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The Battle With the gospel of “Me” in Southern Gospel Music

June 2, 2011

I could be wrong…
There is obviously no question that every southern gospel fan has either thought it, heard it, breathed it, whispered it, directly opposed it, or directly ignored it…is southern gospel music dying? If you have never talked about it, or heard it talked about, you have read about it on other blogs.  Frankly, there is a case to be made to either side of the debate.  But what we do know:

 

1) It’s traditional in structure and shall ultimately remain so.
2) It attracts old folks.
3) Interaction with artists is vital and different from most genres of music.  Period.  And we love it.
4) Insert your own argument as to why it is so special here (for there are many more):

 

This is clearly a horse that’s been beaten to death.  Some of us we’ll never find a reason to to find middle ground between SG and CCM or any other genre of Christian music.  Many of us have heard, “If it sounds like the world, it’s of the world”.  To be quite honest, I’m not really sure what that means.  Having grown up in a southern gospel world with family in the industry, it’s my hard roots.  It was never out of my comfort zone, even when I wanted nothing to do with it.  But the older I get, the more I seem to come back to my first love.  In Calvinist ‘TULIP’ terms, it has progressively become my “irresistible grace”.   I encounter something new in what I had thought to be old or experienced to grow stale.  The music and the people have attacked me with a soft and patient love, as if they have been praying for the prodigal to return home once again.  Yet being a part of the world for a short time, and coming back to my southern gospel roots with a fervor and zeal I have not possessed in years, what was fake, has become real once again.  Not because of me.  Not because of old acquaintances in the industry.  But, because of the Gospel.

 

I’m leaving man’s opinion out of it this time.  One reason I came to be bored with southern gospel for a season, was due to what I perceived to be a lack of authenticity as well as a lack of creativity.  Comments such as “God’s favorite music is southern gospel music”, to which I always pictured Jesus being a fan of U2 and Steve Perry, and many times became my reply.  (I was never liberal enough to think the King of Kings and our Messiah would be a fan of Led Zeppelin or Pearl Jam, although in my flesh, I certainly was).  Crossing the border of music genres, and being involved in many aspects of ministry and seeing how they were influenced by each other, I came to the self-reflective conclusion that some artists in other genres were also lacking in authenticity, and some others were as real as it gets.  That thought led me to an old reality, now revitalized.  The Gospel is not about the music.  The music is about the Gospel.  God himself, is all about the Gospel.  I’m just glad He chooses to use music.

 

That may seem too simple a conclusion to admittedly post for all the world to see, and for you to see the depravity of my stubborn, little mind.  But for anyone who has sought after what the world has had to offer, only to later be changed and transformed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, it’s something you have to go through.  Especially if you are raised in a music world.  And especially if you are also born into a ministry-minded family.  You have to sort those things out.  Church politics can kill the spirit.  Don’t put it past church politics to kill the music as well.  Men can split a church over styles of music.  And God can essentially permit Satan to split a church over styles of music.  And that just ain’t worth splitting a church over.

 

We’ll all have our preferences of style.  But my fear of southern gospel is that we have flaunted it as the “only acceptable style, as ordained by God”.  Some may not be so narrow minded.  But some genuinely are.  So what has lost its appeal?  Our Gospel?  Or our music?  What once glittered as gold throughout the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s has subtracted, by adding.  We’ve added formula. We’ve added materialism.  Not just southern gospel fans and supporters, but Christians all across the board that love music and prefer different styles.  When I say we, I truly mean “we”.  We would rather collect every Gold City table project than get to the point in saying, “it’s not really about my preference in style, it’s about glorifying Christ”.  The music lover in us has drawn a line in the sand, literally saying, “are you in or are you out”?

 

Daniel Mount is the king of “theological context”.  And I applaud him for that. That is on his heart. Lyrics are a passion to him.  I appreciate him and believe him to play an important role in this genre.  And case by case, he’s usually right about lyrical content.  That is of the utmost importance and the theological context of a song should always be THE priority.  I don’t know many people who had never heard the Gospel, hear a piano player gently play, “Jesus Paid It All”, throw their hands up in surrender and accept Christ.  But I know a few who felt compelled to, once the lyrics were sang or read.  The music can start a soul-stirring Hallelujah spell.  But the lyrical content more easily ignites the heart into repentance and ultimately, faith in Jesus Christ.

 

I think it’s easy to see the distinction that the Gospel is evident in both SG and CCM.  However, I also think it’s easy to see the distinction that sometimes the Gospel is not evident in both SG and CCM.  Southern Gospel primarily uses the story, or illustration topped off with the hook.  CCM continues to use a wide range of methods.  I think the entire book of Psalms has been put to music and let out in the P&W world.  And to that I say amen, even if it gets boring and redundant, but it’s hard to argue that it’s not Biblical.  But is God at the center of this thing, evermore?  God is both black and white.   He is love.  And He is just, thus making Him holy. But some SG is grey.  Some CCM is grey.  And some P&W is grey.  And not all of it is holy.  It is the human element of “self” wrapped up into our human element of music.  It will never be perfected and the balanced solution will never be resolved.

 

I could talk about progressing in the genre, thinking outside the box and it would largely fall on deaf ears.  And we would eventually agree to disagree.  And speaking of such, what a statement would be made to put a clash of musical styles at a halt?  Jay-Z and Coldplay collaborated.  Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony collaborated.  I could go on and on in the secular world.  Their ends meet in the same vein.  In the Christian music world, Lecrae and Natalie Grant collaborated.  Why wouldn’t Mark Trammell and Steven Curtis Chapman be acceptable?  I’m trying my best to leave Gaither out of this and I’m also losing my point in the midst of hair-brained expectations of Gospel music being more about the Gospel and less about  the music.  More spirit-infused dynamics and raw expressions, and less formulaic predictability.

 

But then again, the ones that are paying for these artists to put out music and stay on the road are largely,the old folks.  Old folks are most reluctant to change.  Let them stay. We need them here. Some days I love the purity and tradition as well, making it unique. And many days, I want it to change so badly.  And at times I find myself in contradiction to my other self.  And that is one of my problems and will forever be a human problem.  It’s more about me and my preferences, less about Him and His grace.  The music lover in me becomes a “music critic”, and the God lover in me becomes a “self-lover and pleaser”.  But I cannot deny, that in the vast array of musical styles, southern gospel music has welcomed me back with open arms, accepting me where I was, stroking my old innocence aside…now beaten and broken down by the realities of the world and the scars it has left, picked me up and encouraged me to pick back up where I left off, giving me back what I had so dearly missed, and in a sense, healing me…with the very essence of the Gospel that much of it has helped to sustain all these years.

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18 Comments
  1. Gaithermusicaddict permalink

    I like this! And speaking of collaborations between CCM and SG, I think Gaither did that for the videos shot live at bishop T.D. Jakes’ potter’s house and to be honest, I think they are the worst he has ever produced. The variety in style was vast but way too much for one DVD/CD and though the aim was to ” build a bridge” between genres and though the gospel is whats important, if the people don’t enjoy the style it is unlikely that the message in the song will get to them. If CCM and SG artists are to collaborate, they should do it in a way that would attract and impress both fans of CCM and SG. I liked Gaither’s two Billy Graham videos. I was impressed to see CCM artists like Michael W. Smith and Cece Winnans singing SG, all excited and clapping. Michael sang ” above all” a well known CCM song. Thats the kind of collaboration I like!

    • Yes, I never said those collaborations were very good, haha. My point mentioning that, was musical preferences were clearly put aside to at least craft something. And Michael W and CeCe could collaborate with anyone!

  2. Of all the compliments that could be given to me, I think that having a reputation for being passionate about good theology in lyrics would be right about at the top! Thank you! 🙂

    And by the way, even though a fair amount of what Steven Curtis Chapman has done isn’t my stylistic cup of tea, he has had some deep, very well crafted songs, and I’d love to see a SCC/Mark Trammell collaboration.

  3. As usual, I have something to say, but I’ll be out all day, so I fear that it must wait. I shall return.

  4. Okay, I’m back. First of all, Jesus a fan of U2? Seriously? He’s a fan of flaming liberals who can’t sing? That’s news to me. 😀

    As for southern gospel versus CCM… I have good things and bad things I could say about CCM. But, sadly, when I look at CCM right now, I’m finding fewer good things to say by the day. I have virtually abandoned any attempt to “keep up” with what’s going on in that world at this point, unless Steven Curtis Chapman or Andrew Peterson or Fernando Ortega is putting something out. (And in fact, Steven and Fernando have forthcoming albums this year. Oh bliss.) But I won’t go so far as to say that the genre as a whole has nothing to offer that could possibly top SG. Southern Gospel has never had a Rich Mullins, after all.

    I dabble around in some secular pools too, though carefully, because there is some seriously junky stuff out there. But inevitably I find myself getting discouraged by the lyrics, because without Christ, there’s so little hope there. Yes, there’s some redemptive material, but it’s hard to find. However, I’m not one of those people who wouldn’t be caught dead singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” or whatever.

    Ultimately, I love the way you describe how SG “tugs” at its fans. I realize it’s somewhat a matter of taste, and I know people who could sort of take it or leave it as an art form. But people like you and me share that sense that there’s just “something about it,” something you can’t quite put your finger on, but it beckons irresistibly.

    When it comes down to the contemporary vs. traditional wars, I’ve encountered a pretty snobby attitude on the contemporary side, which is ironic because the trads are supposed to be the snobs. But seriously, the things those people say never cease to astonish me. I’ve literally seen people say, “Well come on, nobody sings stuff with ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ anymore.” Well excuuuuuuuse me for being so totally outdated. I guess Isaac Watts just doesn’t cut it anymore, eh what?

    I appreciate what you said about letting the old folks stay because we need them. I once got fired up and wrote a column on a contemp. vs. trad. piece that literally said the people in the pews should not matter when it comes to a church’s musical direction. Their preferences should not be the determining factor. So this means that if Grandpa’s ears are bleeding from the drums… oh well, too bad. Gramps can stay and be a trooper or Gramps can leave, but we don’t care either way. That really makes me mad. So thank you for putting that in there.

    • yeah, I hope not to write about the genre “war” often. wonderful people on both sides, wonderful music on both sides. proud and arrogant people on both sides, some bad music on both sides. and that is that.

      Bono may be more liberal than you and I, but I stand my ground. Christian? Who knows… but this is worth reading.. scroll down to the end and you’ll find it.
      http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/sermons/no-one-ever-spoke-like-this-man

      • I hadn’t run across that interview before. Very interesting. I’ve never been quite sure where Bono stands as far as faith is concerned. I question the sincerity of any proclaimed Christian who could throw his full weight behind Barack Obama, but it seems like he has said some sensible things.

  5. J E Butler permalink

    I am an fan of certain artists – much more than a genre fan. Some SG is down right boring, some CCM is down right not spiritual or entertaining. Yet, I am a big fan of several artists in both fields.

    Generally speaking, competition is such that you have to be “pretty good” to reach a high level of success in CCM. This is not necessarily the case in SG. Message aside, that may be one of our big issues.

    JEB

  6. Oh… and as to whether or not southern gospel music is dying… when I asked Ernie Haase what he thought, he immediately said, “This music’s never gonna die.” And I would think he’d be in a good position to tell.

  7. spiderchocolate permalink

    interesting posts. I like your writing style. I don’t feel led to say anything about the post, just because I’m not good at reading large pieces and immediately analyzing them, but one question: would you consider not writing all in bold? it looks weird in RSS readers. (you could probably make it display in bold if you know how to tweak your WordPress settings.) if that’s a problem or you don’t feel like going to the trouble of changing it, no hard feelings. 🙂

    • Thanks. And I’ll look into it. I only put it in bold, because initially I couldn’t read it well, myself. Maybe that is a sign my eye-sight is deteriorating. No promises, but I’ll see what I can do.

  8. quartet-man permalink

    It is interesting to catch a little more of your history, FNR. Is there a particular story behind your FNR revival alias? Did it get mentioned somewhere and I missed it or forgot it?

    You are correct about churches being split because of music. It is tough. On one hand you don’t want to push out the people you do have by going too far, but you also don’t want to stay so rigid that the younger ones coming in or teens already there are bored or unhappy. I am strictly talking styles. Like it or not, styles matter to people. Not even just in music, but styles of preaching.

    As far as the styles of music or preaching, there seems to be no one style that pleases all Christians even if the content of the lyrics or sermons are Biblically sound. The package does seem to matter. even attempts at being blended don’t always work because some people don’t even want their way some of the time, but all of it. God help us to think of others some and to be willing to remove our preferences some of the time (preferences, NOT beliefs).

  9. quartet-man permalink

    Sorry, FNR alias. 🙂

  10. Oh, I just thought of something: Steven Curtis Chapman DID write a Cathedrals song, and a Gold City song too I think. That’s about the closest you’ll probably get to the collaboration you’re envisaging.

  11. I am a guy who listens to all types of style of christian music, but left southern gospel behind years ago. About five years or so I came back as the lyrics of most CCM left me cold. There were a few exceptions, but mostly it bored me lyricly. Southern Gospel has some of the best lyrics. I remember how I felt the first time I heard the Booth Brothers sing “The Blind Man Saw It All”…amazing. Living in northern California, there was not much of a presence of live concerts for Southern Gospel, but one thing I did notice once I began to find some concerts and attend them…the live concert is the place where Southern Gospel really shines. For example, I’m not much of a fan of The Dixie Melody Boys (I enjoyed the group back in the days of the “Uncle Jesse..” song and when they were the DMB Band, but I bought a couple of recent cds and they were kind of dull (just one man’s opion), but in concert they were fantastic! I even have a friend who is in to rap and heavy screamo metal music who went with me to a Hoppers concert. His words: “I wouldn’t play this stuff in my truck, but how can you come to a concert like this and not like this!”
    As to the future, well, one of my favorite groups seemed to push the envelope a bit and they are not around anymore…Crossway. I loved all of their cds. I often wondered if they had been embraced by Gaither and put on a few of his shows if things might have gone different for them…but since they did not fit the “suit” mold in their later days, not sure. Anyway, I still listen to a lot of “Jesus music” from the late 60’s through the 70’s, and a littel bit of CCM, but Southern Gospel is my main musical diet these days. I’m glad it’s still here.

  12. well said. The music is about the Gospel. I think there comes a point when an artist/group comes to a crossroads and says “what’s our reason for being here?” They determine that reason and then act accordingly. There’s really only two roads, i think. Some groups move towards the show/concert type mentality which to a point is fine. That’s their job. People come see them. They sing about God’s love, His Grace, throw in a fun secular song every now and then, and go home. That doesn’t mean they’re less Christian. Then you have others who are the “mostly church oriented” groups- those who don’t deviate much from the church service concerts much. And oh, how we need those. They minister to our soul. They remind us of all that is good in SG. A quartet, a trio, a family sold out to see God use their gifts for Him. That’s what I love to see. My favorite thing to see at a concert is when God shows up, and a group totally changes what the planned “program” was, and just sing. Maybe with just the piano, or just some songs that mean a lot to them. I love it. It shows life in a group. It shows that they’re not just there to sing and collect an offering. They want every aspect from the time they roll in until they load up to glorify and point people to Christ. Great post.

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