Greenleaf and Gospel Music
I’m a fan of the TV show “Greenleaf.” The fact that the show has the Oprah Winfrey cosign (she’s an executive producer) matters very little to me, although it does add cache. What means more to me is that the show incorporates subtle and overt odes to my upbringing in a large, predominately black church.
As I’m watching the show, I’m cognizant that artistic license is being exercised, but the depictions of various scenarios and relationship dynamics are astoundingly accurate. Without turning this into a piece that simply gushes over the show, I want to spend time extracting a particular element that strikes a profound chord (pun here) in my soul—gospel music.
Ministry and Spotlight
The character Charity Greenleaf is Bishop Greenleaf’s youngest daughter. She serves as the Minister of Music (worship director/worship pastor for all those otherwise acquainted). Without diving too deeply into her character’s story, I find it interesting how she navigates the complexities of her life while centering on her “calling” to lead people to worship God in song. There are moments in the show where it becomes difficult to tell whether she is committed to this “call” for the sake of ministry—serving people and pointing to Christ—or if she simply seeks the opportunities her talent affords her. When she receives a chance to pursue music in the gospel music industry, she goes for it, taking these complexities with her.
This thick tension reflects reality. Some of the most talented singers and musicians I’ve ever heard in my life grew up singing and listening to gospel music. After honing these skills within this unparalleled vein of musical expression, some go on to become mainstream music megastars—when many years ago they were singing solos in the choir.
There’s something about gospel music that is undeniable. The gut-wrenching soul and raw passion permeating through the lyrics and instrumentation are special. Perhaps you’ve noticed some of your favorite pop stars—remember, hip-hop is the new pop music—borrow from this sound to season their hit records. Kanye incorporated Kirk Franklin, Chance the Rapper incorporated Fred Hammond, and Jay-Z incorporated the Clark Sisters. It’s not new, it just has our attention now. Regardless of whether gospel music is your taste, it is a powerful medium that resonates with people on a deep emotional level.
Back in the Day
But there’s something about gospel music I miss—something that even the depiction on “Greenleaf” wrestles with. I miss the testimony. I miss the triumph. I miss the theology. As I listen to modern forms of gospel music, it’s a lot different from what I listened to when I grew up.
The show offers a lot of nostalgia for me, but it doesn’t tap into the conviction that I learned about from my father from a young age. My dad was a choir director, a “minister of music” so to speak, and watching him informed the type of gospel music I seek today.
His conviction was evident as he sat in the basement and wrote new songs for the choir. His purpose was clear as he worked tirelessly with singers and musicians during rehearsals. His passion came bursting forth when he leaped and danced while directing the choir on Sunday mornings. I saw someone who was deeply invested in excellence in expressions of worship via song, a servant whose greatest joy was to usher in the presence of God amidst the praises of his people.
The depictions of gospel music in “Greenleaf” seem to be a reflection of what most gospel music has become—trite phrases centered on general feel-good messaging. The current gospel music model seems to be searching for the next churchy one-liner or aims to simply provide inspiration on a rainy day. The gospel music that I’ve always enjoyed allows the pains of experience to meet Biblical truth. Rather than enduring vocal gymnastics and cringing at hollow, overproduced songs, I long for lyrics like this:
I don’t feel no ways tired
I’ve come too far from where I started from
Nobody told me the road would be easy
But I don’t believe he brought me this far to leave me.
-Reverend Dr. James Cleveland
Lyrics like these acknowledge the long, tumultuous journey many of my brothers and sisters are on, yet communicate the resolve to persevere until the end. You can likely sense the spirit of the Joshua 1:5 text piercing through this song:
Sometimes the clouds hang low
I can hardly see the road
I ask the question, Lord
Lord, why so much pain?
But he knows what’s best for me
Although my weary eyes, they can’t see
So I’ll just say, “thank you Lord”
I won’t complain.
The reality of circumstance and trials just pour out in this song. In the same token, you can hear the reliance on God’s sovereignty and the resolute trust in his will. To top it off, we find that it is his will for us to be thankful in all circumstances (1 Thess. 5:18).
Show me all of my wrongs
Forgive me and make me strong
Save me, restore my song
For you’re the God of a second chance.
-Hezekiah Walker and the Love Fellowship Crusade Choir
I love the sentiment in this song. It is rare to hear songs that articulate the posture of asking God for forgiveness as you admit your sin and tendency to stray.
Humbly I ask thee, teach me your will
While you are working, help me be still
Though Satan is busy, God is real
Order my steps in your Word, please order my steps in your word
Bridle my tongue, let my words edify
Let the words of my mouth be acceptable in thy sight
Take charge of my thoughts both day and night,
Please order my steps in Your Word.
-The GMWA Women of Worship
This song goes IN as a deep petition to the Lord, presented as a modern psalm. The lyrics penetrate the heart as they are a profound model of prayer and supplication.
These are the types of songs that help me make it through all kinds of seasons. God used these artists to write and sing these songs and they have touched countless souls who are not just music consumers. They are also everyday people who frequent local churches. At its best, gospel music is a soundtrack of hope despite life’s trials and tribulations.
“Greenleaf” is one of my favorite shows but it is only an artistic imitation of familiar circumstances. I pray that our future expressions of gospel music don’t allow for the show to remain content to depict such a hollow form of expression. Especially when this expression has such a rich history and profound impact. Until then, I’ll continue blasting my personally curated gospel playlist, and—as Rev. Jones said—I won’t complain.