What on earth are we singing?
A series that examines the contemporary congregational song, Part 2.
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?
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 analysed. One of the biggest challenges was trying to find a generally accepted analytical approach for CCS lyrics.
Various authors have categorised 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 categorise 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 analysed, 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 categorisation of CCS is, I did also analyse 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!