After “American Idol” finalist Kris Allen first stepped onto the stage of the Fox singing competition, the 23-year-old college student later confided in his pastor that feeling the warm stage lights and seeing the eager audience looking up at him reminded him of only one thing: going to church.
Two weeks into the finals, and religion is playing a big role for Allen and many other singers this season on the popular show. More than half of the remaining 11 finalists have regularly performed at places of worship. Three of those six contestants — including Allen — have worked as worship leaders at their respective churches back home.
“Kristopher was in a position where he was singing on a weekly basis in front of a large number of people,” said Brandon Shatswell, executive worship pastor at the New Life Church in Allen’s hometown of Conway, Ark. “I had him learning new songs quickly, things that he might not readily choose for himself, so I do think working here helped him be more comfortable in the competition.”
Not only has regularly performing in churches prepared many singers for the big “Idol” stage, religion may also be providing some contestants with a built-in voting bloc. Joanne Brokaw, who blogs about “Idol” and Christian music at BeliefNet.com, believes many Christian viewers have been rallying for this season’s Christian contestants.
“I think Christian music fans really like to get behind the Christian contestants,” says Brokaw, who has been writing about the eighth season on the Gospel Soundcheck blog. “It starts before the top 12 with individual churches. I think word spreads, and there’s chatter on the Internet. I think it really says something about the viewership of ‘American Idol.”’
At its core, “Idol” is a singing contest, but finalists’ popularity has always seemed to play a big role in who moves forward. This season’s most prominent Christian contestant has been Danny Gokey, the bespectacled recent widower who has worked for eight years at Faith Builders International in Milwaukee and at its sister congregation in Beloit, Wis.
Gokey’s pastor, Jeff Pruitt, says the 28-year-old church music director’s faith — as much as his talent — has propelled him to succeed in the competition after his wife died four weeks before he auditioned for the show in Kansas City, Mo. Pruitt says how far the husky voiced singer goes in the competition isn’t really up to the viewers.
“Honestly, we believe it’s in God’s hands, and that God is in control of all of our lives,” Pruitt says. “Danny is in a place in his life that he is trusting the Lord with everything that’s placed in front of him because he never dreamed any of these things — good or bad — would happen. He prays. He says, ‘Lord, I will go as far as you want me to go.”’
A modified weekday service at Faith Builders International includes tuning into “Idol” after prayer. Pruitt says he’s been encouraging the congregation to vote for Gokey to keep him in the competition.
Like Allen and Gokey, many contestants throughout the past seven seasons of “Idol” have been Christian and either overtly or subtly showcased their faith. Several finalists, including second season winner Ruben Studdard, have gone on to release gospel music albums. Brokaw believes the increased emergence is part of the evolution of Christian music.
“Look at Jordin Sparks, the Jonas Brothers and Flyleaf, who’ve blown up in the mainstream,” she says. “I think the fact that the line between Christian music and the mainstream is becoming more blurred makes it OK for people who are involved in worship to audition for a show like this and not feel like they are selling out or will be criticized.”
Christian music itself sporadically finds its way into the show. Besides countless renditions of “Amazing Grace,” a few hopefuls, such as this season’s Nathaniel Marshall, have auditioned with evangelical Christian tunes. Fifth season finalist Mandisa Hundley sang “Shackles (Praise You)” by Christian duo Mary Mary during the seventh week of competition.
The involvement isn’t limited to crooners. The winners of the first “Idol” songwriting contest were Christian music singer-songwriter Scott Krippayne and his pastor, Jeff Peabody. Their winning ditty, the non-denominational ballad “This Is My Now,” was selected by viewer votes and performed by Blake Lewis and Jordin Sparks during the sixth season finale.
Possibly the largest demonstration of Christian faith occurred during last season’s “Idol Gives Back” fundraiser when the top eight finalists sang Darlene Zschech’s “Shout to the Lord.” The performance left some viewers miffed because the phrase “my Jesus” in the lyrics was replaced with “my shepherd” when the tune was first performed by the contestants.
Despite a prevalence of Christian contestants, “Idol” has not become a religious experience in the vein of “Gospel Dream,” the Gospel Music Channel’s “Idol”-like competition. Allen, for example, has spent all his screentime singing Jackson 5 and Michael Jackson tunes. Unlike Gokey, he’s not mentioned his religious background on the show.
Shatswell, who first met Allen during a church mission trip to Spain and has known him for about five years, says he understands the moral balance Allen must strike on “Idol,” especially after Paula Abdul gushed last week that Allen was “adorable/sexy,” and Simon Cowell teased the smiley newlywed for introducing “the wife” so early in the competition.
“I know he’s a good-looking guy,” says Shatswell. “Obviously, I was aware people were going to notice that — and they have. If it gains him votes and favor, then I’m all for it.”