Gospel music needs to be saved—from its detractors, its advocates, and its own “success.” The once clear perception of gospel music as proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ is no longer generally evident. The public image of gospel music is so confused that even the integrity of the term itself is in great danger. What a church means when it advertises gospel music, and what the secular mind—or even other Christians—thinks it means may have absolutely no relationship. The trend to retain the name while emptying it of its meaning may force us to relinquish its use altogether.

Gospel music has become very successful in secular terms (“Moneychangers in the Church,” CT, June 26, 1981), and promises to become even more so. According to syndicated columnist Dick Kleiner, “Knowledgeable people predict that gospel music will become the most important thing in music within four or five years, and they see gospel music series on television and gospel music coming in movies” (Dec. 16, 1981). Lack of historical perspective and unwisely worded statements have created much of the current confusion. The communications media give the impression that gospel music began about 60 years ago, and that it is primarily in one of three categories: black, southern-country/western, or “contemporary” in style. They ignore the mainstream of gospel hymnody and the gospel song of the past 150 years.

Historically, as Donald Hustad points out in his book, Jubilate! (Hope, 1981), gospel music has been “usually concerned with the basic gospel, the message of sin and grace and redemption, and man’s experience of them.” It is not just that “gospel” means “good news,” but that it expressly means the good news of salvation through Christ.

The origin of the gospel song can be traced to the camp and revival meetings, the singing schools—which had a profound impact on public music education—and the Sunday school of the first half of the nineteenth century. Some gospel music traditions continue, such as the “all-day singin’ and dinner on the grounds” in many southern churches. Many of the gospel songs of this period are still loved and used today—for example, William Bradbury’s “Just As I Am.” Like Bradbury, many of the gospel songwriters of the nineteenth century were highly trained, sometimes in European conservatories. They were also culturally sophisticated. Fanny Crosby knew no fewer than six U.S. Presidents, and scores of other prominent leaders. Much of our gospel music is the product of a distinctly cultured people.

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The term “gospel music,” according to Hustad, was first used by Philip Phillips, “the Singing Pilgrim” of the nineteenth century. In 1874, P. P. Bliss published Gospel Songs, and the following year combined it with Ira Sankey’s Sacred Songs and Solos. The result, Gospel Hymns and Sacred Songs, eventually numbered 1,200 selections and is still sold in Great Britain. Sankey and D. L. Moody, as well as other evangelist-musician teams, made the gospel song familiar throughout the world.

Recent articles in the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, however, and a special documentary series on ABC-TV, are examples of a different, limited view of gospel music. It is consistently defined within a strict context of the black church as “music of joy,” and as having been “invented” in the 1920s by Thomas A. Dorsey. Now 83, Dorsey is the black Chicago musician who wrote “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” and “Peace in the Valley.” He defines gospel music as “the expoundation of that which you have inside you that is good, so help the other fella who is not feeling so good.”

There is an increasing tendency to define gospel music as merely expressions of positive feelings. Writing in the Chicago Sun-Times (March 5, 1982), Don McLeese says, “In the American musical mainstream, gospel has become almost synonymous with spirit.”

Reba Rambo (McGuire) recently said, “Any song that is positive and upbeat can be considered to be gospel music.” A joyful mood, a sense of excitement, seems to be more important than content.

Gospel hymnody historically has been message oriented. Important as the music was to Luther, Wesley, and countless others, the text was even more important. Today, however, a lack of clear content is distinctly one of the problems with much—though by no means all—gospel music. The desire to achieve “crossover” has created a too-frequent dilution of the gospel message, so that, as Kleiner says, “Sometimes it is hard to pin a gospel label on a song that is contemporary gospel, because it often seems to be just another love song.” This apparently does not bother some. Gary Chapman, voted Songwriter of the Year by the Gospel Music Association, commented on his reaction to writing one of his songs as, “Wow, they can look at this any way they want to.”

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Such activities and organizations as International Gospel Song Festivals, the Gospel Radio Network, and the Gospel Music Association with its own Dove awards all developed out of post-World War I trends. Southern gospel quartets began to attract attention in the 1920s as they appeared in school assemblies and churches. Simultaneously, Thomas Dorsey turned his talents in the direction of black gospel, adding elements of blues, jazz, and ragtime to more traditional hymns and spirituals. Elements of his style included syncopation, strong jazz rhythms, blues chords and melodic devices, and improvisation. 1945 to the early 1960s is generally considered to be the “golden era” of this branch of gospel music. Black gospel developed basically along two lines: an emphasis on the singer’s vocal quality and beauty of style—Mahalia Jackson, for example—and a concentration on the interaction between soloists and ensemble, with the voices often deliberately coarsened in quality to convey an atmosphere of emotional conviction. In performance, the notes and words are only suggestions; in fact, performers in church may not even finish, but give way to “shouting.” Performing four or five numbers can take up to two hours.

During the past 30 years, “gospel” increasingly has become identified as a secular style, devoid of any religious meaning. In 1950, the Dominoes recorded a rhythm and blues number, “Sixty Minute Man,” overtly erotic and admittedly based on the style of black gospel music. One of the common practices in secular gospel at this time was to break down in tears during a song.

The identification with commercial pop styles is all too complete. Allen Wheeler, general manager of an all-gospel music station in Chicago Heights, says, “If you will compare a contemporary gospel record with any of the current hits on the rhythm and blues charts, the only difference will be the lyrics. The beat is basic.” Chicago gospel music historian Clayton Hannah states, “What makes [gospel music] different than anything else is the beat. That’s all it is: Christian music put to a beat.” Many top secular artists started out singing gospel music, whether southern or black. (Elvis Presley, for example, claimed it was a major influence on his style.)

All this has made gospel music increasingly vulnerable to marketing manipulation. Last December, the Second Annual International Gospel Music Conference attempted to bring gospel musicians and their secular counterparts closer together. Contemporary Christian Music magazine (Jan. 1982) reported that Dick Asher, the deputy vice-president of CBS Records, said, “I’ll not pretend that we’re here because of some new burst of religious faith. We’re here because of the potential to sell records in the gospel market.” Former Chicago music critic Thomas Willis observes, “The secular, competitive professionals are more concerned with the market than the message.” Plainly, “the key word is ‘saleability.’ ”

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Increased visibility of gospel music intensifies our need to demand consistent spiritual reality and content. Many artists are genuinely concerned that the Christian message and role modeling be clear. Even though they know it may hurt their commercial television potential, some continue to insist on a “message” orientation in their presentations. Black gospel artist Jessy Dixon says, “My songs are testimonies,” and Ben Speer expressed to me his deep concern that southern gospel artists not only maintain integrity in their music, but in their personal lives as well.

Gospel music is worth saving. It fulfills a vital, necessary role in a healthy, well-balanced hymnody. From the days of the early church, doctrine was taught and the gospel spread through music as well as through preaching. There has been a historic relation between genuine revival and an outpouring of new congregational song. Some of this new witness music penetrates the continuing heritage of evangelical hymnody: Andraé Crouch’s “My Tribute,” Ralph Carmichael’s “The Savior Is Waiting,” John W. Peterson’s “It Took a Miracle,” and Bill and Gloria Gaither’s “Jesus Is Lord of All” are examples. Most does not survive, but then, neither do most new worship hymns.

If gospel music is to be saved, we must face some issues squarely. We must admit that too often we have lacked openness to new music, even when it has had genuine substance. We have frequently failed to get past the vehicle of a text to see how, with some adaptation, some of the new music could be assimilated profitably into our hymnody.

On the other hand, sometimes we have been so open that we have failed to exercise responsible discernment, so that “anything goes.” Our heritage is disdained in a desperate quest for increased popularity. Overzealous proponents of gospel music often have hurt the cause. An arrogant attitude toward traditional, classical hymnody only polarizes people and diminishes the prospect for a full-orbed ministry of music.

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Music lovers, too, also are often intolerant. They fail to balance attacks against the admitted excesses of gospel music by honest support of its virtues, and they fail to distinguish between true emotion and mere sentiment. Thus, they undermine the credibility of criticism that otherwise would be valid. This has often led church leaders and their congregations to take a counterproductive anticlassical stance.

The salvation of gospel music requires informed and committed support from many sources; no single approach will suffice.

1. Christian colleges, Bible institutes, and seminaries should require courses in hymnology of all students, and church history, systematic theology, and pastoral ministries of church musicians. Hymnology courses will be counterproductive, however, if teachers view gospel music as “inferior” and “unworthy” of use in Christian worship, and if they have failed to demonstrate biblical concepts successfully in their own ministries. The mature professor may discover that the thoughtful support of good gospel hymnody in no way compromises his stature as a Christian musical leader—in fact it may even enhance it.

However, one honestly wonders whether or not the Christian school has not already forfeited its leadership role. Pastors nationwide are too frequently disillusioned with the products of its programs, and view them with cautious suspicion. The successful church musician has often painfully learned the practical fallacies of much that he heard from authoritarian, sometimes youthful, idealists. The wounded music ministries in countless churches and their legacy of anticlassical and nonworship music is often the reaction to an insensitive and inexperienced advocate of good music.

2. Pastors need to keep themselves informed in hymnody. Public guidance from the pastor can do much to help direct and support a balanced congregational music ministry. Pastor and musicians working together, making decisions primarily on the basis of ministry, and with respect for the content of a song, can be role models to their people. They can help them to develop their own sense of selectivity, understand the kind of gospel music that has genuine significance, and sing it with the biblical balance of emotion and understanding (1 Cor. 14:15).

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3. If music is to be a valid ministry of the Word, then the musician must also be a student of the Word and consistently apply its standards. Further, the church musician must recognize that the song of his people just may be legitimate in the house of God. As a pastor through music, he may need to exhibit all his love and patience if he is to help them effectively make their song appropriate in content and treatment.

4. Christian broadcasters perhaps presume too much of a leadership role in music. Although they claim they merely reflect the public’s taste, the Christian broadcasting medium is perhaps the single most powerful and effective educational force in gospel music today. Announcers and programmers have a shaping role in gospel music often out of all proportion to their musical and ministerial qualifications. Christian stations should require those who choose what is played or promoted to have some background of hymnology and church music. This is especially true of people coming out of Christian communications courses.

5. In fairness, broadcasters often are frustrated in their attempt to program quality gospel music because of the increasing difficulty in obtaining such material. The record companies must realize their responsibility both to make available and to promote aggressively a certain amount of quality gospel music, perhaps subsidizing it with profits generated from more popularly oriented releases. A public and real commitment to spiritual values, with an avoidance of hucksterism and phony “greatest” slogans, with less concern for Grammy nominations and Dove awards, and more concern for the cause of Christ, would greatly enhance their credibility in the public eye and be a real service to the ministry of music.

6. Artists with genuine talent and a proven capacity to minister the Word of God through music should be encouraged and supported. They must do their homework to see where they fit in the historical continuum, not just in relation to the current “top 40” scene. Pastors are increasingly wary of gospel artists, and some major churches now refuse to invite any at all. Where this is a reflection of genuine concern, it is admirable. However, some large churches have developed well-earned national reputations for underpaying musicians, and use the current situation as a convenient justification.

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7. Bookstores should exercise more discretion and provide wider variety in what they play and promote. Working in cooperation with Christian radio stations, they could help foster a desire for quality gospel music. Many Christians want to purchase better gospel music—especially when they hear it on the radio—but they cannot find it in their stores. Too often the stores exhibit little inclination to obtain it for them.

8. Publishers must encourage more quality gospel music, and books that present it and its use in a reasoned and balanced way. Snide remarks about other Christians should be discouraged. There is no place for arrogance or self-righteousness at any level of ministry. However, it does no good to print—or record—excellent material if it is not promoted. Christian magazines should profile musicians who have something of genuine spiritual value to say, and who would be excellent role models for our youth.

9. We need more congregational and perhaps less “spectatorist” music. We must explore more of our congregational heritage and make better use of the resources in our hymnals. We may need more new tunes for old texts—like Pete Butler’s excellent 1966 setting of Fanny Crosby’s “Redeemed.” Our new texts may exhibit simplicity without being simplistic. God’s most original work, redemption, does not need to be expressed in trivialities.

10. Christians should check their facts, then graciously make their views known. Letters, phone calls, personal comments—repeated and to the right people—all help. It does no good to complain to someone who cannot do anything about the situation.

11. Finally, the term “gospel music” should be reserved for music that is related to the gospel of Christ and man’s response, and the clearer, the better. Rather than see how diffuse we can make it, so that people aren’t sure if it is there or not, we should give a “certain sound” that is relevant to our time and culture. We must refuse to surrender the term to its commercial exploiters, or permit it to be applied to a style that may accompany lyrics that are antithetical to Christian standards. Nor should we allow a part of gospel music to presume to speak for the whole of it.

Above all, with Ira Sankey we should pray that God “wouldst bless especially the singing of these gospel hymns.… May we sing, not to be heard of men, but may we sing to praise Thy name.”

Richard D. Dinwiddie, music director and conductor of The Chicago Master Chorale, is visiting professor of church music at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois.

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