Gospel Music is S.M.I.L.E. Music

Originally preached late 2005 at Calvary Assembly of God, East Ridge by Donnie Bryson

I love Gospel music. Gospel music is SMILE music. SMILE! S – Gospel music is spritiual. M – Gospel music has the message. I – Gospel music is inclusive. L – Gospel music is loving. E – Gospel music is effective. Gospel music is SMILE music. Before I get into the heart of my message, I want to thank Sister Shelia for the fantastic job she did this morning. I started once to duck out after Sunday School to work on this sermon, but I’m glad I didn’t. Staying this morning gave me some real concrete examples of how music is should work in the church.

Turn your Bibles to Ephesians 5:18-20. It says, “And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit; Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ;” Now turn to Colossians 3:15-17. It says, “And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to the which also ye are called in one body; and be ye thankful. 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. And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him.”

I could sit down now. Everything I’m going to say is contained in those two sections of scripture. Gospel music is SMILE music. Gospel music is spiritual – “spiritual songs” , Gospel music has a message – “teaching and admonishing”, Gospel music is inclusive – “one another” and “one body” , gospel music is loving – “let the peace of God rule”, and gospel music is effective – “richly in all wisdom”.

Above all things, Gospel music is spiritual – “speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” Let’s not confuse the phrase, spiritual song, with that manifestation of the Holy Ghost we call singing in the spirit. Those terms aren’t interchangeable. A spiritual song doesn’t require a mighty outpouring of the Holy Ghost. But, it does require being pointed toward heaven. That is defining spiritual song in the positive. It can also be defined by its negative. A spiritual song is not a carnal song. A spiritual song is not a worldly song. A spiritual song is not a secular song.

Those are just words. What does that really mean? Musicians and preachers have fought for 2000 years over what makes music spiritual or secular.

In the 14th century, Jacob of Leige said that singers of his day, “sing in the modern manner. They dance, whirl, and jump about on notes, howling like dogs.” Pope John XXII said that new music was fine, so long as it kept within the framework of tradition. He commanded “to prohibit, cast out, and banish” music that departed too far from the purity of Gregorian chant. Medieval singing students where rapped on the knuckles for merely singing fa to ti because it was known as the diablos in musica – the devil in music and was evil. Earl Scruggs said preachers told their congregations that buying their son a banjo would be buying him a ticket to hell when he was kid.

There is a strong tradition throughout history that believed that abstract music – only notes, harmonies, and rhythms – not words or functional uses – just the music — could be good or evil. Men like Bothius, Plato, and Pythagoras believed, in their heart of hearts, that music alone could entice folks to do good or to do bad. In the first century the philosopher, Quintitlianus, told the story of a piper that was charged with murder because he played some music that drove someone crazy enough to jump from a cliff.

There is a long line of advocates of that belief, but it has never been proven. Let me restate that – there has never been any conclusive proof that  a particular type of abstract music enhances or degrades moral character or intelligence. That includes the so-called Mozart Effect suggested by the 1993 study at the University of California at Irvine that measured a minor boost in test scores of students within 15 minutes of listening to a Mozart Sonata. Other researchers, such as a recent group at Appalachian State headed by Dr. Kenneth Steele, haven’t been able to duplicate those results. There is absolutely NO evidence to suggest that a style of music helps or hurts moral character or intelligence.

Am I saying that musical style is neutral? No. Within any given society at anytime, specific musical sounds conjure up images in the mind of the listener that are totally unrelated to the notes. Some of those images are spiritually neutral, some good, and some evil. This has nothing to do with the notes but the connection we have made at in an earlier time between the sound and a particular image or feeling.

Let me give you an example. A friend of mine was working as a DJ at a bar several years ago. A fight broke out. As a practical joke he played the following – Brother Elledge go ahead and play track 1 (William Tell Overture)— Everyone started fighting harder. Did the notes cause it? Did the harmony cause it? Did the rhythm cause it? No. The connection the fighters had between that music and the Lone Ranger riding to the rescue and fighting against all odds caused it. Musicologists call this cultural context. The notes themselves are neutral, but all music has a cultural context that conjures up extra-musical feelings and memories

Let me tell you about another practical joke. I think this is a myth but it proves a point. A man invited a houseful of dinner guests. As a joke he bought enough brand new bed pans to serve soup to all his guests. How much soup was enjoyed that evening? None. The bed pans were just as clean as the best china money could buy, but the guest couldn’t get beyond the cultural context. The soup was hardly touched. We have to be careful that we are not packaging the Gospel in a brand new musical bed pan.

What about the urban myth that Martin Luther or the Wesley brothers used drinking songs as melodies for some of their hymns? Wouldn’t that be flying in the face of worrying about cultural context? Dean McIntyre, director of music resources for the Methodist denomination, says that there are no known drinking songs in ANY Wesley hymn. Probably some seminary student heard the hymns were in bar form misunderstood what they meant. Bar form means the hymns has verses and a chorus. It does not mean the hymn was based on bar music. What about Luther? Of the melodies to Luther’s 37 chorales, 15 were composed by Luther himself, 13 came from Latin hymns of Latin service music, 4 were derived from German religious folk songs, 2 had originally been religious pilgrims’ songs, 2 are of unknown origin, and one came directly from a secular folk song. That one secular song was not a drinking tune! It was the folk tune, “I Arrived from an Alien Country.” It had nothing to do with drinking or running wild. Luther used it as the melody for the Christmas hymn, “From Heaven on High I Come to You”. It is a historical fact that Luther later changed the tune because he was embarrassed to hear that same tune sung in inns and dance halls. Gospel music isn’t worldly music.

Gospel music is SMILE music. Gospel music is spiritual, Gospel music has a message, Gospel music is inclusive, gospel music is loving, and gospel music is effective.

Gospel music has a message. What is its message? Let’s think about the songs we sang this morning. First we sang Celebrate – that song proclaims the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. Then we sung Look what the Lord has done. That song highlights not just knowing about Jesus, but experiencing Jesus. Then we sung Eagles Wings which acts as an alter call song. I don’t know if Brother Bales picked the songs or Shelia, but it was perfect song set this morning. The song service this morning covered the full range of the core message that should be in the vast majority of Gospel music.

But, I’m grieved about what I see going on in the English speaking church today. This week, I surveyed the top 25 songs according to Christian Copyright Licensing International for February 2005. The main musical message of the English speaking church seems to be changing from the blood bought Gospel to some type of fuzzy-whuzzy 12-step encounter group.

True, all styles of Gospel music might get a little off topic from time to time. Even the old red back hymnal has its “Take this message to mother” on page 195. But, the great weight of those old lyrics stay right with the major theme of the Bible – man is lost, the Son of God came to earth to save man by paying the penalty for his sin, the Son of God was resurrected as proof that the payment was accepted, faith in the shed blood of Jesus and personally accepting Him into our heart is our ticket to heaven.

But, let’s look at the words of song # 21 in the top 25, Lord I give you my heart, by Morgan Reuben. Here are the words: This is my desire: to honor You, Lord with all my heart I worship You., All I have within me, I give You praise., All that I adore is in You., Lord I give You my heart, I give You my soul, I live for You alone., Every breath that I take,, Every moment I’m awake, Lord have Your way in me.

Nothing identifies the song distinctively with the Lord Jesus Christ. It could have just as easily been written by George Harrison about Hare Krishna.

Let’s look at song number 18, Draw me close by Kelly Carpenter. Here are the words: Draw me close to You, Never let me go, I lay it all down again, To hear You say that I’m Your friend, You are my desire, No one else will do, ‘Cause nothing else could ever take Your place, To feel the warmth of Your embrace, Help me find the way, Bring me back to You.

Well, that one doesn’t even clearly identify God — you could sing those words to anyone – a wife, a mother, metaphorically to your homeland or your high school. The song just isn’t distinctively Christian, it isn’t even distinctively religious.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not picking on these two songs. I don’t have a problem with folks singing these two songs. I’m deeply concerned about what I see as a trend. Songs about blood bought salvation are being moved to the back and generic songs that any Hindu could sing are being brought to the front. You can believe what you want, but I believe we are seeing the beginning of the last day apostasy right in the music of our churches. The blood of the Cross is going out and the fuzzy-wuzzy bloodless encounter group is coming in. Solomon said, “Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set.” Our music should reflect the basic message of the church — Jesus came to die for our sins, was resurrected, and faith in Him saves us from our sins.

Gospel music is SMILE music. Gospel music is spiritual, Gospel music has a message, Gospel music is inclusive, gospel music is loving, and gospel music is effective.

Gospel music is inclusive. Everybody is commanded to participate. I was so thrilled to see Shelia tell everyone they should be at least saying the words to the songs if they can’t sing them. Paul said, “Speaking to YOURSELVES in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord;” I don’t see stars on one hand and fans on the other in that phrase – do you?. Mark said that, “when THEY had sung a hymn, they went into the mount of olives.” That is the normal order of things – everyone sings in one mind and one accord.

But, there is a place for folks singing solos. Paul noted that the Corinthians should take turns when they sang specials. He said, “when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying.” For example, Sister April had a psalm this morning and come up and sang it. That is exactly the way it should be.

Everybody should participate but it should be organized and not some jumbled mess. Read the story of the ark being brought into the tent in I Chronicles the 15th chapter. That was a big musical production. The Levite, Cheneniah, opened a school and he instructed all the singers. He appointed some to sound the cymbals. Some were appointed to play harps. Then he led them in the songs. Every musical group needs a leader and every group of musicians need to know how to follow. Everything was thought out, it was practiced, and it was executed for the glory of God. This was not wild clashing of noise born from a lack of preparation or planning – it was an organized thing of beauty for the glory of God. Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean to imply that music has to be perfect to be Godly music. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it has to be our best. God demands our first fruits – He is not interested in leftovers. Did you notice how Shelia directed the musicians this morning and they followed right along? Wasn’t that great? God was getting the first fruits this morning!

Gospel music is SMILE music. Gospel music is spiritual, Gospel music has a message, Gospel music is inclusive, gospel music is loving, and gospel music is effective.

Gospel music is loving. Paul told the Romans “[Be] kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another;” That phrase — “In honour preferring one another” — What does that have to do with music? It means don’t run people out of the house of God by only playing music they hate. It means bare with folks if they play music you hate. Be considerate of the other person’s tastes, the other persons likes, and basically how much they can tolerate of your favorite song.

I’ve heard folks say that folks need to be more spiritual than that. Honey, I guarantee that I could run 90% of the folks out of this church in six months with music that I personally like. Let me give you a concrete example. You’re going to hear a short piece of mine from my second cantata called Faith. In 1998 Lee Dunleavy of Oxford University heard the piece on the Internet and emailed me asking for permission to perform it at Denis Arnold Hall on November 16th. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the message for a month or so and Lee didn’t have time to get my piece prepared. He used someone else’s piece. I’m mentioning this because several will have a major urge to laugh at the piece, and it is my way of saying go ahead because it was only a clerical error that kept it from being performed at Oxford. Brother Elledge, go ahead and play faith.

See what I mean? If that were the only type of music in this church, most would be gone. Music in the church needs to be balanced. Most of the time it needs to be stylistically middle of the road. Some of the time it can be drastically blue grass, some of the time it can be drastically country, some of the time it can be drastically jazzy, some of the time it can be drastically classical – but MOST of the time it needs to be stylistically middle of the road. It isn’t the churches place or function to convert its members to a particular style of music. It is the churches place to make Disciples of Christ.

Gospel music is SMILE music. Gospel music is spiritual, Gospel music has a message, Gospel music is inclusive, gospel music is loving, and gospel music is effective.

If we get the first four right, then we get the fifth one – Gospel music is effective. The Lord said through the prophet Isaiah, “So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper [in the thing] whereto I sent it”



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