What on earth are we singing? Pt. 2


Music background


By Daniel Thornton

If you haven’t read my inaugural article, you’ll find it helpful before you sink your teeth into this one.  Here’s the link.  I would love to dive into the summary of my corpus analysis of contemporary congregational songs (CCS) with you; it’s fascinating and revealing of the songs we popularly sing in church.  However, some more groundwork should be laid first.

The CCLI most reported songs (especially in the Asia/Pacific region) are largely produced by Pentecostal/Charismatic churches, but largely analysed by non-Pentecostal/Charismatic scholars.  Not that this should discount their contribution in any way, but rather reveals the lens through which these songs are analysed; predominantly as either a modern development of hymns or an infiltration of secular popular music.  Attention, then, is often spent around ‘should’ questions, rather than the ‘is/are’ questions.

Should this music be used in church? Should these simple, romantic lyrics be acceptable as worship?

instead of

What is happening in this music? How is it communicating both to the worshiper, and from the worshiper to God? How do these songs represent a culturally meaningful expression of faith? 

As a Pentecostal scholar, with a professional classical and popular music background, I find the ‘is/are’ questions far more engaging.  Thus, the musical content, production values, performance contexts, lyrics, their theology and writing styles were all analyzed.  One of the biggest challenges was trying to find a generally accepted analytical approach for CCS lyrics.

Various authors have categorized songs as: ‘Praise & Worship’ (a most unfortunate bifurcation); kerygma, koinonia,and leitourgia; through Trinitarian address and usage of verbs; or into myriad types based on the key message of each song.

It’s time for a definitive, but flexible and simple way to categorize CCS lyrics, and I believe the following four categories do exactly that.  Every CCS I can think of over the last 30 years fits into one (or two) of these categories:

  • Praise/Thanksgiving – to or about God (any/some/all of the Godhead), His character and/or His acts; acknowledgement, testimonial, invitational
  • Worship – directly addressed to God (any/some/all of the Godhead); defined by intimacy, surrender, relationship, dedication
  • Prophetic/Statement – directed to the singer, the congregation, the unsaved or the wider community; addressing truth, reality (present or future), declarative, testimonial
  • Petition – request directed to God (any/some/all of the Godhead); the request may take any form, but are often personal, corporate, evangelical or eschatological

So, out of the representative 25 songs analyzed, where did most of them fit? Eleven were primarily Praise/Thanksgiving, three having it as their secondary focus.  Seven songs were primarily Prophetic/Statement, four having it as their secondary focus.  Five songs had a primary focus of Worship and only two songs were primarily Petition.

As informing and useful as this categorization of CCS is, I did also analyze song lyrics in many of the ways other authors have:  I documented the Trinitarian addresses; I noted all personal pronoun usage; I also created an equation to show whether the song had more of a focus on God or more of a focus on the worshiper (which is a common discussion regarding CCS).

I counted every reference to God, whether a name of the Godhead or the divine pronouns ‘You, Your, Yours’.  Similarly, I documented all references to the singer/worshiper, both singular ‘I, me, my’ and plural ‘we, us, our’.  I then made them into a mathematical fraction of ‘singer references – S’ over the number of ‘God references – G’ (S/G).  Clearly, a fraction that is greater than 1 means there is a greater focus on the singer than on God.  A fraction of less than 1 means there was a greater focus on God than on the singer.  What do you think was the result?

Well perhaps contrary to popular myths about CCS, only 4 of the 25 songs had more references to the worshiper than the object of worship (Amazing Grace – My Chains Are Gone, Desert Song, Hosanna, and Oceans – Where Feet May Fail).

While one CCS had an equal number of references to each party, 20 had more references to God than they did to the worshiper.  Granted, the lowest fraction (song most about God) was still 7/44 (Jesus At The Center).  Some may suggest that’s still too much of a focus on us.  Some may also argue that I’m already looking at the best of CCS and therefore skewing the results to those songs that are vetted by many denominations and worship leaders.  Wouldn’t they predominantly choose songs that give God more focus than the worshiper?  Probably.  I agree.  So there may indeed be many CCS out there that are more ‘me-centred’ than those in the representative list.  But what a great encouragement!  Clearly churches are choosing songs with the right balance of focus for worship!

So much more to come… but for now, let the discussions begin!


Pastor Daniel Thornton is an accomplished songwriter, musician, worship leader and communicator. He is the Head of Department, Music and Creative Arts for Alphacrucis College, Sydney, Australia and regularly travels to minister and train all over the globe. He is the world’s leading expert on the contemporary congregational song. Visit, danielthornton.org.

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    21 comments on “What on earth are we singing? Pt. 2

    1. Would love to see/do a similar analysis of the Psalms. So many are lametations, pleas, praises and petititions with the psalmist referenced over and over again.. Me, myself and I are in abundance!

    2. Did I miss something somewhere? What are the 25 songs that were analyzed? And how did you pick those 25 songs? Maybe this is coming up in a forthcoming article.

      • Hi Myra, thanks for joining the conversation.
        With CCLI representing over 300,000 worship songs, clearly analysing all of them was impossible… plus I wanted to work with songs that had the most acceptence across denominations, across socio-economic divides and even national identities, as well as those that were slightly skewed towards recently written and popular-music oriented… so, I worked with the CCLI data from all of their licenses and from the last 7 years or so, from the Asia/Pacific region, USA, Canada and the UK, to get a “representative 25″.
        I didn’t want to waste space in the article listing them all… but seeing as you asked :) Here they are:
        1. 10,000 Reasons (Jonas Myrin and Matt Redman) ©2011
        2. Cornerstone (Jonas Myrin, Reuben Morgan, Eric Liljero, William Batchelder Bradbury and Edward Mote) ©2011
        3. Our God (Matt Redman, Jonas Myrin, Chris Tomlin and Jesse Reeves) ©2010
        4. How Great Is Our God (Chris Tomlin, Jesse Reeves and Ed Cash) ©2004
        5. Oceans (Where Feet May Fail) (Matt Crocker, Joel Houston and Salomon Ligthelm) ©2012
        6. Blessed Be Your Name (Matt Redman and Beth Redman) ©2002
        7. Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone) (John Newton, Chris Tomlin and Louie Giglio) ©2006
        8. Mighty To Save (Reuben Morgan and Ben Fielding) ©2006
        9. Here I Am To Worship (Tim Hughes) ©2000
        10. God Is Able (Ben Fielding and Reuben Morgan) ©2010
        11. Beneath The Waters (I Will Rise) (Brooke Ligertwood and Scott Ligertwood) ©2011
        12. One Thing Remains (Your Love Never Fails) (Brian Johnson, Jeremy Riddle and Christa Black Gifford) ©2010
        13. In Christ Alone (Keith Getty and Stuart Townend) ©2001
        14. Hosanna (Brooke Ligertwood) ©2006
        15. I Surrender (Matt Crocker) ©2011
        16. Jesus At The Center (Israel Houghton, Adam Ranney and Micah Massey) ©2011
        17. The Heart Of Worship (Matt Redman) ©1997
        18. How Deep The Father’s Love (Stuart Townend) ©1995
        19. Happy Day (Tim Hughes and Ben Cantelon) ©2006
        20. Indescribable (Laura Story and Jesse Reeves) ©2004
        21. The Stand (Joel Houston) ©2005
        22. For All You’ve Done (Reuben Morgan) ©2004
        23. Open The Eyes Of My Heart (Paul Baloche) ©1997
        24. Desert Song (Brooke Ligertwood) ©2008
        25. Revelation Song (Jennie Lee Riddle) ©2004

        • Great article Dan! Really helpful.
          Although it’s funny, I assumed that “I Surrender” had way more “me/I” than “Lord/You/Your” etc.
          I realise that it’s a song of devotion, but i was just singing it in my head.
          Feels like there’s a big cluster of songs from 2010/11, but a fairly significant gap back towards 04/06. Wonder if that’s still the case with the top 50 songs.

          • Yes, you would think it would have more “me” reference than “God” reference at a glance… and it was close 26/30. But the repeated Bridge including repetition of “Jesus, Lord, Lord” edges out the more devotional/personal tone of the previous sections :)

            • I have not resided in Australia since 2007, but I am surprised that Shout to the Lord is not in the top 25

    3. Being a chorus member has always defined my experience of worship. I find the typical praise and worship song very repetitive and wish there were more content. As I went through the Bible in 90 Days process last year I figured out I actually knew more scripture as a result of anthems than I did from my study time. While the catchy refrain that is repeated many times is easy to learn? I am not sure we are not losing a great study tool in hymns and anthems that use a different style.

      • Thanks for the comment Kathleen. Yes, it’s amazing how much Scripture we retain when it’s put into song! As for the benefits of the hymn style… they actually are only a great “study tool” to those who find the style within their personal “schema” as Daniel Levitin (This is your brain on music) puts it. So, if they’re a great help to you, that’s wonderful, but there’s a generation for whom many find the style outside their musical “schema” and therefore get very little value from the lyrical content.

    4. Thanks for sharing your extensive research, Daniel. As I have said to uuo before, both personally and online, it is so helpful to finally have some empirical data on the topic of CCS.
      Bring on part 3!

    5. Thank you for doing this research. There are sever limitation on your sample group. As you said, these are the most popular according to worship leaders who pay the CCLI subscription. Thus these songs would have been “vetted” in terms of theology, musicality, and worshipfulness by folks who do this for a living. For a follow up, you should do a random sampling of CCLI songs.

      One area of interest I would like you to examine is the Key of the songs in regards to “sing-ability”. I find that most worship songs are very high because they are written by tenors. Thus most worship leaders are natural tenors as well. But most of the folks on a given Sunday can’t hit the high notes. This is one major difference between hymns and the current crop of songs.

      • Thomi, I have to say that I’m in favor of Daniel’s method. I’m much more keen to analyze the music that is being widely used as opposed to analyzing the music that is rarely being used.

        I am, however, in favor of your suggestion to analyze “sing-a-bility.” Apart from things like movement and hook, a melody’s upper limit is a critical factor if we want the congregation to be the voice of the song (kudos to Chamberlin for actually saying it in an article a while ago!!).

        But the hymn books of my denomination prove that this is not just a CCS problem. Many of our hymns are rendered in keys that allow for three interesting harmony parts under the melody line – often pushing the melody (the actual song!) up to E’s and F’s. You can hear the enthusiasm and vigor of the congregation’s voice dribble away as the melody climbs.

        Daniel, I guess that another interest of mine would be to push a few denominational hymnals through your screens and see what comes out. My hunch is that CCS and the long hymn tradition will have a lot more in common than we typically think.

        • Thanks Thomi and Phil for your comments.
          Thomi, you’re absolutely right in regards to the “skewed” sample. But, at the moment, my focus is on what churches are predominantly singing, as these are the songs that are clearly impacting Christian’s experience and perceptions of corporate musical worship more than any others. Nevertheless, a random sample would be interesting to compare to these highly utilized songs (perhaps something for me to consider post PhD) ;)
          As far as key goes. CCLI has realised that many of the recorded versions of CCS are NOT the keys that churches can generally sing them in! Hence they created the easy transposition of chord charts in SongSelect. I do examine this phenomenon in much more detail in my thesis, and it is fascinating. Suffice it to say, the melodies in “higher” ranges have both the potential for more strained and hence potentially “passionate/intense” expression, OR for people to back off altogether. It is often dependant upon the type and level of accompaniment to these songs as well as the respective age range of congregants.
          Phil, your comment about CCS and Hymns having a lot more in common than we think… some excellent research has already gone into this field, I just can’t think off the top of my head, who did it… :)

    6. “The CCLI most reported songs (especially in the Asia/Pacific region) are largely produced by Pentecostal/Charismatic churches, but largely analysed by non-Pentecostal/Charismatic scholars.”
      With respect, how do you know this? Do you have a literature review of sources you have investigated? I am a Pentecostal and a Sociologist of Religion who has published on Pentecostalism and music, and while my work is quite different from what you have undertaken here, it still exists. More importantly, are you familiar with the work of Tanya Riches, Pentecostal lyricist and scholar? She has engaged in lyrical and thematic analysis in the manner you have here. See below:
      Riches, Tanya (2010), ‘The Evolving Theological Emphasis of Hillsong Songs (1996– 2007).’ Australian Pentecostal Studies 13:87-134.

      • Great to hear from you Mark. I know your work and really admire your ethnographic and phenomenological writing in the field.
        Yes, I have done an extensive Literature Review and my comment above, was based on that research. I really wish I was wrong… I would so love to see more people engaged in the production of CCS (especially Pentecostals/Charismatics) start to engage in the scholarly discourse.
        And yes, I also know Tanya well… she became Worship Pastor at a church in Sydney a few years ago that I had previous held the role in, and I also lectured for many years at Hillsong College. I certainly welcome any further thoughts you have!

    7. I think many of these lyrics go back to the Praise and Worship Movement and the Jesus Movement in the development of the “Contemporary Christian Music.” This is where the lyrics started to change. Churches are doing these songs because they are the “it” music now. They feel they have to do this music to draw the younger crowd in because the younger worship leaders don’t think the older hymns are “cool.” So much rich doctrine lies in the older hymns. There are so many good arrangers and songwriters out there today who are making the hymns more “contemporary” in their sound without changing the melodies. It would be interesting to find out how many churches are using these types of songs.

      • Thanks for your thoughts Shelly J. Yes indeed, MANY contemporized hymns are making their way into diverse churches, and I’m sure this will continue.
        If I could just challenge you with one idea though… yes, perhaps many are doing CCS because it is the “it” music now, as you suggest… BUT perhaps many are doing CCS simply because it is a relevant cultural musical expression of their faith. Rich doctrine doesn’t have to segregated to hymns, we can encourage equally rich doctrine to be included in CCS. But why would we tell those coming into the church today, that the only music that’s appropriate for worship is from a couple of centuries ago? Shouldn’t we be saying, whatever music is meaningful to you, can be turned into expressions of worship? Just a thought :)

        • I would argue that there are many CCS that are rich in scripture. I grew up singing from a hymnal and playing whatever notes were put in front of me. Now I’ve learned to play the chords and accompany the worship band. As I choose each week’s hymns based on the readings of the lectionary cycle, there are only a handful of Sundays each year when I struggle to find at least a half dozen contemporary songs that have lyrics in sync with the scriptures. I think it may be a matter of what you immerse yourself in…if you’re looking for it, you can find it.

    8. Just a comment about the comparison on the words used to show focus on us and God. We can’t forget that although God is to be the focus of our Worship that we are still part of the story. If God didn’t come into our lives and do mighty things, and be active in our lives, then I’m sure we would have a lot less to sing about. Many songs come out of personal situation as to how God did something in our lives…so how can we not be part of the story.

    9. Thanks for this series!

      May I humbly suggest that your four categories could quite easily be reduced to just two? The first two categories could be characterized together as “hymns” in the way Paul meant it in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, while the latter two categories would fit into Paul’s catch-all-the-rest term “spiritual songs”. Brad Meyer’s article “Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs” is an interesting (and brief) read on the terminology Paul used.

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