Getting gospel music right

When it comes to Christian music people usually do not use the more apt designation and prefer to call it “gospel music” or “gospel” for short. The Grammy’s for instance have a gospel category which all Christian music falls under. While its part of everyday parlance, I think there are a few reasons why the terms should not be conflated.

First of all, obviously not all Christian music is gospel music. For example, no one calls the old hymns or great classical works like Handel’s Messiah “gospel music.” We clearly recognize these distinctions but for some reason choose to call all Christian music “gospel.” One could say that gospel is a generic term so if it adequately describes a large collection of things and misses only a few then it it still a useful category. That is a fair point but when we consider hymns, which are a staple of Christian music and liturgy across the globe, they are so prominent and distinct that it is problematic to refer to them as “gospel music.” Gospel music is not effective as a catch all term for Christian music. It is like describing all sports as athletics. While athletics describes a lot of sports there are so many important sports it excludes. Athletics is a part of sports but not all sports constitute athletics. Similarly, gospel represents a significant portion of Christian music but certainly not its entirety.

Secondly, the term historically originates from the African American church in the late 19th century designating a distinct style of music. While it comes from a Christian context, gospel music has far exceeded those boundaries. It is a well established musical genre and style in its own right that has had almost unparalleled influence on modern music. Since it describes something distinctive, which is historically, culturally and even globally significant, I think as a term it is best reserved for that.

Lastly, in terms of theology a lot of what is often called gospel music is not very evangelical in nature. By evangelical I mean the evangel i.e. the Gospel. We should not forget that gospel is a theological word. If there is not much theological content in it that is characteristic of the gospel, then at least theologically speaking it should not be called “gospel” music. This is not a minor theology quibble because the Gospel is central to Christianity. Not all Christian music is or has to be about the Gospel. That on its own does not make them less spiritual or theological. It’s simply not what they are about. Conversely mentioning God, Jesus or heaven in your lyrics does not necessarily make your lyrics Christian either. Characterizing music by lyrical content is more than just mentioning certain words, it’s about the ideas being expressed and the messages that are being conveyed.

Now one might say I’m being just a stickler for words. The problem is words do matter because they are how we communicate meaning. Therefore, when we use words sloppily it affects what things mean. This has happened with the term gospel music. For instance, if someone creates music that has just a very general association with Christianity it will probably be called gospel. The musician in question because of that mischaracterisation might consider their music legitimately spiritual when it probably is just low grade folk theology being peddled. Not all music is created equal and such misnomers can be quite misleading.

Instead of diluting the term “gospel music” by applying it to all sorts of Christian music, we should stick to the specific meanings it all already has, that is a type of musical genre or a particular type of lyrical content. Now there is overlap between the two meanings. As a genre, gospel did originate from a Christian context and many of those early gospel songs were really about the Gospel. In its purest form gospel music does combine both lyric and style. Now gospel as a genre, as with all genres, its popularity ebbs and flows with the times. However, the Church always needs to make music that theologically is about the Gospel because the good news is central to our identity as the people of God

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