Rich Theology in Southern Gospel songs

Why did I start the Songs from the Books of the Bible series?

Several years ago, I was listening to a message where a very well-known preacher, for whom I have the highest respect, said that Southern Gospel songs were theologically shallow, all about streets of Gold and not about God.

While I knew that Southern Gospel’s songs dealt with a broader range of topics, I also knew that many songs would not come to my own mind. In November 2011, I started looking at one book of the Bible each week, asking for your input on suggesting songs drawn from these passages. This series can serve as a resource for addressing criticisms of this nature.

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This genre’s roots lie in the American South during and before the Great Depression. The worse things get around us, the more vivid and real Heaven becomes, and the more meaningful the promises of Heaven are to us. So, yes, Southern Gospel has always had a fair number of Heaven songs. But equating Heaven songs with weak theology is a false dichotomy. Just because a song is about Heaven doesn’t mean it has weak theology! We could name examples of Heaven songs with deep theology all day; I’ll just mention two comparatively recent songs recorded by Southern Gospel artists, “A Pile of Crowns” and “A Higher Throne.” Granted, Southern Gospel has always had a fair number of Heaven songs. Provided the focus is where it needs to be—on Heaven’s King—that’s hardly a bad thing.

Perhaps the preacher’s only exposure to our genre was the Southern Gospel of the 1950s and 1960s. It would be a fair self-critique of our genre’s history to admit that our genre’s songwriters’ attempts to employ the popular idioms and catch-phrases of those decades did produce a fair number of shallow “man-in-the-sky” songs. (If some of them seem absurdly dated now, let that stand as a warning to any of today’s Christian songwriters who are trying a little too hard to be cool!) Of course, numerous richly theological classics also came from those decades and endure to this day.

I believe a major shift in Southern Gospel songwriting occurred after the rise of contemporary praise and worship music in the 1970s and 1980s. While I will try to avoid committing the same error that prompted this post, painting other genres with inaccurate overgeneralizations, it would be fair to say that there have been some repetitive praise choruses and some double entendré CCM songs that could be taken either about human love or God’s love. I believe that Southern Gospel artists and songwriters reacted to these trends by steadily moving in the direction of deeper and more solid theology.

From a standpoint of theology in lyrics, I believe that Southern Gospel is now the strongest it has ever been. There are still theologically shallow songs; I collect hymnals, and have several hundred from over the last several hundred years, and regrettably, every generation of Christian music has had its weak songs. But a rising number of writers and artists care deeply about rich theology in their lyrics.

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I would make the case that the crux of our genre lies in understanding life today, with its blessings and its trials, through two lenses—looking back to Calvary to understand life today in light of the Cross, and looking forward to understand today’s trials in the light of Heaven.

As with every other genre of Christian music, Southern Gospel has its weaknesses. It has its songs with bad theology and its hypocrites. Yet, today more than ever, it has songs with rich theology. In fact, I grew up on CCM and Praise & Worship; it Southern Gospel’s richly theological songs that drew me into becoming a fan of the genre nine years ago.