Ever wonder what we sing about?

Lester Ruth, Research Professor of Christian Worship at Duke Divinity School, decided to find out. Ruth examined the CCLI Top 25 lists for North America since those lists first appeared in 1989. He discovered that in the almost 25 years since, 100 songs had appeared in those lists.

He then indexed the nouns and verbs in those songs for a comparative study he was doing between contemproary worship songs and evangelical hymns. You can read his paper (with this appendix) HERE.

I offer four observations, listed here with no comment:

NOUNS: We address God generically– with no name– TWICE (8% of the songs) as often as we reference the Trinity (4% of the songs).

VERBS: We sing about human action roughly 1.5 times more (562 times) than we sing about divine action (380 times).

Our favorite verb for God? Save.

Our favorite verb for us? Praise.

But lest we get nostaligic about the “old hymns”, Ruth’s research was a comparative study of contemporary worship songs with Evangelical hymns, and the hymns (about 200 years old or so) don’t fare too much better. See his slides comparing verbs HERE and comparing nouns HERE.


8 thoughts on “What We Sing About When We Sing About God

  1. Absolutely no surprise here! I wrote a blog last year, talking about the “Jesus is my boyfriend” genre of worship music, where “Lord” and “baby” could be interchangeable. No wonder reformers like Zwingli went ‘overboard,’ not allowing anything but the Psalms to be sung. We’re in need of a genuine ‘reformation’ in the worship world – rediscovering how to ‘speak to one another with Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs…’ http://blog.steventodd.org/?p=90


  2. I wonder if we got back to realizing that every word and action we take as Christians can and should be a benediction or a blessing. We consider them to be what we do at the end of a homily, but not often as how we operate day to day, clergy or not.


  3. One of the things I used to do was to time a church service from the point of its start to the point of when it was distinctively recognizable as a service of the Christian religion with its devotion to a Triune God. From the first remarks at a microphone I’d time from then until I heard one of the names of the Persons of the Trinity addressed in prayer or lyrical form or until I heard declaration of allusion to any recognizable Christian doctrine or belief. The longest I’ve ever observed is 40 minutes. Mic is approached. Crowd is greeted. (But not Godhead acknowledged in Invocation.) Popular songs of You, Lord, Me, Love, Save, and Worship. Extempore prayer with uniquenesses if considered through the lens and structure of the Collect. In addition to “wondering what we sing about,” sometimes I’ve also wondered about why we sing about what we sing about. One of the better answers I’ve been able to come up with is that we sing about what inspires–what we hope, what we believe, and what we hope to believe. Sometimes I’ve wondered if a generically safe-for-the-whole-family God is the most inspiring thing we’ve found so far.


  4. This seems to be written from a negative light, but all art comes from experience. When I was in fine art classes they’d always say “paint what you see, not what you know”. In the same way songs work emotively and draw from our emotional experience. So we take the top songs that resonate with a large audience and we see what are common experiences. Since the wider audience is in fact NOT God but the audience for worship has “saved” as a bit of a buzz word dating back to the birth of the Church and “praise” more or less a modern buzz word equivalent to “adoration” which is a huge buzz word in older liturgies.
    There is a great deal about today’s “Contemporary Christian” music that strikes me as disingenuous, but these commonalities seem to be more of a shared point of reference than lazy song writing.


  5. Hi Sven!
    I’m with you.
    You know, I meant it when I said I offer these observations above with no comment. I don’t think one should construe that because we sing more about our action than God’s that it means we’re more self-centered…especially since (as I noted) the main verb we sing about is one that directs the attention away from ourselves: praise.


  6. I`m afraid that tell you:
    that so many people singing “lord I love you”, or “I follow you”, are going to be lost. Even worse is it when people sing “I give you all what I am”, or “I will never let you go”. Do they really mean that? Are action confirming that?
    I Never Knew You
    21 “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. 22 Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ 23 And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’
    Matthew 7:21-23 New King James Version (NKJV)
    I haven`t seen that for so many years and just sang without understanding. But I was convinced that worship is not just singing nice words, but we face God, the HOLY ONE. If we promis to follow him, we rather do it. If we proclaim he is our Lord, then don`t try to do your own way, If you say I surrender, then you should stop fighting. And if you realize you can`t do what you sing, then please don`t do it again. Find other words. May God bless you and show what is right in his eyes. Grace and Peace be with you.


  7. Elijah, I frequently attend Boy Scouts meetings with my son. At the beginning, they recite, “A Scout is Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, …” And then I go on a campout with these male adolescents. And, well… It’s a bit aspirational shall we say. What people believe, and what the want to believe, and what others want them to believe–sometimes these things get confuddled. Some have said the Holy One is patient and gracious beyond the predictability of our fickleness. We praise. [Sometimes.] He saves. [Always?] In the best of lyrics–perhaps–we troth to humbly surrender at the Cross to be identified with Christ and hope to be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Resurrection to be a wee bit more in likeness of and union with God the Father. But… for the reasons you I articulate, I almost always don’t sing. May my words never be cheap again.


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