What we sing about when we sing about God.

Every word in the top 25 worship songs for 2019 according to CCLI.

For a recent academic project, I set out to analyze the top twenty-five worship songs according to CCLI.  My findings about the music were what you might suspect if you’ve spent any amount of time listening to modern worship music: the songs typically use the same song structure (Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus), the same chord progressions, and very similar melodic patterns. The lyrics held some surprises. To help me analyze the lyrics more closely, I fed the words of the top 25 songs into a couple of online text analysis tools. Here is what I found. 

We mostly use two main metaphors

When it comes to metaphors for Christian life, two dominate our worship music. The first is the metaphor of having been chained or enslaved before finding Christ and being set free after. The terms “free” or “freedom” occur sixteen times in the twenty-five songs. Variants of the word “ransom” occur three times, versions of the word “chain” occur five times, and the words “slave” or “captive” appear three separate times, for a total of eight references to enslavement offered in contrast to Christ’s freedom. The song currently in the top position, Hillsong’s “Who You Say I Am” typifies this slavery/freedom metaphor in worship, with its repetitive chorus, “Who the Son sets free is free indeed.”

The second most popular metaphor involves water — oceans, waves, rain, and the like. Sometimes water represents the feeling of being overwhelmed by the world or sin (as in the hit song, “Oceans,” by Hillsong). Other times water represents the mystery or presence of God. Either way, evangelicals love to sing about water. This water obsession has even been parodied by popular Christian comedian John Crist. In the role of a Christian record executive, Crist tells an earnest new Christian band, “You can only mention your struggles in an abstract kind of way — drowning, sinking…basically, all you need to know is more water references.”

As they say, it’s funny because it’s true.

We like to keep things vague

Although one might suspect that singing about broken chains could lead to a robust theology of atonement or overcoming sin, our worship songs rarely specify what “freedom” means. Just as the water in the Crist comedy sketch is a general stand-in for specific struggles, “freedom” is a kind of catch-all term for victorious Christian living. Just what that freedom entails is left up to the individual worshipper’s interpretation.

Other areas of vague writing were more surprising to me. For example, our usage of personal pronouns for God — “you” and “your” — far outstrip our uses of “God,” “Father,” “Jesus,” or “Spirit.” “Lord” is the most commonly used title for God in these songs. The Holy Spirit is the most neglected member of the Godhead in terms of actual mentions by name, with the vaguer term, “presence” occuring twice as often as the word “Spirit.” The word “name” occurs more often than Jesus’s actual name. In our modern worship songs, God is primarily a felt phenomenon — a presence with whom we interact.

We sing about ourselves. A lot.

When I fed all the worship song lyrics into my favorite writing tool, 750words.com, their text analysis featured generated these lovely graphs, analyzing the mood and content of the songs:

I have to admit to being shocked by the first pie chart. How was “self-importance” the key trait of worship music? Then I looked at the breakdown of top words in the songs.

Not counting conjunctions, articles, or prepositions, the top ten most frequent words in modern worship songs are “you,” “I,” “my,” “your,” “me,” “name,” “oh,” “Lord,” “Jesus,” and “God.” The first-person pronouns, “I,” “my,” “me,” and “mine” occur 354 times. “You” and “your” occur only 261 times. Adding in direct references to God brings the God references up to 409, so that is heartening. We aren’t literally referencing ourselves more often than we reference God.

Still, it’s easy to see why a computer might believe our worship songs are really about our own self-importance. The bridge of the number-one song, “Who You Say I Am,” repeatedly exclaims, “I am chosen, not forsaken, I am who You say I am.” The song focuses on our own experience of identity, purpose, and personal freedom. And did you notice that in that top-ten word breakdown, “oh,” an expression of personal awe and wonder, occurs more frequently than “Jesus”? “Oh” is a perfectly good way to voice emotions that defy the boundaries of mere language. But its prominence suggests that our worship songs are more about creating an emotional experience than proclaiming timeless truths. 

The best songs stand the test of time

Speaking of timeless truths, one positive trend that surprised me was how many older praise songs and hymns are still alive in our churches. “In Christ Alone” (2001) consistently charts in the top twenty-five. “Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)” and “Cornerstone,” two modern praise songs based on older hymns, each appear in the top twenty-five. Moving further down the list, “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us” (1990), “How Great Thou Art,” and “Great is Thy Faithfulness” all appear in the top fifty.  These songs range in age from one-hundred-and-fifty years old to eighteen years old, but each of these examples defy the current worship trends with their hymnic structure, vivid imagery, and deep theological truths. 

So, while some of today’s worship trends might be worrisome, the perseverance of these deeper, older songs gives me hope that the very best worship songs will be the ones to survive long term. While following trends may make for a quick hit, following long-established artistic techniques and theological truths will yield longer-term results both for the songwriters and for the church.