Search This Blog

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Theological Themes in Contemporary Hymnody

[The following is an excerpt from a paper of the same title presented at the Evangelical Theological Society, Nov. 2010, and is based on a study of the theological themes presented from CCLI's list of the most reported songs in use for the past ten years. For a pdf copy of the complete study, you may request through the comment section at the end.] 

    From the beginnings of the early church, the songs sung in worship have been a reflection of what Christians have believed. The theology expressed through the text of these songs has declared the glories of the Incarnate Christ to the hope of the resurrection of the dead and Christ’s reigning as King of kings at the end of time. Hymnals have long produced a canon of worship songs of collected themes that expressed the beliefs and understandings of the faithful. With the rise of the use of multimedia in worship, the role of a theologically reviewed collection such as a hymnal has been modified so that worship songs made popular by Christian artists find themselves in use in congregational worship without having to go through the theological filters of a review of a hymnal committee before widespread use. What issues does this theological bypassing raise?  Are there theological standards for this new growing body of hymnody that flashes across the screens of so many churches?

    The texts of the songs in this study will be classified in part by utilizing Susan Wise Bauer’s idea of narrative texts, [“Protestant Hymn, Narrative Theology, and Heresy,” in Wonderful Words of Life: Hymns in American Protestant History and Theology, Richard J. Mouw and Mark A. Noll, eds. ] those centered on the believer’s experience and systematic texts which explore a point of Christian doctrine in a logical manner. Due to the number of texts that are biblical quotations or paraphrases, an additional category, entitled biblical texts, will be added.  Some of the texts present a mix of both narrative and systematic elements, making the classification more complicated. In such cases the decision must be made to evaluate in which of the two it receives the most emphasis.

    As with any study of this nature, recognition of its limitations and parameters is strategic in the interpretation of data.  The study is limited to those texts reported to CCLI by participating congregations. Not all congregations are members of CCLI, the cost of membership is relative to the size of the congregation and no claim is made that every congregation participates in an equal fashion, since the reporting is voluntary. In addition, those texts which are public domain, that is, are no longer under copyright law restrictions, are not included in reporting process. At present there exists no simple way to gather the data from which public domain texts are being used because no similar entity exists to gather such data on the same scale and there is no legal or financial motivation for doing so. No attempt is made to evaluate the music related to the songs. Such work, however valuable, is best reserved for a separate study.

    While these limitations are substantial and must not be passed over lightly, CCLI  membership in North America and Canada now includes over 200,000 churches. Of this number, 20% are asked to report on a rotating basis every six months.  Over the ten and one-half year period this study encompasses, the rotation would have included all participating members and would still represent a substantial number adequate for the present study. No attempt was made to include the use of songs in mass media, such as radio, television or the internet.

    The ten-year period of the twenty-five  most reported songs potentially could amount to 250 texts; however, due to some songs that remained on the list for more than one year, the study covered a total of sixty-four texts.  More will be discussed in the conclusion; however, it must be noted that just because a song has only been on the list two or three times in the past ten years, does not mean that it is not as important, since it may have a recent copyright and thus could not have appeared any earlier.  Songs that have repeated appearances obviously have some significance, but one needs be careful into reading too much into the data.   

Analysis of the Narrative Texts
    Of the sixty-four songs included in the study, forty-three (68%) may be listed as narrative texts, that is, the texts center on the believer’s personal experience, including admonitions to praise God and pleas for divine help.  Of these forty-three, nineteen have systematic elements in addition to the personal experience reference. In the following table, the number to the right of the title represents how many times the song appeared in the CCLI listings. The reporting periods are marked in six month intervals for a total of 21 reporting periods, covering a total of ten years and six months. Biblical citations or biblical references within the texts are also notated. [table omitted for lack of space]

    One of the above texts reflect hints of a modalistic view of the Trinity, but due to its relative brevity, the observations are not conclusive.  In Sondra Corbett’s “I Worship You, Almighty God,” the author addresses “Almighty God” and as well as the “Prince of Peace” as one: “I worship You, Almighty God, There is none like You, I worship You, O Prince of Peace, That is what I want to do.” Generally speaking, but not exclusively, references to Almighty God would refer to the entire Trinity or to God the Father.

    Almost half (19) of the narrative texts also have sections that may be described as systematic covering areas of God’s sovereignty, majesty, power, greatness, redemption, while only one has a Trinitarian reference and only one has an eschatological reference. A representative example of God’s sovereignty and character is found in Marc Byrd and Steve Hindalong’s “God of Wonders:” “God of wonders beyond our galaxy, You are holy, holy, The universe declares Your majesty, You are holy, holy, Lord of Heaven and earth.”  A Trinitarian reference is made in the second verse of Chris Tomlin, Ed Cash and Jesse Reeves’ “How Great Is Our God:” “The Godhead, Three in One, Father, Spirit, Son.”  The older hymn, “How Great Thou Art,” by Stuart Hine found renewed interest in contemporary hymnody because of its attachment to “How Great Is Our God.” This deduction was made by noting Hine’s song did not appear on the list until after the other had gained popularity, most likely because the two were sung as medleys or used together in other ways. “How Great Thou Art” was the only narrative text that dealt with the end times: “When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation and take me home, What joy shall fill my heart.”

Analysis of Systematic Texts
    As stated previously, systematic texts are those texts which explore a point of Christian doctrine. Bauer’s original study dealt with metered hymn texts and the systematic presentation of a particular doctrine or doctrines. This study takes some flexibility in her approach due to the more prose nature of the texts and the instructive rather than narrative primary focus of the text. Again, Biblical citations or biblical references within the texts are also notated.      [table omitted for lack of space]

    The most common theological theme in these thirteen  systematic texts (20%) is some aspect of the greatness of God, which is not surprising, since it was the most common among the narrative texts as well.  However, there is a wider variety of other themes in addition to God’s greatness, such as the resurrection, eschatology, Christ’s birth, gratitude, the Trinity, atonement, creation, and evangelism.  Jennie Lee Riddle’s “Revelation Song” is an example of a text that focuses on the greatness of Christ.  In verse three, it is noteworthy that even though it is implied that the  person singing is the one filled with wonder, the focus remains more on the character of Christ than the response of the person singing: “Filled with wonder, Awestruck wonder at the mention of Your name. Jesus, Your name is power, Breath and living water, such a marvelous mystery.”

     “In Christ Alone” is perhaps the best and most complete example of a systematic text. Keith Getty and Stuart Townend are masterful in making each verse builds to the next and use rich imagery centering around the cross and the redemption story. For example, consider verse three: “There in the ground His body lay Light of the world by darkness slain. Then bursting forth in glorious day up from the grave He rose again. And as He stands in victory, sin’s curse has lost its grip on me, for I am His and He is mine, bought with the precious blood of Christ.” A simple yet effective Trinitarian text is found in Donna Adkins’ “Glorify Thy Name.” In typical Trinitarian structure, each verse begins with one member of the Trinity with a statement of worship and adoration, then end with a complementary doxology: “Father, we love You, We worship and adore You, Glorify Thy Name in all the earth. Glorify Thy name, glorify Thy name, glorify Thy name in all the earth.”

    The themes of evangelism and eschatology are not common in these texts. Graham Kendrick’s “Shine, Jesus, Shine” centers around the reoccurring theme of sharing the Good News around the world in the refrain: “Shine, Jesus, shine, fill this land with the Father’s glory. Blaze, Spirit, Blaze, set our hearts on fire. Flow, river, flow, flood the nations with grace and mercy, send forth Your word, Lord, and let there be light.”  In Robin Mark’s, “Days of Elijah,” there is a blending of various scriptural allusions to convey its eschatological message. Here’s an example from the refrain: “Behold He comes riding on the clouds, shining like the sun at the trumpet call. So lift your voice, it’s the year of Jubilee, and out of Zion’s hill Salvation comes.”

    One of the systematic texts above reflects hints of modalism. In the verses of Rich Mullin’s “Awesome God,” the text mentions how God evicted Adam and Eve out of the Garden and then in the next line addresses the same “He” as the one dying on the cross: “Our God is an awesome God, And the Lord wasn’t joking When He kicked ‘em out of Eden, It wasn’t for no reason That He shed His blood.”  A similar section is found in the second verse: “Judgment and wrath He poured out on Sodom, Mercy and grace He gave us at the cross.” The use of personal pronouns in English adds to the blurring of the understanding of who is responsible for the actions.

Analysis of Biblical Texts
    The remaining eight texts (12%) fall in to a category that Bauer did not have, that of texts that were essentially quotations from Scripture.  One characteristic of some of the contemporary genre is a musical setting of Scripture that is not restructured by metrical limits. One might call this type of song a new psalmody, harkening back to the days of the psalters.        [table omitted for lack of space]     

    Some of the texts are direct quotes from the Scripture, such as Laurie Klein’s “I Will Call Upon the Lord (Ps. 18:3, 46):” “I will call upon the Lord who is worthy to be praised, so shall I be saved from my enemies.” Others paraphrase portions of Scripture, as in Naida Hearn’s “Jesus, Name Above All Names:” Jesus, name above all names, beautiful Savior, glorious Lord, Emmanuel, God is with us, blessed Redeemer, living Word.” 

    Given the limitations previously stated, that is, the lack of hard data as to what songs in public domain are being used in the churches that participate in the surveyed reports, and the fact that although there are substantial numbers of congregations that do participate in the CCLI, the results are representative, at best. What can be said about the most often used songs over the past ten years? Beginning comments must underscore that the song of the church is alive and well, it is not stagnant, and it continues to grow. To start anywhere else misses the point that the church has an unquenchable desire to worship and to do so with a new song.  Another matter of rejoicing relates to the growth in the public expression of the worship of the nature and character of God.  It is difficult to remember when the focus of worshiping God in all his attributes has become as important as it is now.

    Along with the good news are some concerns. The variety of the theological themes being sung is very narrow.  The CCLI reporting process only allows for the top twenty-five songs, so it is possible that other songs were being used; however concern must be expressed for the lack of some major themes that seem to be lacking. The limited number of theological themes may reflect a shallowness in the theology of the authors, or weakness in the ability to articulate more encompassing theological truth.  For example, only two songs with an evangelistic missions theme made the list, only four even mention the Holy Spirit, only two have some focus on God’s Word and some themes are not represented at all, such as the church as the Body of Christ, and judgment.

    The majority [68%] of the texts are narrative, that is, the focus is personal experience, even with those texts which contain systematic elements.  At times, one might consider some of the texts too internally focused. For example, consider the lines from the following texts: “You took the fall and thought of me, above all” [Above All]. The purpose of the atonement was not just for one person, but to appease the wrath of God, which resulted in pardon for all those who would respond to God’s grace.  Sometimes in corporate worship, the personal pronoun “I” or “my” is used in a communal sense, more than just a personal experience. However, care must be taken with those texts that are designed for corporate worship that the expressions used are experiences common to all believers, and not just the personal experience of an individual.

    The central focus and goal of the text must be consistent. Consider the following: “All hail King Jesus, all hail Emmanuel, King of kings and Lord of Lords, Bright Morning Star, and for all eternity I’m going to praise Him, and forevermore I will reign with Him” [All Hail King Jesus]. The song moves from praising Christ to a climax that rejoices in a position of personal power. Another one of the texts might easily be taken as a popular love song: “And I, I’m desperate for You” [Breathe]. The focus could easily be interpreted more on personal desperation, than fulfillment in Christ.

    While repetition in and of itself in not uncommon even among the Gospel song tradition, too much repetition of personal pronouns may be problematic: “I am a friend of God, I am a friend of God, I am a friend of God, He calls me friend” [Friend of God].  Some confusion lies here with the personal emphasis. As Kimbrough reminds the reader, “the singing of hymns and spiritual songs should not be a manipulative process for the self-edification of worshipers.”[Kimbrough, The Lyrical Theology of Charles Wesley: A Reader] The goal of corporate worship is the adoration and glorification of God. Even though corporate worship ministers to the individual participant, the goal of worship must not deteriorate to seeking God for the personal self fulfillment.    

    While it is desirable and necessary that new authors and composers rise up to fill the needs of their generation’s expression of worship, the need for sound doctrine is just as great. Worship leaders must become sufficiently adept in theology to recognize doctrinal weaknesses and how to correct the textual issues, or when to refrain from using a text entirely. With the new song we need not fall into the trap that C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery,” thinking that only the newest is the best and worthy of use. Balance is needed, balance in the use of older text and new, and balance in covering all of what is believed, lest a generation is raised having never heard the entirety of the great doctrines of the faith expressed in sung texts.
    In addition to balance, deliverance from chronological snobbery, and modalistic confusions about the Trinity, care must be taken that the universalism of postmodern thought not be allowed to pass through the theological filters for congregational song. The postmodern cries that the only reality that exists is that which the individual creates for himself or for herself might easily find itself in worship proclaiming its message of the absence of absolute truth. Focus must be continually given to texts that are well written, well chosen and appropriate for the context presented and well executed in order to communicate biblical truth shared as a part of worship in the most effective manner possible. The Apostle Paul reminds us that we need to “sing with the spirit, and sing with the understanding also” (I Cor. 14:15).


  1. I read this post with great interest. I would like to read the rest of the paper. May I have a copy sent to againstacedia at gmail dot com? Thank you and God bless.

  2. I would like a complete pdf copy of the study. Thank you.

  3. I'd like a complete copy of the study. Thanks!

  4. Thanks for this! Please send a pdf of the study to


  5. I'd like a pdf of the complete study, please, and thank you for this. I'm so glad to find your website, as this is a topic I've been pondering and studying for several years. Please email to

  6. Thanks, Jeri, for the comments. The file has now been sent.

  7. Dr. Steele, I too would like a copy of your complete study. As a worship, this subject fascinates me. Please email to simon at gillbee dot com. Thanks!

  8. Simon, I will be glad to send it your way. Another resource that you might be interested in is the following book that did an earlier survey:
    Wood, Robert and Brian Walrath. The Message in the Music: Studying Contemporary Praise and Worship. Nashville: Abingdon, 2007.

  9. Please send a copy of your full study to

  10. The full document has been sent to the email address given. I trust that it will be helpful. Robert Woods and Brian Walrath compiled a helpful study on top 25 from 1989-2005 in the book entitled, "The Message in the Music: Studying Contemporary Praise and Worship," published by Abingdon. I recommend it for further study.

  11. Great article! We will be linking to this particularly great post on our site.
    Keep up the good writing. click
    Feel free to visit my web site ;

  12. Would you be so kind as to send a PDF of this study?

  13. Angel, I would be glad to send you a copy. God Bless,

  14. This is a great article and I was just having this conversation with my pastor. Would you be so kind as to send a full PDF to I would greatly appreciate it.

    Keith Johnston

    1. Thanks, I will be glad to send a copy of the full paper.

  15. Would you send a PDF to Thank you and may God bless you richly.

    Danny Stringer

  16. Thanks,for following the blog, Danny. The document has been sent.

  17. Dr. Steele, I am very interested in reading the full study, would you send a copy to Thanks!

    Brian Matthewson

  18. I would be delighted to peruse the rest if you could send a copy to
    Thank you muchly!

  19. I will be glad to send it to you, Danielle.

  20. would love a copy of the full study if still available -

  21. I would love to send you a copy. I will get it off today. Thanks for your interest. God Bless,


  22. This comment has been removed by the author.

  23. I would be glad to. Best wishes on your essay.

  24. Hi, Ed! This is a subject very dear to my heart. Please send me the PDF of the study. Thanks! Bob

  25. Bob:
    Great to hear from you! I'll be glad to send a copy. You should get it as an attachment to an email.

  26. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  27. I was pleased when doing a google search on this topic to have you pop up as a resource. Thank you for your work. If I may ask, please send me the full document.

  28. Thanks, Michael, for the word. I'll get it to you tonight.