Hat tip to Daniel Mount (and David Bruce Murray in a subsequent comment), for inspiring this post. Daniel put up a post asking for reader feedback on whether differences among Christian denominations can influence the way a Christian song lyric is crafted. DBM commented that he’d love to see how the discussion would proceed along a slightly different line: Do denominational differences influence stylistic differences in music? So I’ve decided to take it up here on southerngospelyankee.
My immediate reaction was “Yes, of course!” Many denominations are defined by their different musical styles. Black gospel is naturally associated with charismatics, southern gospel with Southern Baptists, and contemporary P & W with mainstream evangelicals. Even among Protestant hymns, there is a huge difference between an Anglican hymn and your average Charles Wesley/Fanny Crosby (I know, having sung many of both kinds). In our family we have made a joke out of “those Anglican tunes” that are so counter-intuitive and clunkily put together that you can barely even find your way through them. Even though in all fairness there were some great Anglican writers, let’s just say that Anglican hymnody as a whole is not known for its natural, singable melodies. (We also have a joke that Anglicans can’t sing.)
So denominational differences can certainly be tied to stylistic variations in music. That much is obvious. But I think the question may have been slightly different: Do doctrinal differences have a direct causal effect on how music is written? This question is less obvious to answer. It is one thing to say that a black gospel sound is part of the charismatic tradition, or that a southern gospel sound is part of the Southern Baptist tradition. It’s another thing to say that a writer’s theological beliefs will affect the music he writes (as distinguished from the lyrics he writes). We can find plenty of examples of correlation, but what about causation?
The first thing to come to mind is that musical style can certainly be affected in cases where denominational principles rule out certain forms of music. So if a writer comes from a background where anything with a rock sound is considered to be evil, you will never catch him writing something with “an edge.” There are musical groups who follow that principle and consequently record within very restricted musical boundaries. Some even believe that there’s evil in the back-beat.
But at the same time, I see people and churches who have wildly different music, yet essentially the same doctrinal foundation. For example, Sovereign Grace Ministries produces music with a very contemporary, wall-of-sound feel, but at the same time they are passionate about writing meaningful, biblically correct lyrics, and one of their ballads was even picked up by the Booth Brothers. As another example, I recently watched some footage from Church On the Move in Oklahoma, and I couldn’t stand most of their music they were playing. Yet their pastor’s preaching is rock solid, with a southern accent you could cut with a knife. He seems like he’d be equally at home at the little brown church in the vale. Among artists, there are obviously many Southern Baptists in southern gospel, but there are plenty in CCM too. As one example, Christian rock group Casting Crowns has worked closely with Georgia’s Sherwood Baptist Church, who made Facing the Giants and Fireproof. However, to say that their music isn’t exactly southern gospel would be putting it mildly, even though doctrinally there may not be much to separate them from Signature Sound. And for our part, we have southern gospel artists meeting CCM halfway with a “progressive” sound, some of whom even take inspiration from secular music. (Odds are you’re more likely to catch Ernie Haase listening to Michael Buble than the Inspirations.)
On the other side of the coin, I’ve seen people with different denominational backgrounds working together and making music that all sounds very similar. For example, Paul Baloche and Matt Maher are Catholic singer/songwriters, but their worship songs have been recorded and sung world-wide, and they have worked with countless Protestant worship leaders and writers.
And to top it off, there are quite a few songwriters with cuts in both CCM and southern gospel. Perhaps the most remarkable example I’ve found is Tony Wood, who can literally write anything. He’s had cuts by everybody from Petra to ZOEgirl to Scott Krippayne to 4Him to the Booth Brothers. He’s worked with well-known CCM writers and well-known southern gospel writers like Joel Lindsey and Jim Brady. Sometimes I wonder whether Christian music has ever fully realized how much it owes to Tony when I look at the sheer number of classic songs with his name on them. But in any case, whatever his denominational affiliation, it hasn’t stopped him from being versatile as all get-out. And he’s only one example. I could name others.
My conclusion is that ultimately, the place where doctrinal differences are most often going to manifest themselves is in the lyric. In general, there’s no similarly causal relationship between theology and musical style. It’s just going to be one giant mixed bag of sounds.