Watching this rewardingly thoughtful conversation develop about how much preaching gospel concerts should include, I wonder if the issue doesn’t boil down to this: when people in sg debate how explicitly evangelistic the rhetoric from the gospel-music stage should (or should not) be, they’re really debating who - if anyone - controls the music’s meaning.
Usually, the more intense calls for a robust preaching of the gospel at southern gospel concerts align with a worldview that sees gospel music as part of a broader need to convert and reform in the name of Christ’s kingdom.
At the other end of this spectrum are those who say the music can and should rise and fall without performers connecting the music to specific theological or ideological aims beyond what’s already in the music itself.
This is closer to my own view, which is that, at its best, southern gospel exceeds the limits of orthodox culture to control what it means or to put limits on the work it accomplishes.
Of course there’s preaching and then there’s preaching, or more accurately, preachiness. When people rail against “preaching,” they may sometimes be talking about things like an overly aggressive or prolonged altar call (more on that in a moment). But my gut says most complaints about preachiness are complaints about ideological or political statements on stage. We’ve all experienced this, when some guy (or gal) on stage purports to be “just telling ya’ll what the Bible says about” this or that hot button social or moral or political issue.
Though some of this may be spring from a genuine if misguided belief in the prerogatives of the stage or the obligations to be a Christian witness, it’s also true that alot of this kind of preaching is showboating and water-chumming, a consequence-free way to appear brave and outspoken about controversial issues … in front of a crowd that overwhelmingly already agrees with you.
The more complicated form of preaching is the more conventional sermonnettes about the redemptive blood of Christ that often end in some kind of call to come to Jesus and here and now, or other rituals traditionally associated with evangelistic crusades or sectarian worship.
What to make of these? Whereas the political stuff often feels ginned up and self-indulgent, this type of rhetoric usually arises from sincere motives but can create a divisive atmosphere at concerts by suggesting that it’s not enough to like the music and be moved by it in a way that’s meaningful to you. You must also believe a particular set of theological doctrines and subscribe to specific interpretations of scripture to the exclusion of other ways of thinking and believing.
To these orthodox believers, southern gospel is weakened by spiritual freeloaders and other non-conformist fans (aka willful sinners) who neither open their hearts to the one “true” meaning of the music nor surrender their right for it to mean something as powerful as it is unorthodox. In this view, it’s not enough to, as I do, find in the music access to powerful psychospiritual experiences and insights that I’ve found no other way of reliably accessing, and that have had over the course of my life a transformative effect on my understanding of faith, spirituality, and belief. For a lot of people, I and perspectives like mine are the problem, and the music matters most for its ability to convert or redeem people like me into the “right” way of understanding and encountering the music.
I confess I’ve never really fully understood the intensely orthodox view that believes God is all powerful and mighty to save and gospel music mainly matters as a tool for redemption and renewal of a faithful remnant, and at the same time, that the music itself isn’t enough, that God and his gospel as these people understand them need help accomplishing their work. If the music is as powerful and pure and as full of redemptive potential as these people say, why is a sermon and an altar call necessary?
Well, I know the answer, of course. Just as I know people will continue to preach from the stage as reliably as rain.
So preach on, I say. But know that if you’re really good at what you do as a musician and performer, you’ll unavoidably be creating experiences that will come to mean things to people you can’t imagine, or contain with a sermon. Indeed, it’s a testament to southern gospel as a form of psychospiritual experience and expression that it can hold these kinds of paradoxes in productive tension.Email this Post