The Gaithers' 2003 Praise Gathering was not what I expected. The first surprise was the radical ecumenism of sound. As it turns out, the Gathering's five-hour evening concerts are not praise-chorus extravaganzas. Nor are they Southern gospel hymn fests. Those stereotypes were laid to rest in the first 15 minutes as a rocking swing band called Denver and the Mile High Orchestra took the stage with a unique compliment of horns and electric guitars.

This was an arts festival. There was Southern gospel, but there was also just about everything else. The vocal harmonies of a college glee club (Voices of Lee) were still hanging in the air as squeals of feedback announced the presence of Latin rockers El Trio de Hoy. A 20-minute classical ballet was sandwiched between a bluegrass group and a powerhouse performance by pop star Natalie Grant. If you didn't like the formal liturgical stylings of Christ Church choir, well then how about the hip-hop groove of Out of Eden?

There was something for everybody but, more to the point, there was everything for everybody.

"If we don't make musical schizophrenics out of you, we haven't done our job," Gaither announced. He told me privately that he began these events 29 years ago because a lot of gospel fans—people who liked his music—needed to have their horizons expanded. It struck me that this original goal was now sometimes being fulfilled in reverse: the Praise Gathering introduces fans of Christian pop to samples of the gospel music with which Gaither himself remains best associated.

Still, what impressed me most about the Praise Gathering required a moment's reflection. We had no program for the event, no advance list of performers for any of the nights. Few people seemed to know that CCM ...

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