Mr. Boone now finds himself presiding over a small empire of young gospel talent, including Ms. Babineaux, Mr. Gavin, C West and also Casey J, the most established star of the group, who in February won the Stellar Award — gospel music’s Grammy — for new artist of the year with her debut album, “The Truth.”
Mr. Boone’s approach is a disruption of familiar gospel music practices in several ways beyond his embrace of the Internet as a tool of discovery and retransmission. “In the gospel industry, everybody’s connected. Usually people are introduced by someone who’s already famous,” said Hasan Jones, editor in chief of Root, a magazine aimed at younger, forward-looking gospel fans. “Bri’s not connected, though. That’s just old-school artist development at work.”
Not connected to the gospel establishment, that is. Elsewhere, she’s fine. Ms. Babineaux has 428,000 followers on Instagram, including Rihanna. Drake, Ms. Babineaux said, “DM’d me letting me know how my music has been blessing him.” For Ms. Babineaux — and, Mr. Boone hopes, his other artists — social media helps collapse the walls that typically surround the cloistered world of church music, activating a new audience in the process. “A lot of her followers are not church people, not saved,” he said.
Sacred and secular music have long overlapped; plenty of musicians have moved in both worlds. Some, like the duo Mary Mary, have found success in both at the same time. But to some, the commingling of those worlds is a provocation — take the recent controversy around Kirk Franklin’s collaboration with Kanye West.
And Mr. Boone understands that. On the cover of “Keys to My Heart,” Ms. Babineaux is dressed in an outfit inspired by Janelle Monáe. “I intentionally did it to cause conversation,” he said.
The album spent two weeks atop the Billboard gospel album chart, and to date has sold about 10,000 copies, a modest number but one in keeping with other hit gospel albums. “Her sales outdistanced what her airplay position was,” said Jim Asker, who oversees the gospel charts for Billboard. “It seems like that’s attributable to social media and the attention she was getting elsewhere.”
Ms. Babineaux had been posting videos of cover songs to Instagram for a few months when Mr. Boone contacted her, but she had no intention of becoming a professional singer. The same was true of Casey J, an elementary schoolteacher who Mr. Boone met in 2014 and immediately pursued after she worked as a worship leader in his church.
“We do the same things for 50 years,” Casey J said about the gospel industry. “Longevity is going to go to those who can change.”
“In the secular world, they test a single first, but even the gospel majors don’t do that,” Mr. Boone said. “So we took $2,500, did a single on Casey, no album in sight, didn’t know what was gonna be next. Six months later she was No. 1.”
To distribute Casey J’s debut, Mr. Boone eschewed the gospel major labels in favor of Tyscot, a black-owned independent in Indianapolis with a four-decade history and a conservative roster: “I thought, ‘Which one could I shine at the most?’” He also partnered with Tyscot for Ms. Babineaux’s album, but has yet to sign a long-term distribution arrangement for his label as a whole.
Mr. Boone’s unconventional background keeps him nimble. He’s still a pastor, and also operates a publishing house, through which he published his own books and others. He became involved with music a few years ago when he began providing spiritual advice — one-on-one ministry — for secular music celebrities.
“I’m called to both worlds,” he said. “If Christ was here, he’d be ministering to everybody.” (Several years ago, Mr. Bieber and his mother briefly attended Mr. Boone’s Atlanta church before Mr. Bieber released his first album.) Mr. Boone also bemoans that gospel stars are often held to higher standards, in terms of their behavior. “Christ was not into perfection, he was into people that were flawed,” he said. “I tell my artists, it’s your story that sells the music.”
A few hours before the All Nations concert, Ms. Babineaux was interviewed on WEUP 1700 AM, the local gospel station, where the host, Steve Murry, praised her for “bringing young people to the Lord, ‘cause that’s really, really important, ‘cause this world is in a heck of a mess.” In an indication of how broad her fan base is, she was then brought to the other side of the small building to be interviewed (along with Mr. Gavin) on sister station 103.1 FM, which plays secular hip-hop & R&B. “The face of the church is changing,” said ML6, the host.
Indeed, the scene at All Nations that night was decidedly modern. The pastor, Adrian Davis, wore olive Air Jordan 9s and a snapback cap. The crowd was overwhelmingly young, mostly under 30. When Mr. Boone opened up the night’s proceedings, he asked the audience to hashtag pictures they posted online with the name of the tour.
The revue began with acoustic gospel-soul from C West, an artist Mr. Boone hopes to introduce to secular radio before gospel radio. He was followed by Mr. Gavin, who, at 17, already has the air of a lifelong preacher. “I don’t look like what I been through,” he said. He glided easily across the stage, alternating between powerful vocal runs and instructional exhortations to the audience. Midway through his performance, he went full revival, testifying to the things than can happen by channeling the power of faith: “Family relationships can be restored!” “Cancer can disappear!” From time to time, he spoke in tongues, pouring out a stream of shivering syllables. In the aisles, ushers stood at the ready with boxes of Kleenex.
Ms. Babineaux took the stage last, a slash of fuchsia lipstick matching her vertiginous heels. Despite some technical glitches, she sang marvelously, with classic-soul belting power and just the right dose of spiritual theatrics, dropping down to her knees in a fit of near-weeping.
Off to the side of the stage, Mr. Boone, too, was in tears. Before her set, he’d introduced her to the audience by noting her success on Instagram. By the end of her performance, though, no one had a camera fixed on her.
“Her social media game is tight,” he said, “but her anointing is even greater.”