The Centrality of the Gospel Message in Southern Gospel

In operatic music, the vocal performance is central. Melodies, harmonies, and lyrics find their purpose in how effectively they provide a vehicle for the vocal performance.

In bluegrass music, instrumental virtuosity is central. Melodies, harmonies, and vocal performances all find their purpose in how effectively they provide a vehicle for instrumental virtuosity to shine.

Then, of course, in many genres of music, including portions of pop and non-operatic classical music, melodies are king. Lyrics and musicians find their value as vehicles for an innovative melody.

In Southern Gospel, it’s coming close to the target to say that lyrics are central, but that assessment doesn’t quite hit the target. In Southern Gospel, the Gospel message is central, and lyrics serve as a vehicle for effectively conveying that message. The other musical aspects—melodies, our genre’s trademark power harmonies, and instrumental performances—serve, in turn, as vehicles for effectively conveying the lyrics.

I can demonstrate this in a fairly simple fashion. It is not possible to use musical distinctives, or any other distinctive besides the Gospel message, to provide a definition that accurately encompasses the genre. I have tried it before, here and elsewhere, and come up somewhat short. As I said in the linked post, looking to the genre’s history, with “power harmonies rooted in the four-part male quartet tradition, where the second-highest voice sings the melody” is the closest thing we have to a musical distinctive. But our genre’s remarkable diversity permits a broad array of melodies, harmonies (or lack thereof), and a spectrum of instrumental styles that includes bluegrass, modern country, classic country, neoclassical, 1990s Contemporary Christian Music, traditional Appalachian/mountain music, and, of course, those classic four-part male and mixed group harmonies.

Ultimately, amidst our genre’s diversity, the sole unifying factor—the dominant characteristic that makes a Southern Gospel song a Southern Gospel song—is lyrics which clearly and directly present the Gospel. Defining the Gospel in its narrower sense, many Southern Gospel songs include a call to repentance from sins and faith in Jesus Christ. Or, defining the Gospel in its broader sense, the rest of Southern Gospel songs are drawn from other parts in the grand narrative of redemption, and also, ultimately, point forward or backward to Jesus Christ.

For more Southern Gospel news and commentary—follow our RSS feed or sign up for our email updates!

41 Letters to the Editor

Southern Gospel Journal welcomes letters to the editor. We will post the most thoughtful and insightful submissions. Ground rules: Don't attack or belittle groups or fellow posters, or advance heresies rejected by orthodox Christianity. Do keep comments positive, constructive, and on topic.
  1. AMEN! And that’s why this is my music.

    • Preach it! And that’s what keeps drawing me back, too! 🙂

  2. You nailed it here. There is more Gospel sung in a Southern Gospel concert that is preached from many a pulpit on Sunday morning.The other plus is that a song will run through our minds more readily than just spoken words.

    • It is interesting how the words of a song will stay in our mind. Thankfully, a number of our genre’s writers are students of good theology!

  3. There is no doubt that great lyrics when combined with equally great music and vocal ability can reach people in a very powerful way. Where some groups fall short is in the conviction with which they present this great music. When performers do not believe or live by biblically correct lyrics then it becomes Christian entertainment. When the listeners sense this it stands in the way of the message. It’s an honor to present God’S Word through gospel music and thankfully there is no shortage of gospel groups who get it right. I guess what I’m saying is that being genuine as a performer should also be central to this genre.

    • The fact that God still often works through people who aren’t living like they should is a testimony to His grace – and the power of the Gospel message itself, even when delivered by a deeply flawed messenger.

      • In truth, all of us who deliver the Gospel message through music are deeply flawed, but as for me I hold myself to a higher standard. I constantly remind myself that my actions reflect on the witness of the group I sing with. I just think it’s very important to live what I sing about. Today is the first time I’ve posted here but I come here a lot because of how you protect the integrity of this blog by removing negative or hurtful posts.

      • I agreed. Scripture sets a higher standard for those in church leadership, and – though, of course, those higher standards aren’t specifically applied to touring musicians – I think those standards are a very good idea of what to look for in people in all areas of Christian leadership.

  4. Daniel, what I love about southern gospel music is just exactly what you said–lyrics that clearly and directly present the Gospel. I appreciate almost any song or style if it uplifts the Lord, but it is Southern Gospel Music (and hymns, for that matter) that offer the testimony of either a Bilbical or personal perspective in taking the listener from the point of desperation/sin and telling them how the life-changing grace, blood, mercy, power, and love of Jesus can totally and radically turn their life around. We can sing directly to Jesus about how much we love Him in our praise and worship songs, but to the sinner in the crowd who’s life has been based on layer after layer of sin, unbelief, one bad decision after another for whatever reason, it’s the songs like The Lighthouse, He Locked The Gates, Boundless Love, I’m Not Giving Up, Then I Met The Master, I Am Redeemed, Amazing Grace, and Victory In Jesus, to name a few, that I personally believe can more effectively reach a heart of a person who hasn’t yet ever experienced a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The praise comes after we meet Him. I’m very thankful for the life-changing message of southern gospel music that grabbed my attention at such an early age.

    And I’d like to personally give a shout out to the writers being honored at tonight’s SGMG Harmony Honors Event in Hendersonville, TN at TBN—Dianne Wilkinson, Ronny Hinson, Phil Cross, Rodney Griffin, Squire Parsons, and Mosie Lister–true legends in this industry and great inspiration to me down through the years.

    • Great thoughts! I sure wish I could be there tonight!

      • Me too!!!! But I think it will be broadcast on TBN at a later date, so we will have an opportunity to see it at least. 🙂

      • Well…those of us who have TVs. I don’t have a TV. 🙂

  5. Why do you not have TV?

    • To paraphrase the words of the great Gerald Wolfe, when speaking of bass singers: Because I don’t want one! 🙂

      I simply don’t have a personality passive enough to sit in front of a screen for an hour or two, doing nothing. (And that, by the way, is a factor in how I can write this many posts!)

      • I think you’re probably a lot more likely to live out what you write about when you don’t spend hours watching things on TV that conflicts with the message you profess to live.

      • Well, we all (at least all of us Americans) are living in an increasingly degenerate society. So we’re all going to see some level of filth, at the grocery store if nowhere else. But not watching TV does, at least, lessen this exposure.

      • Good line. 🙂

  6. Where do songs like “Old Convention Song” fall into place?

    • Historical songs about a genre, not songs within the genre they are describing.

  7. If I’m not mistaken, the Harmony Honors broadcast that was filmed last night is going to be shown on TBN on February 8th. Not sure of the time, but normally it’s 9 p.m. central.

    Daniel, I hope you can find a way to catch this program because I heard it was really good. I appreciate and respect your reasons for not having a tv–there’s seldom anything good on and it does eat up a lot of time. I’m too ADHD to sit still to watch very much. Glad I have DVR so I can pause and come back to my Andy Griffith and I Love Lucy. LOL! Yes, it gets pretty wild at our house. 🙂 But I really do appreciate stations like TBN who do broadcast and support southern gospel from time to time and I’m thankful for the SGMG for producing what appears to be a very classy event. Can’t wait to see it.

    • I hope I find a way to see it, too! 🙂

    • Besides, it’s one thing to enjoy a concert vid or a good movie, but it’s ENTIRELY ANOTHER to have channel TV! Having the rest of the world piped into my house every day, no thank you!

  8. GVFAN–I do agree with you. That’s why I frequently use the most important button on my television–the on/off button! 🙂

    I would say this, for nearly every invention that has been created to make our lives better, easier, or more enriched, there is usually an evil purpose out there, too. That’s just Satan at work, unfortunately. I didn’t stop using spray paint because some kids huff it. I haven’t given up my stove because some people use them to cook meth. We’re right now utilizing internet that is full of evil content. You can control the channel on the tv just like you control the keyboard or mouse on your computer.

    This may not make sense to some, but I believe that Satan loves it when our churches go to all praise and worship music, because it takes songs with the gospel message, as Daniel defined it above, out of the churches and replaces them with largely what seems to be vertical love songs to God. And while I personally like some praise and worship songs, I have found that a lot of them are along the same theme of the greatness of God and how wonderful He is–and I’m in full agreement on that theme–but I think even Satan realizes the greatness of God. He has to know that! So, if he can get us focused solely on that, rather than the saving power and grace and blood that washes away sin, he’s perfectly content letting us sing on about God’s awesomeness–especially if we, as a result, stop singing about the power in the blood or the mercy and grace of the Cross, like so many churches have bought into. So, I said all that to say this: anything can be good or evil, depending on perception–even something like Christian music can be manipulated in such a way that it could be perceived as a detriment to our churches in the example I gave.

    We Christians are in the world but do not have to be of the world, and each of our personal choices, made to the best of our ability and knowledge, should reflect a right relationship with Christ–and that’s really all that matters.

    • (paraphrase) “It’s not enough to recognize that God is great.” Very interesting and thought-provoking concept!

      • Absolutely! You’d get no argument from Satan as to the greatness of God–he should know. He’s been trying unsuccessfully to defeat him since the Garden of Eden. But if Satan could just get us to leave it at that–in our sermons, conversations, music, etc, he’d have a lot easier job. 🙂 But get someone stirred up about the blood, the cross, grace, salvation, etc, and he gets that feeling of dread and probably says, “Oh great, here we go again!” LOL Just my thought, of course. 🙂

    • I’d never thought of it like that before. I’d personally be grateful to hear more songs about the greatness of God because at least it’s better than the “Here is how God makes ME feel” type songs!

      • We agree on that for sure! The kids sing the “sloppy wet kiss” song at our church and it’s almost more than I can take! LOL So glad we do have blended worship at my church and I still get hymns and southern, including Mike Speck choir specials and special music featured singers that do mostly southern.

      • I am so so sorry. I had to sit through some “music” at a church that played the new stuff—the music was so loud I could hardly even hear words at all!

  9. No offense intended, but that “sloppy, wet kiss” line is disgusting, in my opinion. I get the symbolism, but surely writers can come up with less sensual lyrics to describe the love of God.

    • When it was recorded and sent to radio they changed the line to “unforeseen kiss” because they kind of sensed people wouldn’t like the original. They sensed right. 😀

      • Correct. Most churches I know of use unforeseen.

        Then again, I know it’s different, but wouldn’t many people then view some of the language in Song of Solomon as “disgusting”? That’s pretty sensual wording too, wouldn’t you say?

      • It’s sensual but not disgusting … in the context of a conversation between a husband and his wife.

        The Bible addresses all areas of life, including areas like the love of a husband and wife, purity issues for young, unmarried adults, and condemnation of certain abominable sins that aren’t necessarily appropriate to discuss with a five-year-old. And, as such, though I unhesitatingly affirm that all Scripture is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness, that doesn’t necessarily mean that every single verse is appropriate for discussing in its fullest details/implications in a Sunday morning sermon. Some areas of the Bible are best used in one-on-one counseling and similar situations.

      • Song of Solomon is poetry, and not explicitly sexual even though it’s very romantic. This ain’t poetry.

    • I would just like to chime in and say that I have no idea what people are talking about with “sloppy, wet kiss” and am proud to say so. Is there really a so-called “Christian” song with that lyric? God help us…

      • Evidently so!

      • Yes, Brian, there is. I think the song is called “Oh How He Loves Us” or “He Loves Us” and our church uses the “sloppy wet kiss” version. And for me, it’s not so much a sensual context as it is just the thought that God would be “sloppy” or that a “sloppy wet kiss” sometimes is something that isn’t wanted, random, perhaps like a kid with a messy mouth giving you a kiss or a dog licking your face! LOL I’m with Gerald and GVFan. Not a favorite song of mine, and I cringe when the kids sing it in church. Love the chorus and the tune, but some of the lyrics in that one leave this southern gospel lover wanting a bit more spiritual depth.

      • I was curious as to what song ya’ll were discussing, so I looked it up. Then I realized that I am familiar with the song, but had never heard/noticed that line. I found a blog post by the writer of the song who discusses how the original lyrics were NOT “sloppy wet kiss” but “unforeseen kiss.”
        Even for people who aren’t interested in songs of CCM, I would think that the matter of lyrics getting changed after they leave the writer’s hands is of interest to SGM fans. I myself have noticed how someone’s cover of a song in this genre isn’t always the same as the original.

        Here’s the link for anyone that’s interested:

      • Yeah but he doesn’t even get WHY that line is so awful. He says and I quote:

        “I think the fact that a line like “Sloppy wet kiss” could be controversial is ridiculous. Are we in kindergarten? Has any one out there not had or at least expected to some day, engage in a sloppy wet kiss? Have Christians decided to stop procreating and let Islamic extremists populate the whole earth?”

        Where’s the eye-roll emoticon?

      • Also I think you’re confused because the Wikipedia article and McMillan’s blog post make it clear that the original lyrics were sloppy wet. What happened is Crowder wanted to send the song to the radio and asked if he could change it. It wouldn’t make sense otherwise.

      • Ah, I must have misunderstood. Thanks for clarifying!