What on earth are we singing? Part 4

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Perfect theology does not a great song make… of course, neither does heresy! So, lyrically, what does make a great song? Christians certainly want to sing songs that are theologically accurate, but also personally meaningful, and to one degree or another poetic. That is to say, the language must evoke something more than mental assent to its ideas, or general consensus from the doctrinal gate-keepers. So, let’s take a look at how the 25 representative contemporary congregational songs (CCS) that I’ve been analysing throughout this series fare. But first, a quick recap…

Part 1 opened Pandora’s Box. In Part 2, I argued for four CCS categories; Praise/Thanksgiving, Worship, Prophetic/Statement, and Petition. I also demonstrated that most popular CCS have a greater focus on God, than on the singer. In Part 3, I noted that CCS address Jesus far more than God the Father, or God the Holy Spirit; and furthermore, that any intimacy in CCS is overwhelmingly directed to Jesus (which perhaps for some, justifies their “Jesus is my boyfriend” critique of CCS). We also touched on some of God’s attributes most commonly included in CCS lyrics. Now to dig a little deeper.

Given that multiple Verses are the norm in this genre (only 2/25 songs had a single Verse, and they are both over 10 years old), repeated Choruses and Bridges carry the dominant lyrics. Often accompanied by the ‘catchiest’ melodies in the song, they are even more likely to be remembered and repeated outside the context of a service. While my analysis was of all the lyrics in these songs, it is worth considering the particular influence of Chorus lyrics.

You probably already noticed that four lyric lines are the default for CCS Choruses, with the occasional six or three-lined Chorus emerging from the corpus. Does it matter? Does that make a song good, bad, or indifferent? Clearly, four lines still provide endless lyric variation, so more importantly, what are these lines saying? Well, generally, they’re reinforcing some fairly fundamental Christian concepts, consider:

  • Bless the Lord O my soul… worship His holy name
  • Christ alone, Cornerstone
  • Our God is greater… stronger… higher than any other
  • How great is our God
  • I will call upon Your name
  • Saviour, He can move the mountains

If these are the words we place in people’s mouths to sing (and ultimately to meditate on) should CCS Choruses be saying something else?

The average word count is 123; for the male writers it is 106 and female writers, 138. In Christ Alone has the most words; 224 (though written by a male lyricist); For All You’ve Done has the lowest, 61 words. Interestingly, the duration of For All You’ve Done is 5’35” and In Christ Alone is 4’56” indicating no direct correlation between word count and song length. Are songs with fewer words less enduing? Not necessarily. The 2nd oldest song on the list also has the second lowest word count – Open the Eyes of My Heart, 63 words.

It is not only ‘hymn-like’ CCS that have a high word count. Desert Song, Beneath The Waters (I Will Rise) and Blessed Be Your Name all have more words than How Deep the Father’s Love or Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone).

16/25 are written in the first person, singular (I, me, my). Only 2/25 use only the plural first person pronoun (We, our, us) – Our God and God is Able. 7/25 contain both first person singular and first person plural pronouns. Is this the right balance?

All but one of the songs (One Thing Remains (Your Love Never Fails)) use at least one title to address God besides pronouns (You, He, etc.). The most utilised are those for the second person of the Godhead, the Lord Jesus Christ. Nine different terms are used for Him across twenty two of the representative CCS. The most common term is Lord; interesting, given its full theological implications against a backdrop of individualistic postmodern western Christianity. Has the term lost its meaning? Alternatively, is it aspirational, an expression of faith or intention?

Besides God-titles, in addressing God, 11/25 use only 2nd person pronouns (You, Yours), 8/25 contain only 3rd person pronouns (He, His) and six contain both 2nd and 3rd person pronouns. How do you feel about that balance? Regarding the songs containing both 2nd and 3rd person addresses to God, does this confuse the song’s focus? Or are these great examples of balancing God’s immanence and transcendence?

Finally, poetic language and metaphor abound in CCS. For example:

  • Ten thousand reasons for my heart to find
  • Through the storm He is Lord
  • Into the darkness you shine, out of the ashes we rise
  • He wraps Himself in light and darkness tries to hide
  • Keep my eyes above the waves

Does this language resonate with you? Should we be encouraging more equivocal poetic language in CCS? Or, do we risk making the songs so ‘interpretable’ that they might well make sense as a secular love song, or as a worship expression of some other religion?

The data can be a little overwhelming, and there’s so much more than I can fit into these articles. We didn’t even touch on how Scripture is expressed/re-expressed in CCS. Nevertheless, ultimately, this is about the words we put in Christian’s mouths and potentially in their hearts… how are we doing? Join the conversation.

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