It’s been about 40 years since contemporary worship music first started showing up in Mennonite Brethren churches. Since that time, it has easily overtaken traditional hymns and gospel songs to become the dominant form of worship music in many of our congregations.
This shift didn’t happen easily or without controversy. Many of the early disagreements focused on issues of musical style, especially the move away from traditional melodies, harmonies and rhythms.
These days, much of the criticism over musical style seems to have waned. But what about the words we sing? Is it true, as some critics suggest, that texts of contemporary worship songs are too individualistic, too shallow, too intimate, too subjective, too repetitive?
These are important questions—Christians have long recognized the power of worship music to shape what they believe about God and the life of faith. New Testament scholar Gordon Fee once said, “Show me a church’s songs, and I’ll show you their theology.”
Song texts are, by their very nature, theological. When we sing, we affirm together what we believe about God, God’s world and our call as God’s disciples. And the addition of melody, harmony, rhythm, rhyme and emotion make song texts a powerfully effective tool in worship, education and witness.
So, what are we singing today and what does it say about God and our relationship with God? Here are a few observations, based on my own use of this music in worship, as well as research I’ve done in recent years.
What story do our songs tell?
Critics of contemporary worship music often suggest that the song texts tell only a small portion of the story of what God has done throughout history. They see this loss of story as problematic, particularly in the face of increased biblical illiteracy and decreased exegetical preaching.
It’s an important critique. How much of God’s story is told in contemporary worship music? What do song lyrics teach us about who God is and what God has done?
In my recent study (see note below) of approximately 500 contemporary song texts written within the last 10 years, I discovered that just over half (57 percent) contain some information about God’s story.
Songs about the cross were by far the most common (34 percent). Next in line were songs about the resurrection (15 percent), the incarnation of Christ (13 percent), the act of creation (10 percent), the second coming of Christ (nine percent), the life and example of Jesus (eight percent), followed by his ascension and reign (seven percent).
Other parts of God’s story, however, seemed to be significantly under-represented. The gift of the Holy Spirit, for example, figured in just three percent of songs; the ongoing call and ministry of the church was clearly identifiable in just two percent of songs.
Where do the texts come from?
Many of our traditional hymns and songs have drawn their inspiration from the words of Scripture, whether metrical settings, paraphrases or a collage of scriptural themes and ideas. Is that the case for contemporary worship music?
Of the 500 songs I studied, 60 percent appeared to be newly written, inspired primarily by the text-writer’s own understanding and experience of God. Just over one-quarter of songs (28 percent) contained clear biblical references or allusions. And 12 percent of song texts drew on traditional hymns or liturgical texts.
To whom are we singing?
Critics of contemporary worship music often question the way in which God is named and identified in song texts. Especially worrisome are songs which offer no name at all, or simply refer to God as an ambiguous “you.”
In my research, God remained unnamed in nine percent of song texts. In the remaining songs, God was often named multiple times and in multiple ways. In fact, 65 percent of songs I studied used three or more different names for God.
The dominant forms of address were some version of Jesus/Christ/Savior (23 percent), God (21 percent), or Lord (15 percent). References to the Holy Spirit were far less common. The Holy Spirit was mentioned in just 10 percent of songs and was the central focus in just one percent of songs.
Less than nine percent of songs, however, referred to all three members of the Trinity.
Who is singing?
Contemporary worship music is often criticized for being too individualistic, emphasizing the private experience of the individual worshipper over the thoughts and aspirations of the community.
There is no question that many of today’s contemporary songs are sung from the perspective of the individual Christian. But an emphasis on individual experience in worship songs is not new. We see the same kind of expressions all through 18th, 19th and 20th century hymnody and gospel song.
Since Scripture teaches us that worship is a corporate encounter between God and the community, it’s an important question. In the 500 songs I studied, just 34 percent were written from the standpoint of the individual (I, me, my). Of the remaining songs, 44 percent were written in the collective voice (we, us, our) and 19 percent were written in some combination of individual and corporate voice. The remaining texts (three percent) didn’t use either voice.
The results surprised me. They certainly didn’t seem to support the “all about me” reputation contemporary worship songs typically carry.
Is Jesus my boyfriend?
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. Or, as some describe them: “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs.
Of the 500 songs I studied, only 21 percent used some degree of intimate language or imagery to describe the relationship between God and the believer. To be fair, I used a very broad net. All intimate expressions—whether from newly-composed settings, biblical paraphrases or new settings of traditional hymn texts—were included in the total.
Of the 21 percent of texts which included intimate language, there were at least 50 songs (10 percent) that I personally would not be comfortable using in a congregational setting. They felt inappropriate and overly personal for use in worship. Poor writing often exacerbated the weaknesses in these texts.
The truth is that intimate language in worship is nothing new. A recent study by Lester Ruth at Duke Divinity School compared 110 of the most popular worship songs from 1989 to 2015 with the 70 most-printed evangelical hymns from 1737 to 1860. He found that “Jesus has always been the primary focus of evangelical songs,” with lyrics that are often “more romantic than reverent.”
Who is the focus?
Who stands at the center of our hymn texts? Critics suggest that individual worshippers, rather than God, are often the primary focus on contemporary worship songs. Is this true?
My research would suggest that it is not. Making decisions about the overall focus of song texts is not an exact science, of course. But in my research, 43 percent of 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 (30 percent) seemed to focus on the individual worshipper (who I am, what I do, what I should do), and one in five (20 percent) focused on the corporate body (who we are, what we do, what we should do.) The songs that remained combined one or more of these approaches.
Once again, 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 the most songs focus either on God or on the experience of the community as a whole.
Do the texts have enough substance?
Perhaps the most common criticism of contemporary worship music is that the texts lack depth. Lyrics are thought to be simplistic and repetitive to the point of boredom.
It is certainly true that contemporary songs tend to be are less textually dense than traditional hymnody. This was especially true of early choruses like “God is so good,” “Freely, freely, we have received,” “Father, I adore You,” “I love you, Lord,” etc.
Short, repetitive texts like these are often referred to as “cyclical” texts. They are not unique to contemporary worship music; many global songs and songs from the Taize community also employ them. Short, repetitive texts are easily memorized and can encourage broader intergenerational participation.
Are most of today’s contemporary worship songs still cyclical? I found that just 16 percent of the texts I studied could be considered cyclical: a single set of words set to a simple melody and meant to be repeated. Half of the songs (50 percent) had two verses. And 34 percent of songs included three or more verses.
Most of the songs (84 percent) followed the now-familiar contemporary music form: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus (although with varying numbers of verses). Less than five percent of songs followed the verses-only format of traditional hymnody.
Simply counting the length of texts doesn’t tell us whether a text has any theological depth or substance. And it’s fair to say that many contemporary songs (like traditional gospel songs before them) are often built around one primary theme or idea. But the gradual lengthening of song texts in contemporary worship music is interesting. It may be that we are starting to see a hybrid form of song text, combining the multi-verse approach of hymns within the framework of a contemporary song.
Making good decisions
These are just a few of the questions I have explored in recent years. Many other questions are equally important:
- 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?
- Do they have a broad enough topical range for use throughout worship, or are most texts still limited to themes of praise and thanksgiving?
The kinds of questions are even more important today, when worship leaders have access to such a vast quantity and variety of songs for worship. Gone are the days of careful theological vetting done by a select committee for a denominational hymnal. These days, each congregation is responsible to make sure that the texts they sing live up to the full theology and practice of the church.
So, how do we choose songs for worship today? What are we looking for? How balanced are the choices we make?
In my experience, the contemporary worship songs most churches choose to sing in worship these days do not always reflect the breadth, depth and variety of song texts available to us in this style. The CCLI Top 100 list of songs used most often in North American churches does not adequately represent the types of texts being written by contemporary song writers around the world. Congregations looking for a balanced textual diet can find what they need within contemporary worship music, but they need to approach the task with wisdom and careful theological reflection.
No one worship music style is perfect. Each one comes with its own textual strengths and weaknesses. Each one has its own gifts to offer the worshipping community. So, while my comments here focus specifically on contemporary worship music, similar analysis could be done for hymnody, gospel song, liturgical chant, etc.
Contemporary worship songs have brought many new gifts to our worship gatherings. But like any other worship music genre, the words we sing need to be chosen with great care and intentionality.
This article was first published in the fall 2015 issue of Direction, a scholarly journal published by Mennonite Brethren higher education institutions in North America. The author adapted it for this publication.