A History of the Global Consultation on Arts and Music in Missions

by George H. McDow, PhD, President, GCAMM Executive Board

The Global Consultation on Arts and Music in Missions (GCAMM – formerly GCoMM) was not birthed through the effort of any single individual.  Its initiation was prompted by God’s Spirit through a consensus of several music/arts specialists.  Its roots can be traced to a number of sources.  The idea of a meeting for music missionaries and others involved in sharing the Gospel cross-culturally through the arts was a long-term dream of T. W. Hunt, professor of church music at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS).  He began teaching courses on music and missions at SWBTS in 1967 and was a mentor to music missionaries around the world. On various occasions the ethnomusicology department of the Summer Institute of Linguistics International (SIL) also invited musicians to gather at their headquarters in Dallas, Texas.  An annual retreat for missionary musicians was held in Nashville, Tennessee, for several years.  In the mid-1990s the AD 2000 Movement organized a global network focused on worship and the arts, appointing Frank Fortunato, International Music Coordinator with Operation Mobilization (OM), and Byron Spradlin, president of Artists in Christian Testimony (ACT), to lead this effort.

The more recent impetus for creating GCAMM began at Urbana 2000, a missions conference for university students.  Spradlin rented a booth through ACT and invited other ministries involved in missions and the arts to share the space and expense.  Seven groups and individuals joined him.  Nearly 1,000 delegates registered at this booth, many of them realizing for the first time that they could use their artistic skills in the missionary endeavor.  Building on this interest among so many young people, Fortunato invited any arts-related exhibitors at the various Urbana booths to an impromptu breakfast.  The initial focus of the breakfast outside of the opportunity for fellowship was to discuss the next step for the International Worship and Arts Network since the AD 2000 movement was being phased out.  Among those present at the meeting were John Benham, John Bowers, Frank Fortunato, Roberta King, David Lanning, Ron Man, George McDow, Paul Neeley, Byron Spradlin, Paul Warnock, Steven Whang, and Jolene Wilson.  The attendees encouraged Fortunato to continue his “Global Worship Report,” an email newsletter, and also expressed a desire to organize a conference focused on missions and the arts.

Over the next few months, several people from the Urbana meeting continued to discuss the possibility of holding a specialized conference.  One such conversation occurred in February 2001, when Spradlin and McDow, a music consultant then working in Asia, met in Nashville to talk about cooperating on some overseas projects.  During that week they connected by phone with Fortunato and all three reaffirmed their interest in organizing a gathering.  In late spring of that same year, McDow met in Fort Worth with Tom Avery, International Ethnomusicology Coordinator for SIL, and Stan Moore, then the Chair of Church Music at SWBTS, both former music missionaries to Brazil.  Avery and Moore had been discussing such a meeting for over a decade and felt that SWBTS, with the support of SIL, could host a conference.  Within a few months they had begun to gather a planning committee.  The name “Global Consultation on Music and Missions” was chosen, and John Piper, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, was engaged as the keynote speaker with Harold Best, then Dean of the Wheaton College Conservatory of Music, as the conference moderator.  On September 15–18, 2003, the Fort Worth campus of SWBTS hosted the first consultation, with over 300 people attending from more than twenty countries.  Times of corporate worship were led by Chuck Steddom, worship pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minneapolis; Chris Hale and his band Aradhna, an Indian style worship ensemble; and Izibongo, an international worship team organized by Avery.  Other plenary speakers included Richard Twiss, president of Wiconi International; Colin Harbinson, YWAM; Roberta King, Fuller Seminary; and Dick Eastman, president of Every Home for Christ.

The results of GCoMM 2003 were overwhelming.  Many of the participants regarded it an “event of a lifetime” with outstanding plenary sessions and seminars.  Many also shared that the highlight of the event was the opportunity to interact with the attendees, thrilled to finally meet people with whom they had only corresponded.  As one person said, “I felt like I had found a huge ‘family’ that I never knew I had—I share so much in common with these brothers and sisters in the Lord!  It was a tremendously empowering experience to fellowship and worship with so many people who are passionate about using music and other arts in missions.”  During this first GCoMM the International Council of Ethnodoxologists (ICE), a worldwide network for people involved in various global arts ministries and educational endeavors, was launched, and three influencers in the field of music and missions were given Distinguished Service Awards: Harold Best, who through his position at Wheaton and his writings was a great influencer to missionaries who used the arts in their work; Vida Chenowith, retired professor of ethnomusicology at Wheaton College Conservatory of Music; and T. W. Hunt, former professor of music and missions at SWBTS and author of the book Music in Missions: Discipling Through Music.  By 2004 committees were being formed to initiate another GCoMM.  The executive board accepted an invitation from Benham’s Music in World Cultures organization to host the event on July 11–15, 2006, at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Under the leadership of Fortunato as the planning committee chair and logistical coordinator Benham who was assisted by Robin and Bill Harris, cross-cultural workers in Siberia (now with Dallas International University), GCoMM 2006 brought together some 250 participants from more than thirty nations.  The opening procession was unique in that the typical parade of national flags was replaced with a parade of national instruments, which were then placed at the front of the stage as offerings of praise from musicians around the globe.  Plenary speakers included I-to Loh from Taiwan and a house-church music leader from mainland China.  Both of these presenters touched on themes related to suffering and how God uses music to strengthen His people. Brazilian musician, author, and pastor Atilano Muradas spoke about how Brazilian Christians express their faith with high-quality performances during annual Carnaval events.  Ron Man, a respected theologian with Greater Europe Mission, and Steve Fry, a well-known pastor and worship leader from Franklin, Tennessee, provided outstanding and comprehensive Biblical studies.  Three panels, led by Spradlin; Tom Ferguson, International Mission Board missionary; and Brian Schrag of SIL dealt with current issues in music and missions. Avery and Fuller Seminary’s Roberta King delivered additional thrilling plenary addresses.  Izibongo and Aradhna again led multicultural worship sessions using indigenous hymns in a variety of languages, and John Witvliet along with organist Randall Engle of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship touched the hearts of the participants with a powerful liturgical worship service.  Fortunato and Jean Kidula, a native of Kenya and an ethnomusicology professor at the University of Georgia, served as moderators throughout the conference, with a memorable open mic night which allowed attendees to showcase their local Christian musics. Distinguished Service awards were given to I-to Loh for his work with indigenous hymnody and Mary Oyer, a long-time Mennonite hymn and song specialist and influencer among music missionaries.

After GCoMM 2006 the executive board filed for and obtained corporate status in the state of Texas (2007) and nonprofit charitable status with the IRS (2009).  While pursuing these organizational goals, the board also decided to hold the next event outside of North America selecting Singapore as the first overseas venue.  Joseph Lee, worship pastor at Bartley Christian Church, was the organizer, and both Bartley and Singapore Bible College served as sponsors and venues.  On July 4–7, 2010, over 300 registrants attended, with approximately 1,000 present at some of the open evening sessions.  Christian singer and songwriter Michael Card was the keynote speaker/performer with numerous artistic groups from throughout Asia sharing their ministries with the delegates.  Other plenary speakers included Stan Moore, president of the GCoMM executive board; Landa Cope from YWAM; and Tony Yeo, a pastor in Singapore. Ron Man again presented excellent sessions on the Biblical foundations of worship. Many delegates enjoyed the breakout track on dance and worship. Izibongo, the Tehillim School of Church Music and Worship from Pakistan, and Kaloob from the Philippines were some of the groups who led cross-cultural worship.  Lee oversaw all of the plenary sessions as moderator providing some unique and memorable announcements from the piano.  Distinguished Service Awards were presented to Allan and Joan Eubank, longtime missionaries to Thailand who founded a troupe that shares Biblical stories and truths through traditional Thai drama, dance, and music and Tom Avery, one of the founders of GCoMM and International Ethnomusicology Coordinator for SIL, who received his recognition posthumously.  One long-term effect of GCoMM 2010 was the opening of the hearts of Bartley Christian Church members to multicultural ministries, which led to the doubling of their local work among various language groups from three to six.  Lee relates that after these ministries were established, he met a smiling, lower-caste Indian worker who was attending one of the new worship services.  Lee asked the man why he was so happy.  The man replied that he knew that he was in a place where he was loved.

In 2015 the fourth GCoMM was held in Chiang Mai, Thailand, from July 6 to 9.  Payap University and the Christian Communications Institute (CCI), the indigenous drama troupe founded by the Eubanks, helped organize the event along with Southeast Asia Marketing (SAM), a conference logistical firm based in Chiang Mai. McDow served as planning committee chair aided by locals Nittaya Chang and Anewsawn Panyafoo.  Ann Zaki, a professor at the Evangelical Presbyterian Seminary in Cairo, Egypt, and Samuel Chiang, then executive director of the International Orality Network based in Hong Kong, were keynote speakers.  Spradlin gave a most impressive plenary presentation on the importance of the arts in sharing the Good News and discipling believers.  Sugar Yontararak, a well-known Thai actress whose husband Nat is an internationally acclaimed Thai concert pianist, served as moderator with Fortunato making the all-important announcements.  For the first time all the plenary sessions were video recorded professionally by Freedom Films Productions, headed by Tom Silkwood, who commented at the end of the event that he had never felt so close to Heaven before.

Several Thai Christian leaders, designated as “Thai Heroes” by the planning committee, participated in the program and explained how the arts were being used in local Christian endeavors.  Students from Campus Crusade for Christ Thailand served as ushers.  Worship sessions were led by Izibongo, faculty and students of Singapore Bible College, and two Thai worship bands, Crossover and Mercy Note.  Of particular interest was the Tuesday evening plenary session which featured Karen worship leader Suwichan Phatthanapraiwan, several tribal choirs, and a CCI traditional Thai drama about the Good Samaritan.  Firsts at this event included ten-minute talks by several delegates describing their ministries and an exhibit by Thai Christian visual artists.  One artist, Pan Piawong, even created a painting during worship times which along with paintings donated by all the other artists were sold in a silent auction to benefit scholarship funds for the next GCoMM.  Distinguished Service Awards were presented to Soonthorn Soonthorntrawong for his use of music in prison ministry and to Sugar Yontararak and her husband, Nat, for their Christian influence around the world using their gifts in the arts. This GCoMM ended with a celebration of communion that included a video of an Assyrian Christian singing praises to God just one mile from the ISIS battle lines.  The final count of delegates showed that some forty countries and all continents except Antarctica were represented by the over 200 attendees.

On August 6–9, 2018, the fifth GCoMM was held at the Brackenhurst Conference Center outside of Nairobi, Kenya.  The delegates felt the atmosphere of this location in the mountains of Kenya was most restful and conducive to the meeting.  Julisa Rowe, assisted by Rachel Kostma, chaired the planning committee, which included many Christian leaders from the area.  Moderators for the meeting were Frank Koine from Mamlaka Hill Chapel and Pinto Kali of Nairobi Baptist Church.  The three plenary speakers included Calisto Odede, pastor of Nairobi Baptist Church; Jean Kidula, as mentioned earlier a Kenya native and ethnomusicologist at the University of Georgia; and Donald K. Smith, long-time missionary in Kenya and currently working for Creating Understanding Ministries.  Artists who shared during the plenary sessions were Susanna Harrington, a dancer with Natya East who concentrates on traditional Indian choreography; Reuben Kigame, a blind Christian artist who founded Kigame Media and is considered the father of gospel music in Kenya; and Hellen Mtawali, famous Kenyan vocal music performer associated with Afrizo and Daystar University.  Worship was led by Izibongo and a number of local worship teams including a group of Maasai Christians from Tanzania.  Other features of the 2018 conference included another art exhibit by local Christian painters and sculptors which was placed outside on the grounds of the conference center and ten-minute presentations by delegates renamed Arts in Action.  A new aspect was the inclusion of improvised summaries of sessions by a troupe of local actors to help the attendees process what had been shared.  Distinguished Service Awards were given to Kigame for his lifetime of promoting Christian music in Kenya; Faye Smith who co-founded Daystar University and taught music for many decades throughout Sub-Saharan Africa; and Roberta King, long-time music missionary to Kenya and currently professor at Fuller Seminary.

A special trip was offered to the delegates by the Kenyan government to see the national finals of the Kenya Schools Music Festival.  Those who took advantage of this trip were impressed by the number and quality of performances given by these students in both indigenous and western genre.  Most moving to the delegates was the incident concerning the Tanzanian Maasai.  During the first day of GCoMM, delegates learned that the contingent of some dozen Maasai traveling to the conference from Tanzania was being held up at the border due to political strife over the murder of a Kenyan by a Tanzanian.  The GCoMM delegates took time during their noon lunch to offer up prayers for the safe travel of these Christian brothers and sisters.  Through God’s providence, the Kenyan government officials provided an escort so that these tribal members arrived two hours early enabling them to lead worship that evening.

After GCoMM 2018 the executive board decided to bring the event back to the United States.  Dallas Baptist University was chosen as the venue with the dates set for July 20-23, 2020.  Stan Moore, president of the GCoMM executive board, is serving as the chair of the planning committee, and subcommittees are currently being formed with work already proceeding on the program.  Anyone interested in missions and the arts should plan now to attend this mind-blowing event.  Everyone is encouraged to check gcommhome.org on a regular basis to be up to date on information about GCoMM 2020.