Do Lyric Statistics Indicate a Shift in Worship?

Zac HicksHistory of Worship and Church Music, Worship Theology & Thought2 Comments

Bruce Springsteen’s Lyrics, in a CloudWord Stats

Yesterday, Duke scholar Lester Ruth (someone whose work every worship leader should pay attention to) tweeted this interesting stat:

Continuing hymn/CCLI song comparison. Most frequent human verbs in hymns? “sin” and “see”; in CCLI songs? “sing” and “praise”

His sources for study involve, first, a look at the 70 most republished evangelical hymns up to 1860…so, material that many evangelical historians would classify as more “classic” hymns (as opposed to the “gospel hymn” era of post 1860 through the mid twentieth century). He is comparing these hymns to the lyrics of the 108 songs which ever appear on a CCLI top-25 list.

It is extremely hard to assess global data in a way that allows one to make accurate generalizations about shifts in the worship climate of evangelicalism, but I do believe that the kind of work Dr. Ruth is doing is getting closer toward something that allows for objectivity.

Let’s flesh this out. First, we’re talking about human verbs in worship songs, so this doesn’t include or observe divine action.  This is from the vantage point of our action. Secondly, we are talking about the top songs in general rather than the entire sung corpus of any local church.  Still, I think these stats give us some hooks to hang our thoughts on when it comes to what might appear to be some shifting theological emphases in evangelical worship.

God’s Salvation & Human Triumph

It’s interesting that the most common human action-words of yesteryear were terms that are tied up more centrally in the narrative of the gospel. The gospel is predicated upon a realization and recognition of our sin, and many have said well that our recognition of the immensity of God’s grace is directly proportional to how deep and dark we see our sin. The second word, “see,” may not appear at first glance to be a gospel-narrative word, but it is. Looking and seeing, from the Pentateuch to Revelation, is one of the primary actions associated with salvation and reception of God’s grace. Think of Moses holding up the snake in the wilderness (Num 21) and Jesus’ exposition of that as a prefiguring type of Himself on the cross (John 3). Think of all the biblical language that invites people to “come and see what God has done, his awesome deeds for mankind!” (Psalm 66:5, NIV). Think of “beholding,” a synonym of “seeing,” and a host of scriptural quotations pertaining to salvation and God’s actions should start flooding the mind.

Note also that the most common human action-words of days gone by reveal an emphasis on the weakness and passivity of humanity. When I think of “sin,” I’m not usually tempted to think highly of myself. When I think of “see,” I’m inclined to ask, “What or Whom outside of me am I seeing?” I’ve talked on this blog many times about the prevalence of triumphalism in our worship (“God, this is what I’m doing for You”). The shift from “sin” and “see” to “sing” and “praise” I think at least hints toward the triumphalistic trajectory. “Sin” and “see,” though our action, really anticipate God’s action. “Sing” and “praise” are wonderful, biblical actions, as well (they’re imperatives all over the Psalms). But the spotlight is definitely more on us.

Asking Fundamental Questions

Even if you think my analysis is reading in my own biases (which I admit could really be at play here…I’m going on words devoid of their lyrical context, and I’m hyper-sensitive when it comes to triumphalism vis-à-vis the gospel), just take a step back and ask some more fundamental questions.

If I’m reading through the scriptures and seeking to develop a full-orbed biblical theology of corporate, gathered worship, what human action-words should we expect to find? Perhaps it is “sing” and “praise,” especially if you’re just camping out in the Psalms. But once you move beyond the Psalms and listen to the full Scriptural voice about the core themes of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, an entirely different set of human actions comes to the fore, perhaps best summarized in themes of repentance and faith.

Finally, could we also be seeing how music, particularly singing, is starting to move to a more dominant position in the eyes of evangelicals with regards to what worship is? Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to hear people say, when referring to music, “wow, the worship time was great.” Or, we often hear, “first we’ll have a time of worship [i.e. singing], then the sermon.” It’s pretty fair to say, I think, that NO Christian, prior to the twentieth century, would have understood what those expressions mean. The equation of singing with the totality of worship (not as a part of worship, but what worship centrally is) would not compute for nearly two millennia of Christian doxology.

At any given moment in history, it’s hard for people to lift their heads above the fray and take inventory of the water they’re swimming in. At least we can say, in the face of these stats, that we need to pause and reflect on shifts like these and what they mean. Even if our conclusions are dreadfully off (which mine could be), the exercise keeps our evaluative and critical antennae up, which can’t hurt as we seek to faithfully shepherd and pastor God’s flock in worship.

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