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Fall 2015 · Vol. 44 No. 2 · pp. 158–172 

The Words We Sing: An Exploration of Textual Content in Contemporary Worship Music

Christine Longhurst

It has been approximately thirty years since “praise & worship” music first found its way into Mennonite Brethren churches. Since then, it has easily overtaken traditional hymns and gospel songs to become the dominant form of worship music in many of our congregations. The shift didn’t happen without controversy. Many of the early disagreements centered on issues of musical style, particularly the move away from traditional melodies, harmonies, and rhythms. Others criticized the texts, suggesting that song lyrics were shallow and repetitious.

The move from hymnody to contemporary worship music has brought new theological and liturgical emphases.

A quarter of a century later, however, much of the musical criticism seems to have waned. Although not everyone is equally at home with contemporary melodies and rhythms, most congregations appear to have come to some degree of equanimity over the issue.

But what about the words we sing? Has the shift from traditional hymnody to contemporary songs changed more than musical style? What are the strengths and weaknesses of contemporary song lyrics? Are the traditional criticisms we’ve heard about the textual content of {159} contemporary songs—too individualistic, too intimate, too subjective, too repetitive—still valid?

SURVEY APPROACH

The vast majority of research done on contemporary worship music has focused on the songs used most often by churches. Most researchers look at the top–100 lists provided by Christian Copyright Licensing, Inc. These lists are determined by actual usage statistics provided by individual congregations. This is a valuable approach, since it allows researchers to evaluate the songs actually being used in churches.

My research took a different approach. I was interested in learning more about the overall repertoire: What was being written? What topics and themes were being emphasized? What overall views of God were being presented? What range of emotion was being expressed by song writers? How much of the gospel story was being told? Who or what was the overall focus of texts?

I chose to limit my research to a bound collection of songs, Songs of Fellowship 5 (SoF5), published by Kingsway Communications in 2011. 1 It was the latest in a series of similar volumes, the first of which appeared in 1987.

The book contains a total of 509 songs, with publication dates ranging from the late 1990s to 2011. The vast majority of texts (89%) were published between 2007 and 2011.

More than three hundred contemporary songwriters contributed to the collection, including many of the best-known names in contemporary worship music (e.g. Brenton Brown, Chris Tomlin, Jonas Myrin, Keith Getty, Aaron Keyes, Tim Hughes, Matt Redman, Matt Maher, Paul Baloche, Vicky Beeching). Approximately 80 percent of songwriters were male.

Although my research explored questions related to both musical and textual style, I will limit my observations here to a few key findings related to text. My comments will address six of the most common criticisms leveled against contemporary songs texts.

1. INDIVIDUAL RATHER THAN CORPORATE

Contemporary worship music is often criticized for being too individualistic, emphasizing private religious experience over the thoughts and aspirations of the community. There’s no question that many of today’s contemporary songs are sung from the perspective of the individual Christian. But “I” songs aren’t unique to contemporary worship music. Even a cursory look through the eighteenth-century hymn texts of Charles Wesley reveals a broad mix of both individual and corporate {160} expressions of faith.

The emphasis on the individual in worship music reached new heights during the rise of evangelical hymnody in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. Most of the key themes in evangelical hymnody—invitation, conversion, sanctification, perseverance, and commitment—are tied to the personal spiritual journey of the individual: “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine,” “I know that my Redeemer liveth,” “I am thine, O Lord, I have heard Thy voice,” etc.

Clearly, an emphasis on individualism in evangelical hymnody is not new. But the question remains: how balanced are contemporary worship songs? Are critics right when they suggest that individual expressions have eclipsed corporate ones?

Findings

In a word, no. Just one-third of the 509 songs I studied (34%) were written from an individual standpoint (I, me, my), while 44 percent were written in the collective voice (we, us, our). Nearly one-fifth of songs (19%) combined individual and corporate expressions. Three percent of texts didn’t use either voice. (See Figure 1).

Figure 1

SoF5 Individual or Corporate?

I was quite legalistic in my categorizations. Any mention of the individual within a text, whether used once or throughout, placed the song in the “individual” category (either “pure” or “combined”). The same was true for corporate expressions: just one “us” or “we” gave the song a “corporate” rating.

When the texts which combined individual and corporate expressions were added to the totals, 44 percent of songs in this collection {161} made some mention of the individual Christian and 53 percent acknowledged the broader community of believers (see Figure 2).

Figure 2

SoF5 Individual or Corporate?

The results surprised me. They certainly didn’t seem to support the “all about me” reputation contemporary worship songs typically carry.

Out of interest, I decided to do the same research on the two primary Mennonite hymnals: Worship Together (published by the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches in 1995, for which I served as Managing Editor) and Hymnal: A Worship Book (published by Mennonite Publishing House in 1992). I was equally surprised by what I discovered there.

Less than one-third of songs (29%) in the Worship Together hymnal were written from the standpoint of the individual. Twice as many (59.9%) were written in a corporate voice. A total of 4.3 percent of texts combined individual and corporate expressions, while 6.8 percent were written from no particular vantage point.

What about Hymnal: A Worship Book? I found 28.3 percent of texts written from the standpoint of the individual, and 57.6 percent written in a corporate voice. A total of 6.5 percent of texts combined individual and corporate expressions, and 7.6 percent were written in no specific voice (see Figure 3). {162}

Figure 3

Individual or Corporate? Hymnal comparisons

I was not surprised to see some clear differences between the Songs of Fellowship 5 collection and the two hymnals. But I was surprised to see how remarkably similar all three volumes were when the combined expressions (songs which included both individual and corporate language) were added to the pure expressions. The total percentage of corporate expressions in all three books ranged from 63 to 64 percent (see Figure 4), and while Songs of Fellowship 5 contained a greater percentage of pure individual expressions (34% versus 28% to 29% in the two hymnals) and a greater percentage of total individual expressions (53% versus 33% to 35% in the two hymnals), these differences were far less pronounced than I had anticipated, given the sharp criticisms one often hears.

Figure 4

Individual or Corporate: Totals

{163} Clearly, this is just a superficial approach to the question of individualism in song texts. Other important questions remain, among them: do the individual expressions in contemporary song texts differ qualitatively from the individual expressions in traditional hymnody? This, along with other questions, remains to be explored.

2. TOO INTIMATE

One of the most common criticisms of contemporary worship songs is that they are too intimate and rely too heavily on the use of romantic language to describe the relationship between God (Jesus, in particular) and the individual believer: “Jesus is my boyfriend.”

Intimate language in worship is nothing new. We can find examples throughout the history of Christian worship: Bernard of Clairvaux’s “Jesus! the very thought of Thee with sweetness fills my breast” (eleventh century), John Wesley’s “Jesus, lover of my soul, let me to Thy bosom fly” (eighteenth century), Horatius Bonar’s “I rest my soul on Jesus, this weary soul of mine; His right hand me embraces, I on His breast recline” (nineteenth century), and William Ralph Featherston’s “My Jesus, I love Thee, I know Thou art mine” (nineteenth century). Intimate expressions have long been part of Christian worship music repertoire.

A recent study by Dr. Lester Ruth at Duke Divinity School compared 110 of the most popular worship songs from 1989 to 2015 with the seventy most-printed evangelical hymns from 1737 to 1860. Dr. Ruth found that “Jesus has always been the primary focus of evangelical songs,” with lyrics that are often “more romantic than reverent.” 2

Findings

In my study, 21 percent of texts used some degree of intimate language and imagery to describe the relationship between God and the believer (see Figure 5). To be fair, I used a very broad net. All intimate expressions—whether from newly-composed settings, biblical paraphrases or traditional hymn texts—were included in the total. So, for example, a song like Chris Orange’s Hide Me Again, which includes the line “Hide me again within the shelter of Your wing, for in Your presence I can hear You sing over me,” was included in the “intimate” category even though much of the text comes directly from the Psalms and the book of Zephaniah.

In the same way, a new musical setting of the German hymn, Fairest Lord Jesus, was included in the “intimate” category because of the line, “None could be nearer, fairer or dearer than thou, my Savior, art to me.” A contemporary setting of Annie Hawks’s I Need Thee Every Hour was {164} included because of the line “stay Thou nearby . . . no tender voice like Thine can peace afford.”

Figure 5

Use of Intimate Language

Although the use of intimate language has a long history in worship, it’s clear that not all of it is appropriate for use in communal worship. There were at least fifty texts in the “intimate” category that I personally would not consider using in a corporate setting. Poor writing often exacerbates the weaknesses in these texts. For example,

I need You more and more
I’m coming through the open door
I’ve got to get to You
Revive restore renew me
Don’t wanna get my faith shipwrecked
Without You I’m a mess
Jesus I’m crazy for You
Jesus I’m desperate for You
Jesus Jesus Jesus
Come and get me 3

I see Your face in every sunrise,
the colours of the morning are inside your eyes. . . .
I see Your face, You’re beautiful. 4

Speaking anecdotally, I’ve noticed that the writing of overly-intimate texts seems to be slowing as contemporary worship music matures. There appears to be a growing awareness of the difference between personal and corporate worship expressions. {165}

3. A PARTIAL GOSPEL

Another common criticism has to do with the content of song lyrics. What story do our lyrics tell? Do they reveal some truth about who God is and what God has done, or do they primarily reflect worshippers’ personal stories and experiences?

Biblically and historically, Christian worship has been rooted in God’s story: creation, covenant, incarnation, death, resurrection, and final recreation. When God’s people gather together for worship, they gather to remember and celebrate that story.

Critics of contemporary music often suggest that song texts reveal too little about God’s story, focusing on our human stories instead. They see this loss of story as problematic, particularly in the face of decreased exegetical preaching and increased biblical illiteracy. 5 It’s especially troubling to many because song texts have traditionally been one of the key ways in which worshippers learn about their faith.

So it’s a question worth asking: how much of God’s story is told in contemporary song texts? What do contemporary lyrics teach us about who God is and what God has done?

Findings

Of the 509 songs in the collection, just over half (57%) contained some information about God’s story.

At first glance, that number may seem troubling. How is it possible that 43 percent of texts do not contain any part of God’s story? It’s helpful to recognize that the worship dialogue needs a wide variety of song texts, both revelatory (story-based) and responsive (thanksgiving, petition, blessing, etc.).

What parts of God’s story were told in this collection of song lyrics? Figure 6 identifies the specific pieces of the story I was able to identify, ranked in order of frequency. (Bear in mind that individual songs often included more than one part of the story.) {166}

Figure 6

How much of God's story is told in our songs?

The vast majority of storytelling songs referred to the work of Jesus Christ, especially his work on the cross. In fact, reference to Christ’s work of redemption can be found in more than half of all the “story” songs in the book. Other parts of God’s story seem to be significantly under-represented. The gift of the Holy Spirit, for example, figured in just 3 percent of songs; the ongoing work of the church was clearly identified in just 2 percent of songs.

4. FOCUS ON WORSHIPPERS RATHER THAN GOD

A related criticism has to do with the central focus of song texts. Detractors suggest that it is often the worshipper, rather than God, who stands at the center of the contemporary song lyrics. Is this true?

Findings

Making decisions about overall focus is not an exact science. Based on my best judgement, however, I determined that 43.2 percent of song texts seemed to focus most clearly on God (who God is, what God has done, what God will yet do). Less than one-third of songs (29.7%) seemed to focus on the individual worshipper (who I am, what I do, what I should do), and one in five (20.6%) focused on the corporate {167} body (who we are, what we do, what we should do.) There were also a few hybrid categories: 3.3 percent combined a focus on God with a focus on the individual, and 3.1 percent combined a focus on God with a focus on the corporate body (see Figure 7).

So the total percentage of texts with a primary or partial focus on God was 49.6 percent, the total percentage of texts with a primary or partial focus on the individual worshipper was 33 percent, and the total percentage of texts with a primary or partial focus on the corporate body was 23.7 percent.

Figure 7

Primary textual focus

To be honest, the results surprised me. Contemporary worship songs have a reputation of being almost exclusively concerned with the personal, spiritual experience of the individual believer. Yet my research found that almost half focused primarily on God, and nearly one-quarter had a primary or partial focus on the Christian community.

5. TOO SIMPLISTIC AND REPETITIVE

Perhaps the most common criticism of contemporary worship music is that the texts lack depth. “It’s 7-11 music: the same seven words repeated eleven times.” Lyrics are said to be overly simplistic and repetitive to the point of boredom.

It is certainly true that many contemporary songs are less textually dense than traditional hymnody. Unlike hymns, contemporary songs (like many traditional gospel songs before them) are often built around one primary theme or image.

Many of the earliest choruses were quite short: “God is so good,” “Freely, freely, we have received,” “Father, I adore You,” “I love you, Lord,” etc. Repetitive texts like these are often referred to as “cyclical” texts. {168}

Cyclical texts are not unique to contemporary worship music. Many global songs are also written in this style (e.g., “Halle, halle, halle” or “Jesus Christ is present here”), as is the music of the Taize Community in France (e.g., “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom,” “Eat this bread, drink this cup”).

Are cyclical texts still the norm in contemporary worship music?

Findings

Just 16 percent of the texts I studied were cyclical, with a single set of words meant to be repeated. Half of the songs in the collection (49.9%) had two verses, and 25 percent of them had three. Thirty-one songs had four verses; ten songs had five verses, and four songs had six. One song even included seven verses. All in all, 34 percent of songs included three or more stanzas (see Figure 8).

Figure 8

Length of texts

The vast majority of songs in the collection continued to follow the traditional praise & worship format (verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus). A total of 425 songs (83.5%) fell into this category, albeit with varied numbers of verses. Just twenty-three songs (4.5%) followed the verses-only format of traditional hymnody.

Simply counting the number of verses doesn’t give any indication of the textual content of a song. But the gradual lengthening of song texts is worth noting. It may be that we are beginning to see the development of a hybrid form of song text, combining the verse approach of hymnody within the normative framework of a contemporary song. {169}

6. TOO LITTLE OBJECTIVE TRUTH

Contemporary worship music is often criticized for being too subjective or response-based. Instead of speaking objective truth about God, critics argue, texts tend to filter that truth through subjective, personal experience. Not everyone will see that approach as negative, of course. But it’s a question worth exploring: How well do song texts balance objective truth and subjective response?

Findings

I found that 13.7 percent of song texts used objective language throughout—that is, they explored some objective truth about God, God’s world, or the life of the believer. In addition, there were a number of other texts (13.5%) that, while not entirely objective, included a significant amount of objective language.

Purely subjective texts—that is, texts with focus primarily on the response of the believer—were found in 13.1 percent of songs. An additional 7 percent of texts, while not entirely subjective, included a significant amount of subjective language. There were also many song texts (33.8%) which combined objective truth with a more subjective response.

Not all songs could be classified as objective or subjective. Two other categories of text also needed to be acknowledged. The first was petition. Many songs are prayers: invocation, confession, petition, intercession, commitment, and others. Fifty-three of the song texts (10.4%) fell into this category. An additional 12.8 percent of texts included a significant amount of petitionary language.

The final category was “reflexive.” The idea of reflexive songs was first proposed by former professor and scholar Lionel Adey in Hymns and the Christian Myth. 6 Adey differentiated between objective, subjective, and reflexive texts, suggesting that the latter were distinct in that they focused specifically on the worshipper’s experience of worship in the present moment (e.g. “I will worship,” “I will lift up holy hands,” “I will enter Your gates,” and so on.)

In my research, 3.1 percent of texts were purely reflexive, with an additional 13.2 percent which included some degree of reflexive language. A further 3.7 percent of songs combined reflexive and subjective language. Figure 9 shows the cumulative results for each category of text. {170}

Figure 9

Type of Language

A few observations on these findings: First, I find it interesting that the number of objective and subjective texts is relatively balanced. Given the traditional criticism of contemporary song texts, I would have anticipated a higher degree of subjectivity.

It’s also interesting to note that less than half of song texts (40.1%) are “pure” expressions of one kind or another. Most combine two (or even three) different approaches to the text.

It’s not particularly surprising to see that fully one-third of texts combine both objective and subjective language. This is a trend we’ve been seeing for some years now. New settings of traditional hymns, for example, often add a responsive chorus of some kind (see Chris Tomlin’s setting of John Newton’s “Amazing Grace/My Chains are Gone,” or Aaron Shust’s new setting of Dorothy Greenwell’s “I am not skilled to understand/My Saviour, My God”).

It is also not surprising that almost one-quarter of songs are direct petitions or prayers, since contemporary worship has always emphasized the importance of direct conversation with God.

The steady rise of reflexive song texts is interesting. Although these types of texts are not new (we can find similar expressions all through the Psalms), their popularity in contemporary worship music is worth noting. {171}

ADDITIONAL QUESTIONS FOR EXPLORATION

These are just a few of the topics addressed in my research. Many more questions could also be explored: How is God named and identified in our song texts? Does the God we sing about accurately reflect the God we find in Scripture? Are our songs Trinitarian?

How wide an emotional range do our song texts have? In a culture that longs for authenticity, do our songs balance praise and thanksgiving with confession and lament?

Are song texts balanced between revelation and response? To what extent do they draw inspiration from the Bible? Do they have a broad enough topical range for use throughout worship, or are most texts still limited to themes of praise and thanksgiving?

CONCLUSION

The move from hymnody to contemporary worship music has brought with it more than just a change in musical style. It has also brought new theological and liturgical emphases. Although it has been around for three or four decades already, it remains a relatively young worship language and will continue to develop and mature theologically, liturgically, and aesthetically.

Overall, contemporary worship music has been a positive addition to our corporate worship gatherings. But like any other worship music genre, songs need to be chosen with care and intentionality.

Contemporary worship music repertoire is significantly broader and more varied than the typical diet of worship songs used in many churches. The CCLI Top 100 list of songs used most often in North American churches does not adequately reflect the wide range of texts and tunes being written by contemporary song writers around the world. Congregations looking for a balanced textual diet can indeed find what they need within this musical genre if they approach the task with intentionality and careful liturgical and theological reflection.

NOTES

  1. Copyright 2011 Kingsway Communications Ltd., East Sussex, United Kingdom.
  2. Results were reported in Kevin P. Emmert’s “Under Discussion: Yes, Jesus has Always Been Our Boyfriend,” Christianity Today (June 2015).
  3. Godfrey Birtill, Redeemed from the Empty Way of Life (Copyright 2009 Thankyou Music; administered by Capital CMG Publishing).
  4. Phil Wickham, You’re Beautiful (Copyright 2007 Phil Wickham Music, and Seems Like Music; administered by Music Services, Inc.) {172}
  5. A 2013 study done by Angus Reid and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada found that only 14 percent of Canadians are reading the Bible once a month or more, down from 28 percent in 1996. For more information on this study, see Rick Hiemstra’s Confidence, Conversation, and Community: Bible Engagement in Canada, 2013 at “The Canadian Bible Engagement Study,” http://www.bibleengagementstudy.ca/.
  6. Vancouver: University of British Colombia Press, 1988.
Christine Longhurst (D.W.S., Robert Webber Institute for Worship Studies, Jacksonville, Florida) teaches worship music at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, and leads workshops on worship in churches across Canada. She is author and curator of the re:Worship blog.

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