Published February 22, 2011

Paul's Epistle...
"What's In Your Ears?"

Last year on the broadcast I started using the slogan, "The Gospel Greats — the greatest songs about the greatest message, the Gospel." That reminds me that years ago on a broadcast, I happened to mention something like this: "With our kind of music, we're not ashamed to invite you to listen to the words. In fact, that's what Southern Gospel music is all about!"

I hadn't thought much about that before saying that last line. But later, upon reflection, it dawned on me that this was a pretty profound thing to have said off-the-cuff.

I love instrumental music – don't get me wrong. But in the Bible, just about whenever music is mentioned there is singing involved. And singing involves words. David sang. The Israelites sang (Exodus 15:1, etc.). The disciples sang (Matt. 26:30). The saved of all ages sing "a new song" (Rev. 5:9, 14:3). The music was a vehicle for the words. And those words have always been used – in Jewish and Christian contexts – primarily to give honor and glory to God.

Well-known songwriter Phil Cross once wrote that there are two basic purposes of music. "First of all," he said, "music was created by God to equip His creation with a tool for giving praise and honor to Himself." Overall, Phil says, what's called "praise music" today in many churches is fulfilling that role – and doing it well.

But there is another role for music which the praise-only crowd sometimes overlooks: "Music is not only for praising God, but for teaching and encouraging people about God.... This is where Southern Gospel and the hymns step up to the plate. And, personally, I believe [they] have been hitting homeruns for generations," Phil says.

Phil adds that "The church would be non-existent without the teaching and edification found in our hymns and today's Southern Gospel music." Perhaps that sounds like an overstatement, but in practical terms, he's probably right. Singing has always been part of Christian worship.

"Let's not get caught up in style," Phil says. "It's not about style. It's about substance. And the substance of music can totally be summed up in praise and proclamation. Have you noticed that many Southern Gospel artists are now including more songs that praise God? Thank God we're starting to get it. Music must praise Him and tell about Him."

As proof for this second role of music, Phil points to Colossians 3:16: "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord."

Retired Singing News editor-in-chief Jerry Kirksey once wrote that a 13-year old boy had come up to his table at a concert to subscribe to the magazine. When Jerry asked him why he wanted to subscribe, the boy said, simply, that he liked to hear people sing about Jesus. And then he added, "If you like to hear people sing about Jesus, you like Southern Gospel singing." Jerry said that young boy provided the answer to one of the most common questions he gets, "What is Southern Gospel music?"

I find it very interesting that the comments above from Phil Cross actually reflect well the thoughts of the noted classical composer Johann Sebastian Bach, written way back in 1750: "The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul. If heed is not paid to this, it is not true music but a diabolical bawling and twanging."

Does the music you listen to regularly glorify God? Does it edify you? Or is it more akin to a "bawling and twanging?"

So much of what's passing for music these days can hardly be considered music at all. Some has little more musical value than the ticking of a metronome, with drums substituted. But it's the words that I'm most concerned about. If you listen to music that glorifies sinful ways, music that glorifies unholy sexual encounters, music that glorifies or excuses or accepts as "normal" drunken behavior and other such vices, you really need to ask yourself why you tolerate being bombarded by such messages.

And what about the music your children listen to?

Words set to music can have a tremendous impact. You can probably remember the words to Sunday School songs that you learned as a child. You may have learned the alphabet by singing it. In fact, setting facts to music is a common memory aid. Advertisers use messages set to music – "jingles" – to help you remember them, and they do it very effectively. Those messages can have a tremendous impact on you, even subconsciously.

The problem is that words which aren't wholesome can also have an impact on your thoughts. Constant repetition of songs about illicit affairs, for example, can minimize your sensitivity to the problem, and, sooner or later, is just seems "normal" somehow. Some of today's "music" even includes constantly-repeated vulgarisms, as you know if you've stumbled onto the wrong cable TV channel. (It makes you feel like you've just stumbled into an open sewer.) But it's what many of today's kids are watching. (The visual images are no better.) I'm told it's actually even worse on the unedited CDs that kids buy. At very least it's subliminal garbage. And, as the computer people say, "garbage in, garbage out." No wonder so many moral problems are manifested by those who listen to such garbage — and why there's so much copy-cat regurgitation of vulgarisms.

(OK – I'm taking a deep breath now.)

Yes, there is wholesome secular music. And that's fine. I can enjoy that, too – and do. But music that glorifies God and music that edifies the saints — regardless of the musical style — should always be among our top choices. If you're going to listen to music anyway, do you want it to be edifying (to build you up) or do you want it to tear you down and cause you to forget about God and His values?

Which brings us full circle to that on-air comment of mine: "With our kind of music, we're not ashamed to invite you to listen to the words. In fact, that's what Southern Gospel music is all about!"

- Paul

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