Keeping it a cappella
MADISON, Tenn. —Yes, Keith Lancaster knows about the decline of…
In 1982, Keith Lancaster formed the Acappella singing group in his hometown of Paris, Tenn., to help spread the Gospel through the music of the human voice.
Just over four decades later, Acappella has expanded into a global ministry that includes multiple singing groups but has stayed true to its mission of a cappella music, singing without instruments.
Before the Acappella group recently set off on its 40th anniversary tour, Keith and his son, Anthony, sat down with host B.T. Irwin for an interview on The Christian Chronicle Podcast.
This interview is edited for length and clarity.
B.T.: What’s the origin story (of Acappella)?
Keith: When I was in Bible college, my intentions were to become a pulpit minister or a youth minister because back in that day, in the
’70s, I’d never heard of a worship music minister in Churches of Christ.
So the first semester I was at Bible college, they asked, “Who wants to be a part of a traveling quartet to recruit for the Bible college and travel the United States?” And I auditioned, and I said, “This is great.” I got to be the music director and put a contemporary twist on the arrangements and the songs.
The college group back in the ’70s was kind of the predecessor to Acappella. And in 1982 we decided to launch a full-time singing group, Acappella — again, something very new to Churches of Christ — a full-time, traveling, singing group.
B.T.: Did you set out to change the style of music in our congregations? Or did you notice that you were having an influence? What do you think was happening there as your popularity grew?
Keith: Well, we were singing songs that were on Christian radio … some of these wonderful songs that we were arranging to fit our style. And so we were in a metamorphosis stage from just a straight quartet, like the quartets that you heard growing up.
And we were saying, “Let’s go more contemporary and contemporary Christian and contemporary worship.” But the major transition for Acappella came about 1988.
There was a whole worship movement across the board, where people, even in the CCM (contemporary Christan music) market, were saying, “Let’s focus on worship,” and it hasn’t stopped.
Related: Keeping it a cappella
B.T.: Talk about the evolution then of what started as Acappella the group to more of a multifaceted ministry.
Keith: In 1985, the group became a duet. We had lost some singers. And we said, “Are we going to pack it up, or are going to keep going?”
So we started using vocal tracks. After doing that for a while, we said, “We need some singers on stage with us to fill in the gaps.” And that’s how AVB (Acappella Vocal Band) started in 1986 … and they did more of the old-timey quartet sound.
But it wasn’t long until we changed their style to be more upbeat to reach the young people. And so we spun them off, and they became their own entity, and all the youth rallies were asking for AVB. And then later we started the Vocal Union, which is still more of a Southern gospel group.
So we started other groups, and we started a music seminar to help people train. We would host an annual song fest — we called it Acappella Christian Music Seminar for a while. And that’s how it kind of morphed into singing cruises and mission trips around the world.
Perhaps our most important work now is working with congregations to convince everyone that everyone’s voice is important — even if they’re tone deaf and musically illiterate, God loves their voice equally to the rest of us.
“Everyone’s voice is important — even if they’re tone deaf and musically illiterate, God loves their voice equally to the rest of us.”
And so we traveled the country trying to convince people that everyone should participate and everybody needs to sing.
I think the best part of our fellowship is our a cappella singing. And we’re going to lose it in future generations unless we invest in training and teaching and emphasizing it, and so we started Praise and Harmony, and that’s what people see on YouTube.
Anthony: And we started ReGen Harmony as a spin off of Praise and Harmony, and that’s a more youth-oriented worship project. We’ve got a lot of mashups, a lot of contemporary songs that we mashup together or even mashup within themselves.
B.T.: I don’t know your story as well, Anthony. Was it always going to be music? Was it always going to be your ministry?
Anthony: I’ve always loved the ministry, obviously, and grown up with it.
When my dad started at Madison, and to see how he invested that same energy into a group that is not necessarily professional singers, but to say, “Hey, we want to dignify the voice of the congregation.
“We want to dignify the body to bring an offering before the Lord and say, ‘The Lord wants to hear you.’” That was impactful for me to see that.
Keith: Anthony went to Oklahoma Christian, and he got his Bible degree there. And so that’s influenced his writing to have a depth.
So many songs can be shallow spiritually or theologically, but Anthony writes — that’s why I’m so proud of you on the songs that you’re writing for Acappella, and for ReGen harmony and for what we’re doing. I believe we gain a lot of our theology by the songs we sing over and over and over again.
B.T.: Around the late ’90s, early 2000s, when I was in Christian college, more of my friends started to listen to contemporary Christian music, and then groups like Hillsong really started to become popular, so we started seeing a lot of those songs in our worship assemblies.
And then eventually, I started to notice more congregations bringing instruments for youth services and things like that. How have those trends affected us as a Church of Christ community — our ability to sing and worship and make harmony together?
“The trend that bothers me the most is the churches that are wanting to have a polished presentation at the front on the stage. I would much rather be participatory, where everyone (is singing).”
Keith: The trend that bothers me the most is the churches that are wanting to have a polished presentation at the front on the stage. I would much rather be participatory, where everyone (is singing). Our mission with Praise and Harmony is everyone’s voice is important.
Everyone in the church should be the choir. And if you just put all the focus on the people on the front, it marginalizes the congregation, who should be seeing themselves as the royal priesthood, the holy nation, the chosen people — it’s everyone’s voice.
And that’s what Anthony is doing with ReGen harmony.
B.T.: I remember sitting next to my dad and listening to him sing bass as a kid. And so eventually I started looking at the notes, and I’d imitate him. And it’s part of our heritage. So the question is, where’s this going? Because there seems to be a trend — we seem to be losing some of that.
Keith: Because we’re not emphasizing it.
I know of churches where no one reads music, but they have soprano, alto, tenor, bass — because it’s by ear. They’ve passed it on.
We’re not passing it on. And that’s why we started ReGen Harmony and we’ve got Praise and Harmony and we have that app.
You ask, “How can we turn this around?” We have some wonderfully trained pulpit ministers. And I’m thankful for that.
When churches are looking for new preacher, they’ll put a committee together, saying, “We want somebody who’s been to college, and the more degrees the better and experience.”
And then we allow anybody — anybody — to get up and lead the singing. And I’m thinking the worship is just as important as anything else.
And so that’s why we started week-long training for worship leaders, song leaders. It’s one week every summer. It’s called the Worship Leader Institute, and it is a graduate level bootcamp for song leaders.
“When churches are looking for new preacher, they’ll put a committee together, saying, ‘We want somebody who’s been to college. …’ And then we allow anybody — anybody — to get up and lead the singing.”
B.T.: You’ve got a tour launching. It’s in progress right now, and you’ve got a new album out.
Anthony: The album is named “Acappella 40.” And that was a deliberate choice not just because it’s been 40 years but the numerology of 40 in the Bible about the completion of a cycle.
This is an important year for Acappella because we’ve reassembled … after more than a decade since our last recording to produce some new music.
Keith: What’s unique — in the past, an Acappella album would be four different singers, whatever made up the group at the time. But with this album, we went over 40 years and said, “Hey, let’s use singers from (different eras).”
So almost every song has a different lead singer and different combinations. And so that’s what’s exciting. And that spills over to the tour, where instead of having just four guys, we have 10 singers plus some guest singers, and so it’s a great way to celebrate 40 years.
Subscribe today to receive more inspiring articles like this one delivered straight to your inbox twice a month.
Your donation helps us not only keep our quality of journalism high, but helps us continue to reach more people in the Churches of Christ community.