Several months ago, I was listening to a seminary course on how to preach. The professor was illustrating his point that the actual words said are only a fraction of what is necessary in a successful sermon; he used three Greek words to illustrate his point, partly because seminary professors are fond of using Greek words, and partly because they rhymed while their English alternatives don’t. As I was listening, it struck me that the three Greek words he used—logos, pathos, and ethos—are every bit as central to effectively delivering Southern Gospel’s sermons in song.

Logos is Greek for “word.” The words of the songs we sing are crucial to an effective message, but their effectiveness is highly influenced by the other two factors.

Pathos is Greek for “emotion.” In certain genres of music, like classical music and those portions of sacred music that are essentially classical in their vocal technique, pathos is not particularly important. Vocalists in those genres focus almost exclusively on technical precision. Not so in Southern Gospel; whether it’s vocal inflection, ornamentation, or some other technique, Southern Gospel’s most successful vocalists almost always add something that adds an emotional element to the delivery and strays from a technically precise rendition of the song.

Ethos is Greek for “character” or “credibility.” The seminary professor noted that ethos is what distinguishes decent preachers from the great ones—the ones that are just putting on a show, whether a local preacher or a televangelist whom you know is surrounded by constant scandal from the humble servants God uses to transform your life.

Logos and pathos are not exclusive to Southern Gospel. In almost every genre, logos matters; many other genres of music, especially those that have risen in the last 125 years or so, also incorporate a level of pathos. But Southern Gospel’s emphasis on ethos is somewhat unique. Witness the reactions of dismay when the public learns that a Southern Gospel singer has been living a life offstage inconsistent with their message onstage; you will find an occasional fan who protests, though typically in less philosophical terms, that logos and pathos are all that matter. But most Southern Gospel fans disagree, though they also typically state their responses in less philosophical terms.

This works both ways. In turn, Southern Gospel’s most trusted, believed, and beloved singers demonstrate logos, pathos, and ethos. When Mike and Kelly Bowling or Libbi Perry Stuffle sing of God’s faithfulness through the fire, you’re moved to tears because you know they have lived the words they sing. When George Younce and Glen Payne sang of being tired, but that hard trials will soon be over, they brought something that no teenager could bring to the song. Roger Bennett could not have sung “Home Free” or “Whispers in the Night” at age 20 and gotten the same response in his listeners that he did after a decade of fighting cancer. The generation of singers who went through the Great Depression brought something to “Mansion Over the Hilltop” that most teens born in the 1980s could only imitate, never replicate. And the list could go on.

Southern Gospel is at its best when logos, pathos, and ethos come together for a performance that has the Gospel message and is delivered with passion by someone the audience knows has lived a life consistent with what they sing.