What do music icons John Legend, M.C. Hammer and Babyface all have in common? They were all brought up in the strong musical tradition of the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World (PAW), an organization that, according to a spokesperson, has not often promoted its "longstanding legacy of musical greatness."
Timothy Moore, a spokesperson for the denomination, told The Christian Post earlier this week that relatively few people know about the Pentecostal roots of some of their favorite musical artists. John "Legend" Stephens, for example, got his start in El Bethel Temple in Springfield, Ohio, while Stanley Burrell – a.k.a M.C. Hammer – attended Christ Temple Community Church in Menlo Park, Calif., and Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds attended Grace Apostolic Church in Indianapolis.
The denomination isn't just the launchpad for the careers of popular secular artists either. It has also seen the rise of gospel artists like Marvin Sapp, Fred Hammond, Dietrick Haddon, Jonathan Nelson, Anthony "Tonex" Williams, Byron Cage and more.
PAW also boasts the oldest black-owned gospel music label in the U.S., Tyscot Records, which was founded by Leonard Scott and Craig Tyson in 1976 as a way to record a local church choir project. Tyson once served as the accompanist for the PAW national choir.
W. James Abbington, an author, musician, choir director and clinician, says the high value placed on music in PAW churches is likely a major factor in creating such a strong pool of musical talent within the denomination.
"They were churches where music was such a central and key role to how they worshipped. Unlike liturgical churches, where they are more based around prescribed text or fixed forms of worship, the spontaneity, the freedom of expression, the [impromptu] nature of the music and worship kind of gets into the blood and gets into the DNA of these people growing up as children," Abbington said in an interview with CP on Thursday.
He added, "They hear the sounds, they hear the beats, they hear the singing of the saints, they understand the type of worship. It literally forms who they are spiritually. It forms who they are just as human beings, and I think growing up in that kind of strong tradition ... it just becomes a part of the DNA of who they are."
Abbington is currently working on the second volume of his book, Readings in African American Church Music and Worship, which was published by GIA Publications in 2002. He is also working on another book, currently under the working title of I Will Make the Darkness Light, which focuses on pioneering black Holiness and Pentecostal hymn writers.
"People generally don't think of the Holiness church or the Pentecostal church, early holiness churches, as being hymn-singing churches, but that certainly is not true. And the book will look at some of those pioneers from the original five holiness/pentecostal/black groups," said Abbington.
Prior to the 1970s, Abbington says, the Pentecostal and Holiness denominations were considered secondary to the mainline Methodist and Baptist denominations. Also, publishers rarely gave the works of black hymn writers much attention, so works created by African Americans from the Pentecostal tradition were often self-published and as such are not as well-known as other hymns.
Today, however, music is thriving within the PAW, and it even has its place in the sermons that are preached within the denomination's churches.
"In many cases even the sermons have erupted into song," said Abbington. "Songs become sermons, sermons become songs. The whole idea of the chanted sermon ... the style of preaching that kind of has this almost singing intonation is just very musical in all of its aspects. It's a singing tradition."
Abbington hopes that the denomination's musical roots would be more than just history, but they would truly be a part of the contemporary life of the church today. Quoting an African dictum he believes sums up worship in the Pentecostal church, Abbington said, "Where there is no music, the Spirit will not come."
PAW's annual international Summer Convention is being held in New Orleans this week. The event is scheduled to conclude on Saturday.