What on Earth Are We Singing?
[dropcap]A[/dropcap] series on the contemporary congregational song
It’s about time we got acquainted… Hi, my name is Daniel Thornton, and as an ordained minister, worship leader, professional musician, songwriter, recording artist and speaker for over 20 years, I’ve been involved in innumerable conversations about what we sing in church (contemporary congregational songs or CCS); as I’m sure have many of you. The strong opinions are endless! But ultimately so many of those conversations are simply that, opinions; justified, passionate, logical, educated, but still opinions.
After reading all the authoritative, current literature on CCS, I saw a major hole in the research: enter my PhD journey. I want to share with you over a series of articles, not educated opinion, but concrete, quantitative and qualitative analysis of the songs we sing. What really is “singable”? What are the theological biases of CCS? What’s the balance of “me-focussed” to “God-focussed” songs? Why are certain songs adopted by the church-at-large and others are not?
Christian Copyright licensing International Ltd. (CCLI) is a tremendous resource, not only in that it allows churches to legally work with copyrighted materials (i.e. songs), but also because it provides us with data “after the fact”. Only after churches have introduced songs to their congregation do they report them. 10,000s of churches report, from different denominations, from all over the country, and indeed all over the world. That means the data is untainted by media hype or music industry sales figures or particular circles of worship influence. Hence, I used the CCLI data to establish 25 representative CCS, and analysed these to answer the questions I posed earlier (and many more!).
Admittedly, my research is focussed on the Asia/Pacific region data. However, in this global village, the data is not that much different across the western world. In fact, I have used one of the dominant transglobal media platforms – YouTube – as the “primary text” for analysing songs. Anyone involved in worship ministry will know the conundrum of providing musicians and singers with an audio version of the song, so they can learn it. From the user’s perspective, YouTube is free, easy to share, doesn’t take up valuable space on a church server, and most importantly, is mostly legal (at least when sharing monetized or official videos)!!
Enough of the copyright lesson… What does the analysis of these representative songs reveal?
Well, far too much for one article! Nevertheless, let’s make a start. Three of the biggest critiques of CCS are:
- They lack theological weight or accuracy
- They’re not very musically interesting
- Popular music is either inherently secular or secular by association
I won’t argue for or against the first point. My question would be, “compared to what”? Compared to hymns? Compared to Scripture? Well, if we seriously are looking for our congregational songs to comprehensively articulate all Scriptural and doctrinal truth, nothing we have sung for the past 2000 years would gain the tick of approval! Clearly, any song in order to be realistically sung must limit its focus! It was no different for the early church Christians; they were not singing the entire letters of Paul or the Gospels each week to ensure their songs adequately covered all of their beliefs! “Ahhh, but compared with hymns, contemporary songs are far less doctrinally comprehensive” I hear some say… are they? Let’s run with the assumption that they are. In a day and age where we have so many forms in which we might digest truth (the written Bible, the audio Bible, visual Bibles, preaching and teaching in written/video/audio formats), must our songs be theologically comprehensive? Of course they cannot be heretical, but then we can’t always hold hymns up as examples of perpetually perfect doctrine.
As for the second point, it is often the musically trained that complain about the musical content (or lack thereof) in CCS. However, surely the real question here is “what are these songs’ purpose”? Answering that question impacts substantially on the musical parameters utilised. If the song is for the average, mostly untrained, Christian to sing, then a level of musical simplicity is not only required, but should be lauded; the song is made for its purpose. Clearly songs that are amazing musically, but are unsingable, cannot be considered successful congregational songs.
Finally, even if someone could define the exact musical content of the ancient Hebrews (which they can’t), would we all be arguing that such music was the only sacred music acceptable to God. It seems that God’s silence about exact musical details in Scripture is brilliantly conceived, for in that silence all cultures, all musical histories and expressions can find new and true purpose being directed towards the worship of God. You don’t have to like popular music. You don’t have to like the associations with some who produce it. However, you cannot declare it as unable to be used for the glory of God.