to pray to the God of heaven. Many times a wild-eyed, drug-addicted, gun-carrying teenager is allowed to stay in school, while our Supreme Court decided to expel God from the classroom over thirty years ago. Something is wrong. Television daily bombards the senses of our nation with the idea that wrong is right, that the abnormal is normal, that the abhorrent is acceptable, and that what God calls an abomination is nothing more than an alternate lifestyle. And it’s had an effect. Thirty years ago, the number one television program in America was “The Andy Griffith Show.” Look what we have today. Something is wrong. When our government can pass out contraceptives to children is school without parental consent, and yet the Gideons can no longer pass out the Bible on campus . . . something is wrong. When our leaders can tell your children and mine that premarital sex is alright as long as it’s safe. . . yes . . . something is wrong. And I for one am ready for a change. I will say to my government, “I’m not raising dogs at my house; I’m raising children . . . created in the image and likeness of almighty God. And I’m going to teach them the Bible. If the Bible says it’s right . . . it’s right.And if the Bible says it’s wrong . . . it’s wrong.” The only hope that America has is that Godly men and women of character will stand together as one might army and declare to the immoral, the impure, the obscene and the foul, “Your days of unlimited access the minds of America are over. The army of God, that has been silent for too long, is taking America back!”
Stanza 2: We want America back. We want America back, From those who have no self-control, We want America back. This nation is like a runaway train, Headed down the wrong track, It’s time for the army of God to arise, And say we want America back. It’s time for the army of God to arise, And say we want America back!!
Here is a video of this song. It is being sung by Barbara Fairchild and her husband Roy Morris at a 2012 Patriotic Rally. Please take the time to view the video. Listen carefully to the ad libs that are added to the spoken part of the song. Still think religious beliefs are harmless?
This is the forty-fifth installment in The Sounds of Fundamentalism series. This is a series that I would like readers to help me with. If you know of a video clip that shows the crazy, cantankerous, or contradictory side of Evangelical Christianity, please send me an email with the name or link to the video. Please do not leave suggestions in the comment section. Let’s have some fun!
Today’s Sound of Fundamentalism is a clip of Looking for a City by Unknown Church Soloist. Evidently, no one had the balls to stop the song and tell the man that he was off-key…I mean REALLY off key. What’s worse is that the crowd actually clapped and said amen. Perhaps their response was to the song finally being over. It is likely that the man could actually sing the song, but the pianist started in the wrong key. I always told our musicians: it is okay to stop and start over. Even professional singers have to do this from time to time.
I am sure someone will object to the title of this post and say, Christian music is not a business, it is a ministry, it’s ALL ABOUT J-E-S-U-S! It’s a ministry when the musician is willing to go anywhere for a love offering. It is a business when they have contracts, riders, and demand a certain amount of money. For the most part, the Christian music business stopped being about Jesus a long time ago.
Years ago, I contacted the booking agent for the contemporary Christian group FFH about holding a concert at our church. I had checked their calendar and noticed that they had a few off days and would be near our church in West Unity, so I thought I would see if they were willing to come and sing at our church.
Not a chance. The booking agent told me that they had a $5,000 minimum. I was astounded by this. I thought, if I promoted the concert right we would likely take in about $2,000. Surely this would be enough money for FFH, especially since it was on a weekday. The booking agent proceeded to lecture me on the Christian music business, about how groups like FFH only have a limited window of opportunity to make their money. He then asked me how would I like to preach for just a love offering. I then got to school him about how I had spent my entire life preaching with no monetary expectation in return.
All told, I preached for 33 years. Not one time did I say to a church or to someone who wanted me to hold a meeting, I must have X amount of dollars. I never said no, and I preached more than one meeting over the years where it cost me more to drive back and forth to the meeting than I received in the love offering. This was never a problem for me, and according to some of my friends and family, I SHOULD have made money more of an issue.
I asked the booking agent for FFH to take my request to the group. He told me that he would not do this. Why? Because, he said, they would likely say Yes! If I let them, they would sing for free.
Over the years, I booked many musicians to come sing at the church I was pastoring at the time. As a result, I learned a lot about the “business” side of Christian music. I met a lot of wonderful people who were willing to come and sing for little more than a promise. As a small church pastor, I did my best to promote the concerts and the church usually supplemented the love offering to make sure the musician (s) were given a decent offering.
In the late 1990’s, I decided to use concerts as a way to promote the church. I thought if outside people attended a concert that they might be interested in our church and start attending. While the concerts did draw large crowds, not one person ever became a part of our church as a result of attending a concert.
I put on a concert at Hilltop High School in West Unity, Ohio featuring the group contemporary Christian group Sierra. I decided to sell tickets for the event, advertised it heavily, and sold 400 tickets, at 8.00 a piece. Sierra charged us $4,000 plus expenses to come sing for us. All told, the church lost $2,000.00 on the concert.
Another time, I put on a Southern Gospel concert at Hilltop Middle School, featuring The Sojourners Quartet from Kentucky and a local group called The Overcomer’s. This concert was well attended by what I call the blue-hair crowd. They loved the concert so much that their love worked out to about $2.00 a head when the $400 love offering was counted. Again, the church lost a substantial amount of money. I quickly learned that elderly people were of the ‘not a bad show for a buck’ giving mindset.
I pastored Grace Baptist Church, renamed Our Father’s House, in West Unity for seven years. In addition to the above concerts, the following Christian groups came to our church to sing:
The Mast Brothers, a southern gospel group, were the easiest to work with and Annie Herring, by far, was the hardest. When Herring came to our church, it was quite evident that she was put out at having to sing at such a small venue, even though there were more than a hundred people crowded into our little storefront church. David Meece? Eclectic, strange, and he borrowed a Bible of mine and permanently highlighted and underlined verses in it. He didn’t ask me if he could do this, and had he asked me I would have said no. As a result, I had to buy a new Bible.
I pastored Somerset Baptist Church in SE Ohio for 11 years. During this time, a number of southern gospel groups came to the church and sang. One group, The Songsmen Quartet, a local group from the Lancaster area, was a church favorite, holding at least one concert a year for many years. The group broke up (and may have later started up with different people) after two of the group members got friendly with each other and committed adultery.
My favorite concert while at Somerset Baptist Church took place in the mid-1980’s when Robbie Hiner came to sing for us. At the time, Hiner worked for Jerry Falwell at Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia. Hiner was a regular on Falwell’s nationwide TV program, The Old Time Gospel Hour.
Several hundred people from all over SE Ohio, came to hear Hiner sing. The building was packed. Hiner made no demands or requests, sat down at our old, beat up church piano, and just started singing. In between songs, he shared funny stories, and from start to finish, this was the best Christian concert I ever attended. After the concert, Hiner hopped into his car, I believe it was an old, high mile Mercedes, and drove on down the road.
There is a certain group of Christians I call diesel sniffers. These kind of people don’t support a local church, and they travel from church to church listening to their favorite Christian singing groups. They throw a few dollars in the plate and walk out the door of the church blessed! They subscribe to the Singing News so they can find out when their favorite groups with be near where they live. These kind of people wouldn’t walk across the street to share their faith, but they would drive two hours to hear their favorite quartet sing.
There is a lot of fakery in the Christian music business. I suppose this inevitable due to the fact that they travel from church to church, venue to venue. They develop a routine, a shtick. Where they get into trouble is when their routine or shtick extends to their spirituality or their emotional responses. Years ago, I went with a church member to hear The McKamey’s sing. There was one song where one of the female singers kicked off her shoes and had an emotional, supposedly spiritual, outburst. I thought, God just touched her heart. A week later, the church member and I heard The McKamey’s again at a huge gospel sing. Same song, and at the exact same point in the song, the female singer kicked off her shoes and had an emotional, supposedly spiritual, outburst. The woman wasn’t being “blessed.” Her display was rehearsed and meant to elicit an emotional response from the audience. Reason? Stirred emotions lead to open wallets. I saw this kind of rehearsed, fake, insincere, emotional manipulation countless times at southern gospel, contemporary Christian, and Christian rock concerts. They used the same tactics and manipulations that I did as a pastor. Sincere? Perhaps, but it is still emotional manipulation and it often results in people doing things they wouldn’t normally do, things like giving large sums of money, running the aisles. going to the altar, etc.
Over the years, I talked to several people who were Christian music industry insiders. One man traveled for a time with The Kingsmen Quartet. He told me that I would be shocked if I knew what really went on behind the scenes at southern gospel concerts; from musicians getting liquored up before taking the stage, to Christian groupies willing to bed their favorite gospel singer. These concerts are so man-centered, hey look at me, I am singing for Jesus, that it should come as no surprise that people got caught up in all kinds of illicit behavior. In other words, they were human.
Late into my time as a pastor and as a Christian, I realized that Christian concerts were entertainment. As much as the musicians tried to sell me on their music being a ministry, I realized it was just religious oriented entertainment, no different from the Darius Rucker concert Polly and I attended last year. Once I came to this conclusion, I was free to just sit back and enjoy!
Someone is going to ask who my favorite Christian groups were/are. Here is my Top Eleven List:
and Steve Camp before he turned into a first-rate, blowhard, asshole Calvinist.
This list, BTW, is a great way to view my path through Christianity, from fundamentalism to the questions and doubts of musicians like Derrick Webb. I still listen to Christian music from time to time. I don’t believe a word of it, but I do enjoy it, a relic from my past. Polly? Won’t touch the stuff…hates it! I usually wait until she is at work to play it.