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Monday, August 5, 2013

What Black Gospel Music Taught Me

The following was originally published on the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship blog on June 19, 2013

IVCF Rockbridge 2010
When I started college, I couldn't have named a single Black gospel singer. I was a classical music major with a narrow range of taste. I thought I already knew everything about what 'good music' was.

Falling in Love with Gospel Music
But I vividly remember attending my first gospel concert during my freshman year. I only went to support a couple of my friends who were members of the Umoja Gospel Choir. They sang Fred HammondHezekiah Walker, and Kirk Franklin--and I loved it.

Not long after, the InterVarsity chapter at my school did a joint weekend retreat with Umoja that profoundly shaped my worldview and racial awareness. I learned that racism was alive on our campus, and that it personally affected the people around me every day. I learned that God created race, and wants us to celebrate it, not ignore it (Revelation 7:9, Romans 12:4-5, 1 Corinthians 12:12-26). I learned how much I was missing out on. And that I could have a role in effecting change.

Concert Poster
I joined Umoja the following year, and the friendships I made there are some of the most important and enduring of my life. We sang together, prayed together, learned together, and grew together. The love and patience of that holy space was invaluable. I learned about myself, my world, and my privilege in it.

And I learned about music. I learned about Donnie McClurkin and Richard Smallwood. I began to attend churches with friends where I heard music by the Clark Sisters, Mighty Clouds of Joy, and the Mississippi Mass Choir. I felt myself growing from ambivalence to tolerance, and from tolerance to affirmation. And then I found myself connecting to God in a way I had never experienced before.

Loving God More Through Gospel Music
Gospel music became part of my own heart music--one of the ways I worshiped God that resonated with the core of my soul. I didn't leave behind other music I worshiped with, but gospel music helped me connect to aspects of God that I hadn't previously been accessing.

The talented Michael Coleman
I learned to meditate on words, and to wrap my mind and soul around repeated phrases, to conform my heart to their message. When I sang "grateful, grateful, grateful," I began to understand what it really meant to be thankful for God's grace and mercy. Just like in my academic life, I realized that I needed repetition to actually begin to comprehend what these concepts mean.

Through gospel music, I also learned to give God not just my mind and my intellectual understanding of him, but my emotions and my heart as well. I could dance, I could cry, I could shout. God could handle it. I learned to offer praise no matter my circumstances and to trust that God was sovereign through it all. When I struggled in my studies, I could lean in with Shirley Caesar, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. When was rejoicing in God's greatness I could jam to Tye Tribbett or Lonnie Hunter. No matter what I was going through, God was good.

Now with the Ubuntu Choir 4 All People
Leaning into a Legacy
Since leaving college, I've continued to lean in to the lessons God has for me through gospel music. Church 4 All People has introduced me to Walter Hawkins, Dorothy Norwood, and Kurt Carr. Most recently, I've enjoyed going farther back to the Blind Boys of MississippiMahalia Jackson, and powerful old spirituals.

Ironically, many of these songs were once considered "devils music" in white congregations (not unlike how rap and hip hop are sometimes treated by the Church today). The survival of this music came at a high cost for many artists whose royalties were stolen, careers marginalized, and lives threatened. And yet much of our modern music is derived from these roots. I'm grateful to those who made sacrifices so it could thrive today.

We miss out on so much of God's character when we limit our means of interacting with Him.We need to worship in His holiness, as well as His kindness. We need to understand His mercy, as well as His strength. Take time this week to explore worship music you are less familiar with. Join a gospel choir, sing in a different language, try dancing, or mime. No single culture or genre will ever be enough to express the magnitude of God' character.

I've had so much fun listening to good music in preparation for this post. I couldn't name them all. Who are your favorites? Leave your comments below. 


  1. I've also realized that all of these experiences are invaluable now as the worship leader in my church. We value multicultural worship and gospel music is very much a part of that. On a practical level, Gospel music has equipped me, matured my voice, expanded my musical toolbox, and helped me be faithful to the many heart songs of congregation.

  2. Christena ClevelandAugust 5, 2013 at 9:11 AM

    Fred Hammond!
    Love the old Negro spirituals as well :)

  3. This is so great. Such a personal post.

  4. Thanks! It's been a beautiful journey!

  5. It doesn't change the point you make about music, but the texts you quote to support your assertion that God created race do not use the word "race," but "tribes and peoples and languages." To be true to the Bible, we must remind ourselves that we are all one race, the Human race, a creation of God. Change your wording to "diversity," and the texts support you, and your argument is not diminished. As a matter of fact, the unity through diversity theme of the texts you quote is strengthened.

  6. hi Bill-
    Thanks for your thoughts!
    The word 'race' doesn't appear because 'race' itself is kind of a modern concept. The bible does use the term 'ἔθνους' to refer to a similar concept by which the people and cultures are divided in a manner counter to God's will. Similarly, race can be seen as the modern corollary to the idea of 'φυλῶν,' or tribes. Racial cultures are very real in our society with real consequences (good and bad) in day to day life.

    Thanks, Bill!

  7. There are various types of "gospel" music... Black Gospel is based on slavery trials and tribulations, ntherefore, it is popular among the elderly Afro-americans, where Comtemporary Gospel is more for the younger 55 and under generation, then there is Black Rap for the 25 and under. Some is song from the heart, and some is just sung from the lips. Don't forget about Southern Gospel, and Bluegrass Gospel which is different also... The gengre of church music changes with time just as the order of services in the christian churches.. Music is just a soother, and singing is a talent... a saved and blameless soul is what we all need to get to Heaven.

  8. Isn't the full range wonderful! And to think so many miss out on ANY aspect, let alone the many facets! Peccato!

  9. “Strange Fruit,” the haunting song about lynching in America that was written more than 60 years ago, was first recorded by the famed jazz singer Billie Holiday in 1939. Since then it has been recorded by some three dozen other performers.
    more information


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