In my last blog post I focused on several ways the music/worship leader in the intergenerational church can help promote or foster community through music. This week I will continue the discussion as I talk about how lyrics or text can help promote (or hinder) community.
We-centric- text that includes plural nouns that suggest more than one person is singing to, or about, God.
There is not time or space to adequately discuss the evolution of hymnody in this blog post, but hymn texts have shifted from being more community focused to personal focused in the last 150 years or so. By the 19th century with the rise of evangelicalism, emotionalism, while focusing on personal salvation, writers such as Fanny Crosby and Ira Sankey (and many more) wrote intensely personal hymns with greater use of personal pronouns in the texts. Many of those seeds of personal experience from the 19th century live on today in worship/hymn texts.
While texts of personal experience and personal worship are certainly valid in some situations, in corporate worship we (the church) need to sing more songs with texts that speak of US as a people. Too often we sing songs that use personal pronouns and sung vertically to God. Again, there is nothing wrong with these songs. I love songs like “Lord, I Need You.” But, when worshiping together it’s important that we also include song texts that include pronouns such as we and us. Further, it’s important to sing songs that we essentially sing to one another (horizontal)- admonishing each other and encouraging each other. For instance, who doesn’t have some “love” for “To God Be the Glory?” In this great Fanny Crosby text, we as the people are not singing to God, rather to each other. We remind each other, “great things He hath taught us” and the like, while reminding each other to “Praise the Lord” and to “give Him the glory, great things he hath done.”
In 2009 I did a content study on the top 100 CCLI songs at the time. While the primary focus of the study was theological content, one of the areas I focused on was the use of pronouns and direction of lyric (vertical-to God; horizontal-to each other in community). More than 60 percent of the songs were both vertical and personal in lyrical direction. (See graphs below)
My personal concern was not as much with the larger number of songs with vertical direction, but with the lack of songs that focus on community. These top 100 CCLI songs are comprised of church leaders who report usage of these songs in their worship services over time.
This week, I decided to take a look at the current top 20 CCLI songs and study their pronoun and directionality of lyric use. Much so my disappointment, the trends are not changing in the most popular used songs. Only 35 percent of these texts could be classified as having a community focus (pronoun suggestion we or us) while only 45 percent of the texts are all or mostly horizontal in nature. I believe we need more songs that include “we” and “us” in the texts if we are to be welcoming and community driven. Of the newer songs in the CCLI top list, “Lion and the Lamb” provided the most community focused text. We need more songs like this. Again, hear me, I’m not bashing vertical/personal texts, but there is a severe imbalance of songs used in worship that are community focused. Sometimes a simple change could make all the difference. How hard would it be to have written, “Lord, We Need You?”
It appears that vertical/personal pronoun, emotionally driven texts are here to stay. I’m certainly not opposed to them, but if we are going to promote community in our churches through our music choices, we have to be intentional about selecting a variety of songs, based on theological content, of course, which also include community focused pronouns.
The next time you are selecting a song for worship, check and see if most of the lyrics are not only use personal pronouns, but also are vertical. I bet most of them will be. Keep a running list of great community-focused songs from which to use to help balance out your service. You’ll be glad you did!