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God is king of the whole earth! Sing a well-written song! Sing ye praises with understanding.*

Thunderclouds caught by Sun

* Psalm 47:7, with phrasing from both the NET Bible and the KJV


Image attribution: Morguefile image 6d364f6c68457d828b116ce6baa481e4.jpg, licensed under https://morguefile.com/license

What “Photobombs” May Reveal

Characteristics of Songs with Many Photobombs

Last time, I compared the frequency of various worship moods in 150 examples of contemporary Christian music (CCM) against their frequency in the Psalms, and concluded that, overall, CCM compared well.

This time I will consider just the 14 songs which contain the greatest number of lines that I consider to be “photobombs”. The frequency chart is at the top of this post, and reveals some things that worry me.

Me, me, me!

In a full 58% of the lyrics, the focus is on the songwriter’s own emotions. About a fifth of those occurrences (12% overall) are expressed humbly, in a way that does not photobomb, but in 46% (overall) of the lyrics, the writer’s own face is in the frame in a way that draws attention to themselves rather than to God.

Less of God, More of Me

To make room for this plethora of self, God has to take a back seat. Only 14% of the lyrics directly glorify God for his works and acts, unlike the 30% or so in the Psalms and the broader spectrum of contemporary Christian music.

Shaky Expression of Doctrine 

9% of the lyrics are muddled and imprecise or misleading in their statements of Christian doctrine, three times as great as the proportion in the 150 CCM songs that I considered overall.

Inadvertently God-Dishonouring Prayer

6% of the lyrics are in the nature of prayer expressed to God, but three-quarters of them are what I define as improper prayer—for instance, prayers that beseech God to give something that Scripture says he has already given and promised not to take away.

Absence of Confession

These 14 songs have no lyrics at all in which confession is expressed to God, not even a feeble, self-excusing confession. Now, the sample is small, so should not be leaned on too heavily. Nevertheless, this absence seems to be consistent with the other shortcomings of these songs. The one who is forgiven much loves much; the ones who are not deeply aware of how expensively they have been forgiven, don’t sing much about it.

My Fear

I fear that these statistics hint that the songwriters have little grasp of what God has done for them in Jesus Christ and through the gift of his Spirit. I fear that they base the assurance of their standing with God on the depth of their own emotional response to him, and that response—however intense sometimes—is not well-founded. If it were based on the vision of Jesus Christ on the cross and salvation by limitless grace, that is what would be the preoccupying subject of their songs.

Instead, their preoccupation is to examine and proclaim, not God but their own response to God, and to seek the intensification of their own feelings of worship, the better to assure themselves that their faith is the real thing. 

NB, I am only talking here about the writers of songs that have a large number of photobombs. Darlene Zscech’s song “Shout to the Lord” has just one line which I consider to be an unfortunate photobomb, but the rest of the song and the rest of Darlene’s work leave no doubt that her faith rests on a strong foundation. Such proportionately small occurrences of photobombs are not what I am talking about, though I hope that songwriters will learn to avoid them altogether.

A Pastoral Application?

Do you have a writer of Christian songs in your congregation? No doubt, you have praised and sought to encourage their talent. However, if you now recognise that photobombs frequently occur in their lyrics, I believe they may be revealing that their Christian faith is insecure. Encouragement of their talent won’t solve that problem. They need a different kind of building up from you.

And, if you have no songwriters but you recognise that some seem to prefer “photobombish” songs to the kind that more objectively praise God, I think that, too, can point you to insecure faith that needs to be strengthened by the objective meat of the God’s Word.

Overflowing photobombs point to underflowing faith—I am sure of it.

Worship Moods in Psalms and Contemporary Christian Music

Worship Moods in the Psalms

In my previous post, I explained how it was possible to assign each line of the Psalms to one of seven “moods”. The pie chart at the top of this post shows the proportion of each mood within the whole of the Psalms. 

  • The mood that occurs most often (almost 29%) is one in which the Psalmist extols God’s actions that affect either the whole world or all the people of God.
  • Similar in mood but in a much smaller proportion (3.5%) is a mood in which God is praised for actions that just affect the Psalmist and his family.
  • The second most common mood (26.5%) is one in which the Psalmist is making prayer or lamentation to God
  • Third in frequency (19.5%) are lines where the Psalmist is giving teaching or exhortation. (Not warnings, though. They merited separation into a separate category, I decided).
  • Next in frequency (almost 11%) are lines where the Psalmist expresses his personal response to the person or actions of God.
  • Fifth most common (9%) are warnings.
  • Finally, there are confessions of sin (2%).

Worship Moods in a Sample of Popular Contemporary Christian Music

The chart below shows  the proportion of each mood in the 150 contemporary Christian songs that I evaluated.

Comparing the Two

  • We can see that contemporary Christian music (CCM) spends more time singing about the acts of God than do the Psalms…
  • …but the difference in proportion is not huge, and both sets are similar in that this mood of praise is the most frequent one.
  • There is more “Exhortation/Teaching” in CCM than in the Psalms.
  • Warnings are absent from CCM.
  • There is much less prayer and lament in CCM.
  • There is the same amount of confession overall, but some of it in CCM is of the feeble kind.

There is significantly more expression of the songwriter’s personal response to God in CCM than in the Psalms, and over a third of that is in the photobomb category.

Thinking About the Differences

  1. Relative Lack of Prayer and Lament in Contemporary Christian Music
  • Some of the difference could be explained by the different eschatalogical age in which we live. In the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we have seen fulfilled much of what the Old Testament saints could only look forward to. We have more to look back on with rejoicing.
  • Nevertheless, we still experience much suffering, and will do so until the advent of the new heavens and earth.
  • I wonder, then: are our Christian songwriters overselling the joyous positives of Christian faith and downplaying the hardships? And, if so, are they setting up some to fail when the rose-tinted view of the Christian life they have imbibed collides with times of testing? I hope that songwriters might think and pray about this, and see where the Spirit of God leads them in their future songwriting.
  1. Twice as Much Focus on the Writer’s Personal Response to God
  • CCM spends more time singing about the writer’s response to God. 
  • Moreover, as well as such lines being twice as frequent, over a third of such lines are ones that I would classify as photobombs.
  • We should remember, though, that over a third of the songs I reviewed are completely free of photobombs.The overly me-centredness of some other songs may give conservative worshippers a bad impression of CCM generally, but that conclusion is not deserved. 

Conclusion So Far

  • The top third of the popular contemporary Christian songs I studied are very good in their Biblical content and the Biblical manner of their approach to God. They are suitable for use in most Christian contexts, including in age-diverse and/or education-diverse congregations.
  • There are other songs, too, that would be excellent in different contexts, but which I do not recommend for age-diverse or education-diverse congregations.
  • The “Contemporary Christian Music Lyrics Moods” chart earlier in this post was generated from the whole spectrum of songs, from the best to the worst. If a chart were created that omitted say the 10 or 20% bottom-rated songs, the chart for the remainder would be even more favourable.
  • A worship service in which a whole, diverse congregation can sing together with joy and reverence is not a pipe dream. It can be done!

Previewing my Next Post

My next post will present a pie chart for the 14 songs in which “photobombs” are most prevalent, and ask whether there are other important lessons revealed by the chart.

A Scale for Evaluating Christian Songs for Age-Diverse and/or Education-Diverse Worship

My previous post published my ratings of 150 popular contemporary Christian songs. As promised, this new post will explain the scale I used. 

I evaluated each song by a 9-step process. In what follows, I will go through the process in rigorous detail, setting out all the minute steps I used in getting to the ratings I published in the last post. Don’t let that seem overwhelming. I wanted to be very, very careful, so that I would be able to justify the scores I arrived at, knowing that I intended to publish the result. Ordinarily, though, I would just look on the steps as establishing a kind of mindset for evaluating a song, so that anyone in charge of song selection could look over the lyrics of a new song and quickly decide, “Yes, that one will fly in our age-diverse congregation”, or, “No, it won’t”. You probably do that already by a kind of intuition, but I hope that the ground I am traversing in these posts will help you to explain to members of the youth band exactly why a particular song is unsuitable.

Step 1—Delete repeated lines

Paste the lyrics into a word-processor and delete all repeated lines. 

  • We are evaluating the song on the basis of its unique lines only. To take an extreme example, if a song happened to have one really good line, repeated 10 times, plus 5 other lines, unrepeated, that were rubbish, we wouldn’t want the repeated good line to bias the score so that the song scored better than it really deserved. And, likewise, if an otherwise good song is marred by one line that is a clunker and, unfortunately, the line is repeated several times, we don’t want the repetition to sink the song’s score lower than it deserves.

Step 2—One worshipful statement per line

Either join lines together or split them so that, if possible, each line in your working copy of the lyrics has a verb, or a verb that is implied from the previous clause, and so that each line in the working copy constitutes a single, complete worshipful statement.

  • Example 1 (splitting a line): Suppose a line says, “Lord, you are the king of glory and of grace”. That line is actually making two worshipful statements about God, “You are the king of glory” and “You are the king of grace”. We want those two statements both to be counted towards the songs overall score, so, to make that happen, we split the songwriter’s original single line into two: “You are the king of Glory // and of grace”. 
  • Example 2 (joining two or more lines): “Who Am I” (Mark Hall :: Casting Crowns, 2003) has two lines that constitute just one worshipful statement: “And You’ve told me who I am. // I am Yours, I am Yours”. The second line explains the first, and the full meaning of the first line is incomplete without the second line, so the two lines need to be joined and rated as a unit, not as two separate thoughts. (For those who are grammatically-minded, the second line is in apposition to the last clause of the first line.)
  • Another example, also from “Who Am I”. One of the verses has these lines:
Who am I, that the eyes that see my sin 
Would look on me with love and watch me rise again? 
Who am I, that the voice that calmed the sea
Would call out through the rain 
And calm the storm in me? 
  • The second line describes two praise-deserving acts by God—”look on me with love” and “watch me rise again”. Therefore, it is best to split this line into two when evaluating it.
  • However, the second-last line is there for poetic effect, and it is excellent in that role, but God’s calling out through the rain is plainly not the divine action that the songwriter wants us to focus on as the reason for praising God; it is that God calmed “the storm in me”. Therefore, the second-last and last lines need to be joined and evaluated together.
  • Don’t panic. As I said earlier, I went to this level of (attempted) precision in my own project, and I’m explaining it here so you can understand my scores, but I’m not advocating that others apply the method in all its details when they consider a song—just the general ideas.

Step 3—Paste into a spreadsheet

Paste your edited copy of the lyrics into column B of a spreadsheet so that each line of the lyrics is in a separate row, and put the song’s title in column A, alongside the first line of the lyrics.

Step 4—Colour-code each line

In this step of the process, I set each line’s background colour to reflect its faithfulness to the Bible and what function the line plays in the song. (For brevity, I called the latter the “mood” of the line.) If you consider the table below, you can see what I mean.

(There is a black-and-white version of this table below, from which you can copy and paste if you wish.)
MoodColourIndex
God acts in respect of his creation, or his people, in general#ffff001
God acts for me#d4d4052
Exhortation / Teaching#d9d2e93
Questionable#b4a7d64
Warning#fce5cd5
Prayer / Lament#d9ead36
Improper Prayer#b6d7a87
Weak Confession#e6b8af8
Confession#dd7e6b9
Personal Response#c9daf810
Photobomb#9fc5e811
  • I came to an initial list of “moods” as the result of an analysis I made of the book of Psalms. I considered every line of every Psalm and asked the questions, “What is the function or mood of this line? What role does it play in the way worship is evoked by this Psalm?” The description that seemed to fit the first nine lines of Psalm 1 (verses 1-3) was “Exhortation / Teaching”, so that became the first item in the list I was building. The description that seemed to fit almost the whole remainder of the Psalm was “Warning”, but the first part of verse 6 (”For the Lord knoweth the way of the righteous”) seemed to warrant a different description, “God acts”.
  • All the lines of Psalm 2 also seemed to belong to one of those three categories, but Psalm 3:1-2 seemed to require a new category, “Prayer / Lament”.
  • And so the process continued. By the time I reached the end of Psalm 150, I was satisfied that each line of the Psalms could be assigned to one of just seven categories, those numbered 1-3, 5, 6, 9 & 10 in the table above. (No, I did not engineer my category identifications to arrive at a list of seven; that was simply the number I found on my list at the end of the process.)
  • However, when I began to apply those categories to an analysis of contemporary Christian music, I realised that there was a need for four more. Some “teaching” in some songs is Biblically dubious, so “Questionable”. Some prayers are, I believe, prayers that, unintentionally but actually, dishonour God, so “Improper Prayer”. Some confession is feeble and somewhat self-excusing, so “Weak Confession”. And some lines are photobombs of the kind I discussed in my post “Floodlight or Photobomb?”. Therefore, the list grew, finally, to eleven categories.
  • So, “faithfulness to the Bible” encompasses more than just doctrinal accuracy. Lines that are marked “Questionable” indeed fail the faithfulness test because of their careless doctrinal ambiguity, but “Improper Prayer”, “Weak Confession”, and “Photobombs” fail the faithfulness test because they fall short of the manner in which the Bible, I believe, teaches us to worship God.

So, if you ever want to use this method, colour-code each line of the lyrics according to my table. NB, set the background colour, not the font colour.

Step 6—Calculate a Biblical Conformity Score

If every line of the song fits one of the seven categories I arrived at in my analysis of the Psalms, its “Biblical Conformity” (“BC) score is 100. Otherwise, calculate a  BC score by the steps shown in the table below. (The numbers come from an actual song, but I won’t say which one).

A. How many lines* in the song?
15
B. How many lines fall into categories 4, 7, 8, or 11?
1
C. Lines that fit the Psalms categories (i,e, A minus B)15 – 1 =14
D. Resulting score: C ÷ A, as a rounded percentage but without the % sign.(14/15)% =93
* That is, the number of lines in the edited version of the lyrics that was made in step 2.

Step 7—Identify bad grammar and poor poetry

A song’s Biblical Conformity score may be high—even 100—but it still may suffer because of poor poetry or bad grammar, and related faults of the kind I discussed in my “With One Voice” post.

Recapping, these faults include:

  • Phrases chosen to fit the tune
  • Non sequiturs
  • Nonsense statements
  • Forced rhymes
  • Unusual poetic form, likely to confuse an ordinary congregation 
  • Ill-fitting changes of tense
  • Missing needed words
  • Ungrammatical extraneous words
  • Slangy abbreviations
  • Slangy space-fillers
  • Sloppy sentimentality

If a line in a song shows at least one of these faults, change its font colour to gray. (I used a shade of gray just two shades lighter than black, so that it was easy to distinguish from black but still easy to read against a coloured background). 

After gray-fonting the sub-standard lines, use the steps in the following table to calculate the song’s score in regard to the grammar and poetry factors.

A. How many lines in the song?
15
E. How many lines have been changed to gray font?
5
F. Lines that don’t have this kind fault (i,e, A minus E)15 – 5 =10

(10/15)% =67

For ease of reference, I call this score the “Coherence” score. Is the song telling its story coherently, or has the story-telling been made incoherent or even juvenile by its bad poetry and bad grammar?

Step 8—Evaluate the song’s “weight”

Imagine two songs. Both score 100 for the Biblical conformity of their doctrine and manner of their approach to God, and both score 100 for the coherence of their story-telling—the standard of their poetry and their handling of the English language. Nevertheless, as you read the two sets of lyrics, you realise that, in one song every line is somehow profound in what it says and how it says it, but in the other song, some of the lines seem trivial, without the same power to bring you to your knees before God. A final criterion therefore needs to be applied as we evaluate the songs. I have called this criterion the song’s weight.

Under this criterion, some faults that have already reduced the Biblical Conformity and Coherence scores may or may not need be counted a second time. For instance, you may have coded a line as doctrinally questionable, so it reduced the Biblical Conformity score, but you can still see that the songwriter was trying to say something weighty but they just did it ineptly. In that case, you wouldn’t rate that line as lightweight. On the other hand, if the line was not only doctrinally questionable but also trivial in its subject, it would be counted as lightweight. Likewise with photobombs. In some photobombs, the songwriter was trying to say something weighty but inept phrasing created a photobomb, whereas other lines are not only photobombs but their content is also flimsy.

Obviously, your subjective judgment is going to influence this score more than the other two scores, but I nevertheless think it is an evaluation that you should try to make. Otherwise, you will find that you have given an overall score of 100  to a song that your intuition tells you simply doesn’t deserve a rating that high when you compare it to other songs that truly do deserve the top rating.

Example

Surrender (Marc James, 2003) has the following lyrics, when repeated lines have been deleted:

I’m giving you my heart, and all that is within
I lay it all down for the sake of you my King
I’m giving you my dreams,
I’m laying down my rights
I’m giving up my pride for the promise of new life
And I surrender all to you, all to you
I’m singing You this song,
I’m waiting at the cross
And all the world holds dear, I count it all as loss
For the sake of knowing You
for the glory of Your name
To know the lasting joy, even sharing in Your pain

I italicised six of those 12 lines because, to me, they seem lightweight. They almost seem to invite me to worship Marc James for his commitment, rather than Christ for his glory. On the other hand, the other six lines do seem to me to have a solid, worshipful weight to them. Therefore, I gave this song a “Weight” of 50%.

Example 2

Even Darlene Zsech’s otherwise great song, Shout to the Lord (1996), has one line that to me is lightweight and a presumptuous photobomb because of the way it momentarily takes the spotlight off the Lord and shines it on the singer. The line is, “Forever I’ll love You”, and because of its presence in the song, which has 19 unrepeated lines, I score the song only 18/19 = 95 for Biblical Conformity and the same for Weight. 

Example 3

You Are My King (Billy James Foote :: Newsboys, 2003), has this line: “I’m alive and well”. Do you see my point that such lines can be perfectly true, yet be lightweight? It is almost an anticlimax in amongst other, more profound, lines in the song.

Example 4

I rated “10,000 Reasons” (Jonas Myrin, Matt Redman, 2011) as 100:100:100 = 100 overall, but I rated “Your Grace Is Enough” (Matt Maher, 2008) as 100:100:87 = 87 overall. For copyright reasons, I won’t include the lyrics here, but if you have those two songs, read them side by side, and see if you agree with me, that though both songs do a good job of drawing us to worship, “10,000 Reasons” does it better.

Step 9—Calculate the OVERALL Score

Taking my ratings of Shout to the Lord as an example, calculate the overall score as shown in the following table.


Out of 100As a decimal
G. Biblical conformity95.95
H. Coherence1001
I. Weight95.95
J. Multiply G x H x I (their decimal values)
.95 x 1 x .95 = .9025
K. Convert J to a whole- number percentage 
90


Final Comments

A song’s overall score arrived at by this system is not intended to function as an absolute rating of the song’s merit. It is just a tool for evaluating how likely the song is to be suitable to sing in an age-diverse and/or education-diverse congregation, or a congregation that includes people who feel uplifted by the relative solemnity of older liturgical forms. (The latter group will be especially sensitive to the weight, or lack of it, in a song, which is why it is worthwhile for you to become adept at assessing that aspect.)

Although there is a degree of subjectivity in the scores arrived at, I nevertheless am sure that the lower the score a song receives in this system, the greater the number of people in your congregation who will be uncomfortable about singing it. It is just a “ballpark” guideline, but it is, nonetheless, a useful one, I believe.

And, as I have tried to indicate by also using the description “education-diverse”, my scores do not apply only to age-diverse congregations, There may be younger believers whose education has given them a sharp appreciation of the difference between good poetry and bad, and between banality and weight, and they are quietly enduring many a song that the youth band thinks is the latest, greatest thing.

I hope that the system, or at least the set of concepts behind it, proves useful to you as you prepare your song lists for worship services,

Trevor Morrison

December, 2019


Image Source

The image (my copyright) at the top of this post is a pie chart that shows the proportons of the 11 different “moods” across the 150 Christian songs I have evaluated so far.

In my next post, I’ll compare this chart with a similar one for the Psalms. (Preview: the comparison is not unfavourable, but does raise some issues that writers of Christian worship music should probably think about.)

Worshipping as One in Age-Diverse and/or Education-Diverse Congregations

Are you a song leader who needs to choose worship songs suitable for singing by an age-diverse or education diverse congregation? The list that accompanies this blog post may be helpful to you.

So far, I have evaluated 150 popular contemporary Christian songs against a list of pitfalls that can make songs unsuitable for use in many congregations. (I discussed those pitfalls in my previous two posts, which you can read here and here.)

I had intended to publish a list of just the songs that didn’t have any of the faults that I had discussed—in other words, the 100%ers. I have since realised that I need to publish my rankings of all the songs I have considered. Otherwise, inevitably, some readers would wonder where I had ranked some song that was a personal favourite of theirs, if I hadn’t listed it in the top bracket. Therefore, the full list will accompany this post.

In compiling the list of songs, I took as my starting point Genius.com’s Top 100 Contemporary Christian Songs. That list has mostly songs written since about the year 2000, so I also added some still-widely-sung songs from earlier decades, and some from other lists I came across as I worked on this project. Inevitably, I’ll have omitted some songs that deserve to be included. Feel free to let me know their titles via this blog’s comments facility.

My next post will, I intend, explain my rating system, but in the meantime I ask you to take the system on trust. It is based on the matters I discussed in my previous two posts, so if you found yourself mostly in agreement with what I said there, you are likely to agree substantially with my system when I explain it.

Songs that I have evaluated are given a rating from 100 all the way down to 0. (Yes, there are some top 100 “Christian” songs that are so defective, I believe, that they truly deserve a zero rating.) 

I suggest that you use the ratings in the following way as you consider songs for use in your age-diverse or education-diverse congregation:

  • The 100%ers should generally be safe to use, but you still will need to evaluate the lyrics in terms of your specific congregation. Some lyrics may be too Calvinistic for an Arminian congregation, or too Arminian for a Reformed congregation, or too “Pentecostal” for a congregation that firmly believes that the charismatic gifts have ceased, and so on. In weighing the doctrinal soundness of each song’s lyrics, I have deliberately chosen not to adjudicate on issues like that, where the different camps nevertheless generally recognise each other as true members of Christ’s Church.  I want my list to be a service to you, a list that you can use as a starting point and refine to the profile of your own specific congregation.
  • Songs in the 90 to 99 range will often be safe to use, too. They have lost a few points because of minor blemishes, but you may consider that everyone in your congregation will gladly overlook those faults for the sake of the song’s other merits, so you can go ahead and use it. If you feel free to change a word or a phrase here or there on the PowerPoint of the lyrics, you may even be able to remove the blemishes altogether.
  • The lower a rating is below 90, though, the greater and greater becomes the chance that, if you include that song in your setlist, at least some in your congregation will feel unable to express worship to God through that song.

Keep in mind that my ratings only apply to the question, “Is this song likely to be suitable for use in an age-diverse or education-diverse congregation?” A song that has only a middling rating on my scale may be fine for singing in a different context. There are a number of songs that don’t score well here, but which I personally would score near 100 if used in a different Christian setting.

Nevertheless, if your congregation regularly sings a song that I’ve only rated 50 (say), and you think that it is a quite diverse congregation and “no one has ever grumbled about that song”, it could be worth asking a quiet question or two. It may be that some in the congregation are graciously enduring the song for the sake of others, but are not themselves drawn into worship by it. That means, I believe, that your song choice is not optimum, because the ideal is—I think you will agree—that every true Christian should be able to offer worship through every song.

Caveat: My scale does not yet consider singability; it only considers the songs’ suitability in terms of their lyrics. If your experience shows that a song on my list is difficult for an average congregation to sing, please use the blog’s comments facility to let me know.

The tables below show my ratings as at the date of first publication of this blog post, At the bottom of the post, there is a link from which you an download a PDF of the table. As I discover other songs and evaluate them, I will update the PDF and publish a note on this site that I have done so, but I do not plan to update this original set of tables.

The 100%ers

Song Year Writer(s) ArtistScore
10,000 Reasons/Bless the Lord O my soul2011Jonas Myrin, Matt RedmanMatt Redman100
All Glory Be to Christ2012Dustin KensrueKings Kaleidoscope100
Amazing Grace Chorus2008Chris Tomlin, Louie GiglioChris Tomlin100
Ancient of Days2018Jonny Robinson, Rich Thompson, Michael Farren, Jesse ReevesCityAlight100
As the Deer1984Martin J. Nystrom
100
Be Still for the Presence of the Lord1986David J Evans
100
Before The Throne Of God Above (Vikki Anne Cook tune)2004Charitie Lees Smith (1863), Vikki Anne CookSelah100
Behold Our God2011Ryan Baird, Meghan Baird, Jonathan Baird, Stephen AltroggeSovereign Grace Music100
Blessed be Your Name2004Beth Redman, Matt RedmanNewsboys100
Bring the Rain2007James Bryson, Nathan Cochran, Barry Graul, Michael John Scheuchzer, Bart MillardMercyMe100
By His Wounds2007David Nasser, Mac PowellGlory Revealed100
Children of the Living God1996Fernando Ortega
100
Christ is Mine Forevermore2016Jonny Robinson, Rich ThompsonCityAlight100
Christ The Sure and Steady Anchor2015Matt Papa, Matt BoswellMatt Papa100
Come Behold the Wondrous Mystery2013Matt Boswell, Matt Papa, Michael BleeckerMatt Papa100
Come Thou Fount (Jadon Lavik tune)2008Robert Robinson (1758)Jadon Lavik100
Come to Jesus / Untitled Hymn2002Chris RiceChris Rice100
Come to the Feast2013Jeff LawsonSandra McCracken, Jeff Lawson100
God Is for Us2018Michael Farren, James Ferguson, Tiarne Tranter, Jesse Reeves, Jonny Robinson, James Tealy, Rich ThompsonCityAlight100
God of the Poor1993Graham KendrickGraham Kendrick100
He Will Hold Me Fast2012Ada Habershon (˜1900), Matt MerkerMatt Merker100
Here I am. Lord (Lord of Skies and Sea)1981Anna Laura Page, Dan SchutteDan Schutte100
His Mercy Is More2016Matt Boswell, Matt PapaMatt Papa100
Holy, Holy, Holy1996Gary OliverAlvin Slaughter100
How Can I Keep from Singing2006Chris Tomlin, Ed Cash, Matt Redman, Robert LowryChris Tomlin100
How deep the Father’s love for us1995Stuart TownendStuart Townend100
How Great Is Our God2004Chris Tomlin, Ed Cash, Jesse ReevesChris Tomlin100
I Can Only Imagine1999Bart MillardMercyMe100
I Will Rise2008Chris Tomlin, Jesse Reeves, Louie Giglio, Matt MaherChris Tomlin100
Indescribable2004Jesse Reeves, Laura StoryChris Tomlin100
Is He Worthy?2018Ben Shive, Andrew PetersonAndrew Peterson100
Jesus Messiah2008Chris Tomlin, Daniel Carson, Ed Cash, Jesse ReevesChris Tomlin100
Knowing You1993Graham KendrickGraham Kendrick100
Lifesong2005Mark HallCasting Crowns100
Lord I Lift Your Name On High1997Rick Doyle FoudsMaranatha! Singers100
My Worth Is Not in What I Own (At the Cross)2014Keith Getty, Kristyn Getty, Graham KendrickGraham Kendrick100
Offering2003Paul BalochePaul Baloche100
Praise Him1986Winston Godfrey RodneyNew Jersey Mass Choir100
Praise the Name of Jesus1975Roy Hicks Jnr
100
Shine, Jesus, Shine1987Graham KendrickGraham Kendrick100
Speak O Lord2005Stuart Townend, Keith GettyKeith & Kristyn Getty, Stewart Townend100
The Lord Is My Salvation2016Keith Getty, Kristyn Getty, Nathan Nockels, Jonas MyrinKeith, Kristyn Getty100
This I Believe (The Creed)2014Ben Fielding, Matt CrockerHillsong Worship100
Who You Say I Am2018Ben Fielding, Reuben MorganHillsong Worship100
Worthy Is The Lamb2001Darlene ZscechHilsong100
Your Love Oh Lord2000Brad Avery, David Carr, Mac Powell,Third Day100

99-90

Song YearWriter(s)ArtistScore
I Am2018Mark SchultzMark Schultz97
I belong to Jesus (Oh, hallelujah)2019Michael Farren, Travis Ryan,Todd SmithSelah96
Living Hope2018Brian Johnson, Phil WickhamPhil Wickham96
One True God2007David Allen Clark, Mark R. HarrisMark Harris96
In Christ Alone2001Stuart Townend, Keith GettyNewsboys95
My Savior My God2005Aaron Shust, Dorothy GreenwellAaron Shust95
What a Beautiful Name2016Ben Fielding, Brooke LigertwoodHillsong95
Lead Me to the Cross2007Brooke FraserChris and Conrad94
Man Of Sorrows2013Matt Crocker, Brooke LigertwoodHillsong Australia94
O Praise The Name (Anastasis)2015Benjamin Hastings , Dean Ussher, Marty SampsonHillsong Worship94
Yet Not I but Through Christ in Me2018Jonny Robinson, Michael Farren, Rich ThompsonCityAlight94
Build My Life2016Brett Younker, Karl Martin, Kirby Kaple, Matt Redman, Pat BarrettPat Barrett93
Cornerstone2012Edward Mote, Eric Liljero, Jonas Myrin, Reuben Morgan, William BradburyHillsong Worship93
Lord, I Need You2011Matt Maher, Christy Nockels, Jesse Reeves, Kristian Stanfill, Daniel CarsonMatt Maher93
See His Love2005Tom LockleyJesus Culture93
We Will Feast in the House of Zion2015Joshua Moore, Sandra McCrackenSandra McCracken93
Cry Out to Jesus2005Brad Avery, David Carr, Mac Powell, Mark D. LeeThird Day92
You Reign2007Bart Millard, Barry Graul, Steven Curtis ChapmanMercyMe92
East to West2007Bernie Herms, Mark HallCasting Crowns90
Everlasting God2006Brenton Brown, Ken RileyLincoln Brewster90
Shout To The Lord (My Jesus, My Saviour)1996Darlene ZschechHillsong90
Your Name2006Paul Baloche, Glenn PackiamPhillips Craig, Dean90

89-70

SongYearWriter(s)ArtistScore
God You Reign2008Lincoln Brewster, Mia FieldesLincoln Brewster89
God, You’re So Good2018Brett Younker, Kristian Stanfill, Brooke Ligertwood, Scott LigertwoodPassion88
O Come to the Altar2016Mack Brock, Wade Joye, Chris Brown, Steven FurtickElevation Collective88
Empty Me2008Chris Sligh, Tony Wood, Clint LagerbergChris Sligh86
Forever2013Jenn Johnson, Gabriel Wilson, Joel Taylor, Christa Black Gifford, Bryan Johnson, Kari JobeKari Jobe86
He Reigns2003Peter Furler, Steve R. TaylorNewsboys86
Who Am I2003Mark HallCasting Crowns86
Your Grace Finds Me2013Matt Redman, Jonas MyrinMatt Redman86
No Limit to Your Love2017John Van DeusenJohn Van Deusen81
All Because of Jesus2007Steve FeeSteve Fee80
Your Grace Is Enough2008Matt MaherMatt Maher80
O God of Our Salvation2010Matt Boswell, Michael BleeckerMatt Boswell77
Your Love Never Fails2008Chris McClarney, Anthony SkinnerJesus Culture77
Sea of Faces2004Aaron Sprinkle, James Mead, Jon Micah Sumrall, Kyle Mitchell, Ryan ShroutKutless76
In The Hands Of God2009Peter Furler, Steve Taylor, Jeff FrankensteinNewsboys75
Awesome God1998Rich MullinsRich Mullins74
Your Grace Is Enough2003Matt MaherMatt Maher74
Above All2000Paul Baloche, Lenny Le BlancPaul Baloche72

69-40

SongYearWriter(s)ArtistScore
Here I Am2008Bill Deaton, Rebecca St James, Eric ChampionDownhere68
Sovereign God2007Anthony BrownMaurette Brown Clark68
You Are My King (Amazing Love)2003Billy James FooteNewsboys67
Mighty to Save2006Ben Fielding, Reuben MorganHillsong United65
There Will Be A Day2008Jeremy CampJeremy Camp65
This Man2004Jeremy CampJeremy Camp65
Great Are You Lord2012David Leonard, Jason Ingram, Leslie JordanAll Sons and Daughters63
The Lion and the Lamb2015Brenton Brown, Brian Johnson , Leeland MooringBig Daddy Weave62
Nobody2018Matthew West, John Hall, Bernie HermsCasting Crowns58
Spoken For2002Bart Millard, Robby Shaffer, Pete Kipley, Nathan Cochran, Mike Scheuchzer, Jim BrysonMercyMe57
God of Wonders2001Marc Byrd, Steve HindalongCaedmon’s Call55
Saved The Day2006Michael NealePhillips, Craig, Dean52
Friend of Sinners2011Matt Redman: Casting Crowns50
Top of My Lungs2006Tony Wood, Jim Odom, Ryan WingoPhillips, Craig and Dean48
Here I Am To Worship2001Tim HughesTim Hughes45
Revelation Song2009Jennie Lee RiddleJennie Lee Riddle44
You Say2018Paul Mabury, Lauren Daigle, Jason IngramLauren Daigle44
Redeemer2000Nicole C. MullenNicole C. Mullen43
Father, Let Your Kingdom Come2017Ben Cooper, Isaac Wardell, Latifah Alattas, Liz Vice, Madison Cunningham, Orlando Palmer, Paul ZachPorter’s Gate/Urban Doxology42
Love Is Here2008Mike Donehey, Jason Ingram, Phillip LaRue, Drew MiddletonTenth Avenue North42
Great is Our God2012Eric MarshallYoung Oceans40
Hallelujah You’re Worthy2003Judith Christie McallisterBrooklyn Tabernacle Choir40

39-0

SongYearWriter(s)ArtistScore
Presence2004Peter Furler, Tim Hughes, Steve TaylorNewsboys37
Thank You2001Joe, Sam, Jesse, Joe, & John KatinaThe Katinas37
Holy is the Lord2004Chris Tomlin, Louie GiglioChris Tomlin36
Promise Of A Lifetime2006Aaron Sprinkle, Jon Micah SumrallKutless32
I Still Believe2002Jeremy CampJeremy Camp31
The Power of Your Love1992Geoff BullockHillsong31
Ocean2001Lamont HebertTen Shekel Shirt30
He Will Carry Me2003Mark Schultz, Dennis KurtilaMark Schultz29
Here With Me2004Dan Muckala, Brad Russell, Peter KipleyMercyMe29
It Is You2002Peter FurlerNewsboys29
Promises2019Antoine Bradford, Sienna BradfordAntoine Bradford29
Surrender2000Marc JamesMarc James26
The More I Seek You2002Kari JobeGateway Worship25
We Are The Free2011Matt Redman, Jonas MyrinMatt Redman25
Hold My Heart2008Jason Ingram, Mike Donehey, Phillip LaRueTenth Avenue North24
I Will Lift My Eyes2006Bebo Norman, Jason IngramBebo Norman20
Breathe2001Marie BarnettMichael W. Smith19
One Thing Remains2010Brian Johnson, Christa Black Gifford, Jeremy RiddleJesus Culture18
From The Inside Out2008Joel HoustonHillsong United16
How He Loves2005John Mark McMillanDavid Crowder Band16
Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)2013Matt Crocker, Joel Houston, Salomon LigthelmHillsong United16
Open The Eyes Of My Heart1998Paul BalochePaul Baloche16
Word of God Speak2002Bart Millard, Pete KipleyMercyMe16
Mountain Of God2005Brown Bannister, Mac PowellThird Day15
Show me Your Glory2001Mac Powell, Marc Byrd, Mark D. Lee, Bradley B. C. Avery, Samuel Tai Anderson, David CarrThird Day13
We Give You Glory2006Jeremy CampJeremy Camp13
While I’m Waiting2009John WallerJohn Waller13
Walk By Faith2002Jeremy CampJeremy Camp12
Days Of Elijah1994Robin MarkHillsong11
Born Again2008Brad Avery, David Carr, Mac Powell, Mark Lee, Samuel AndersonThird Day8
Take You Back2004Jeremy CampJeremy Camp8
You’re Not Alone2008Meredith AndrewsMeredith Andrews8
You Are Everything2008Matthew West, Samuel MizellMatthew West7
In Better Hands2008Catt Gravitt, Thom Ronald Hardwell, Jim DaddarioNatalie Grant5
I Could Sing of Your Love Forever1997Martin SmithMercyMe4
I Worship You
Regie Hamm, Pete KipleyMercyMe4
8142019Mark Barlow, Hailey Swags, Benjamin Robert SchulerIsla Vista Worship2
Always2009Jon ForemanSwitchfoot1
City on our Knees2009Cary Barlowe, Jamie Moore, ​Toby MacCary Barlowe, Jamie Moore, ​Toby Mac0
Nothing Without You2004Bebo Norman, Mitch Dane GoskieBebo Norman0
The Motions2008Jason Houser, Matthew West, Sam MizellMatthew West0
Undo2007Scott Davis, Wes Willis, Kevin HuguleyRush Of Fools0

Click here to download a PDF of the table of ratings as a single table.


Image source: csp5106391, Three Generations, (c) Can Stock Photo / pressmaster

With One Voice

Think about this: when you choose a song to be sung by the congregation in Christian worship, you are asking every member of the congregation to take those words into their mouth and offer thanks and praise and commitment to God through them. Some songs, though, have faults which can distract some people from worship, and may even kill the sense of worship altogether.

The goal, when you choose worship songs, should not be that everyone should have their turn at feeling their heart uplifted in worship, but then have to groan at the next number, feeling that they have to bear with it for the sake of others in the congregation. Rather, shouldn’t your goal be to make such discerning song choices that everyone can worship resoundingly with every song, with one heart and voice?

If that is your wish as a worship leader with responsibility in an age-diverse and educationally-diverse congregation, read on! I have some ideas that I think you will find useful.

Two problems that many younger members will have with a lot of older hymns are archaic language and dreary tunes. And not just the younger members! When I was a child, singing in the choir of my local Anglian church, I thought that “All People that on Earth do Dwell”, sung to the the tune “Old 100th”, was a sort of oxymoronic combination. “Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice”—well then, why were we doing the opposite? (No, I didn’t know the word oxymoronic back then, but it describes in hindsight exactly what I was thinking.)

And, now I am no longer young, I still feel the same way about that hymn. It is good to include in our worship some of the older hymns, but they need updated language and apt tunes so that the whole congregation can worship through them. Happily, I don’t think it is hard to find ones that are suitable.

The bigger task is to find contemporary Christian songs that young and old can rejoice in singing together. A significant number of modern songs have faults in their lyrics that are invisible to many, but which may grate in the minds of any others and make worship impossible, so the chooser of songs needs to know how to discern those ones and avoid them.

In the rest of this post, I will describe some of those faults As I do so, some readers will want to say, “Don’t be so nitpicky! Get over it! Tolerate the song for the sake of others in the congregation”. A response like that misses several points. (1) If God has given you the privilege of selecting songs for use in a service of congregational worship, it is your task to choose songs that all will rejoice in. If you choose songs that some feel unable to take into their mouth, you have failed in that responsibility; you have let God down. (2) The faults I will discuss here will be felt by many, not just me. Those perceptions are facts of congregational life. If you are choosing songs that would require some in the congregation to enrol in a year of therapy so they could recover from their “issues” and enjoy those songs, you are overstepping the bounds of your task. The issues, if real, are pastoral matters and need to be dealt with pastorally, not by confrontation through insensitive song choice. Shouldn’t you match your worship song choices to the congregation as it actually is, not as you think it ought to be? 

Faults that May Disqualify a Song for Congregational Worship

1. Doctrine that may be true, but is ineptly stated

If a song contains a line that is doctrinally clearly wrong, it should have no place in a Christian service of any kind. However, some songs have lines that are doctrinally ambiguous. Anyone in the congregation who knows how important it is to keep Christian truths sharply stated will be stopped in their worship tracks when they come to such a line. Their mind will be diverted away from the worship of God, to wrestling with the question, “Can I give the songwriter the benefit of the doubt and sing this line anyway, or do I have to pass on it?” The uncertainty, the discomfort, will spoil that song for them. They will never be able to truly worship God through it.

Example

The otherwise excellent song, See His Love (Tom Lockley :: Jesus Culture, 2005) contains one word in one line that spoils it for me: “See Him there, all in the name of love”. No. God so loved the world…” indeed (John 3:16), but when dealing with the theology of the cross there is much more to be said. (Consider, for instance, Romans 3:25-26). The word all in Lockley’s line therefore falls short of the full Biblical truth, and I don’t think our congregations should be singing a song that implies that “love” is the full and sufficient explanation of the Cross.

Example 2

Another extremely popular song, In Christ Alone (Stuart Townend, Keith Getty :: Newsboys, 2001), is spoiled for me because of one badly expressed line, “Here in the death of Christ I live.” The Biblical emphasis is, rather, that our union with Christ in his death is something that occurred in our past, as signified by our baptism. We now live, not “in the death of Christ” but in him in his resurrected life. (See Romans 6:4-11, and also consider Galatians 2:19-20). If the songwriters had said, “Here through the death of Christ I live”, I would have been happy to sing it, but they didn’t, and I won’t sing what they did write. 

Example 3

Above All contains the lines,

You took the fall and You thought of me
Above all

Above All (Paul Baloche, Lenny Le Blanc :: Paul Baloche, 2000)

Now it is true that we can all say, with the apostle Paul, that the Son of God loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20), but isn’t it therefore nonsense to say that he loved me “above all”. What about all the others whom he loved and for whom he died?

Also, “took the fall” seems to be using the phrase that is common in crime stories, where someone who is not guilty accepts the punishment for someone else, usually someone more senior in the crime hierarchy. While the songwriters might want to defend this as an apt metaphor for the atonement made by Jesus, I don’t think it is, as Jesus died for his inferiors, not his seniors. And, besides that, many will mistakenly take “the fall” to be a reference to the Genesis 3 Fall, and will find the line puzzling.

Example 4—Two-thirds of the Trinity

Beyond our galaxy You are holy, holy

God of Wonders (Marcus Carey, Steve Hindalong :: Caedmon’s Call, 2001)

Holy, holy is our God Almighty
Holy, holy is his name alone

It is You (Pete Furler :: Newsboys, 2002)

The full Trinity wouldn’t scan right, so these songwriters eliminated one of its persons.

Example 5

Here is yet another potentially great song that is spoiled by a bad line. The song is “I Am” (Mark Schultz), and the line is “In every heart (I am)”. If “heart” is meant to refer to the non-physical seat of human emotions, the statement is false, but it if it is meant to refer to the literal, physical heart, in conjunction with the omnipresence of God, the statement is true but banal. Mark, why oh why did you write it?

Example 6

Everything You [God] do is beautiful

Thank You (The Katinas, 2001)

But is it, at the times when God acts in judgment?

2. Bad Poetry

A worship song is something that is intended to be an offering that praises and glorifies God, but some so-called worship songs have lyrics that are so poorly crafted that numbers in the congregation would feel genuinely ashamed to bring such words to God. Some examples of bad poetry are listed below, in no particular order.

Let me be clear, though: many a Christian who is not a good poet has written a worship song that expresses their wholehearted joy in God, and has brought their song to God in their personal devotions. In that context, the bad poetry does not matter in the least. But, my point is, such songs should not be used for congregational worship. A higher standard is needed there.

Phrases Chosen to Fit the Tune

Some songs contain phrases that may be pious but make no coherent sense in their immediate context, leading to the suspicion that they were inserted merely to fit the lyrics to the pre-decided tune. Many in the congregation may be oblivious to such clangers, but others will think, “The songwriter could not be bothered putting in the effort to craft better lyrics. I cannot worship God through this”.

Example

Consider these two lines:

Who am I, that the eyes that see my sin
Would look on me with love and watch me rise again?

Who Am I” (Mark Hall :: Casting Crowns, 2003)

“Watch me rise again” makes no sense to me in the context of the preceding line, or of the rest of the verse. Maybe the songwriter could give a good explanation if asked, but that line unexplained will cause many to pause and puzzle, and will interrupt their flow of worship. The meaning of every part of a song’s lyrics should be self-evident to any mature Christian, if the song is to have a place in congregational worship.

Non Sequiturs

This fault is similar to the previous one, except that this time it is an entire line, not just a phrase within a line, that has no meaningful connection with the lines immediately before and after. Once again, such lines seem to have been inserted to fit the demands of the tune, rather than to fit the demands of the worship of God.

Example

In the arms of Your mercy I find rest

East to West (Bernie Herms, Mark Hall :: Casting Crowns, 2007)

That’s potentially a great line—it just doesn’t connect well with the line before or the one after. (I will say more about East to West below, where you will be able to see this line in a fuller context.) The line is true, but it falls flat because its message is not reinforced by the surrounding lines.

Nonsense Statements

(I’m including this fault under “bad poetry” rather than “bad doctrine” because the examples seem to fit best here.)

Example

I’ll never know how much it cost
To see my sin upon that cross

Here I Am to Worship (Tim Hughes, 2001)

I can see what Tim Hughes meant by these lines, but—seemingly driven by the demands of the tune— Hughes has compressed the thought in such a way that it seems to say that the costly event was the songwriter’s seeing rather than the Saviour’s sin-bearing, which is nonsense. Hughes could have avoided that impression if he had used more words, something like this:

I’ll never know how much it cost
So I could see my sin upon the cross.

However, that wouldn’t scan correctly, so a bigger rethink would have been needed by the songwriter. (And, I know—many reading this example won’t sense any difference between the original line and my change. I am sure, though, that many others who are sensitive to the nuances of English will feel as uncomfortable as me with the line as it stands.)

Example 2

Jesus, can You show me just how far the east is from the west
‘Cause I can’t bear to see the man I’ve been come rising up in me again
In the arms of Your mercy I find rest
‘Cause You know just how far the east is from the west
From one scarred hand to the other

East to West (Bernie Herms, Mark Hall :: Casting Crowns, 2007)

This song has some good ideas in it—excellent, worshipful potential. In fact, in my rating system for Christian songs (which I’ll discuss in a future post), I score this one 100 as regards the Biblical conformity of its content. However, the lines quoted above are a mish-mash, with various pious thoughts thrown together randomly. Even though the content of each individual line is unobjectionable, their combined effect makes no coherent sense.

Example 3

Some songs are nonsense almost from beginning to end. One such is City on our Knees. Three sample lines follow:

Love will fall to the earth like a crashing wave…
It’s all love tonight When we step across the line…
We can sail across the sea To a city with one king

City on our Knees (Cary Barlowe, Jamie Moore, Toby Mac, 2009)

Forced Rhymes

This is a crime committed by amateur poets of all kinds, not just the writers of Christian songs. It occurs when a line ends with a word that adds nothing meaningful to the song’s message, and was clearly just chosen because it made a convenient rhyme with its partner line. In great poetry that uses a rhyming scheme (not all great poetry does), the rhyming words feel so right and meaningful in their context that it as though, even if this were a piece of prose and not a poem, those exact same words would have been used.

Example

As I’ve already said, East to West includes a line, “In the arms of Your mercy I find rest”. I suspect that the line is there because the songwriters needed a rhyme for “west”, and that is how they arrived at a line that is a non-sequitur.

Example 2

And we are His portion and He is our prize,
Drawn to redemption by the grace in His eyes

How He Loves (John Mark McMillan :: Jesus Culture, 2005)

Some may argue that the second line is somehow metaphorically true, but I think it paints too incomplete a picture to be acceptable. The things that draw us to redemption are many, and the metaphorical grace in the eyes of Jesus is just one of them. And, even if the metaphor is accepted, it still seems to me that the writer invented it because he needed a rhyme for “prize”, so the line still grates.

Example 3

And who taught the ocean You can only come this far
And who showed the moon Where to hide till evening
Whose words alone can Catch a falling star

Redeemer (Nicole C. Mullen, 2000)

The last line of those three is a nonsense line that was seemingly driven by the need to find a rhyme for “far”.

3. Unusual Poetry

Example

There is a lovely song by Jeremy Camp, This Man (2004). It’s message grips my heart, but it’s lyrics are written in what seems to be a breathless, stream-of-consciousness style. As a poem, it’s good, but it’s unusual style is likely to throw many and puzzle them, so I don’t recommend that it to be used in age-diverse worship, nor any other song whose poetic artistry or innovation is out of step with what an ordinary congregational member expects to find in a poem.

4. Feeble Confession

A feeble confession acknowledges sin in a “sort of, but not really” way. It whitewashes the sin, calling it a mistake or a weakness rather than what it really is, an offence against God. 

I suspect that, often, the songwriter doesn’t actually make light of their own sin, but a more forthright confession wouldn’t scan right, so a half-hearted one gets substituted. Whatever the reason, some in the congregation will feel uncomfortable if asked to take such a self-excusing confession into their mouth.

Example

I know I still make mistakes

Your Love Never Fails (Chris McClarney, Anthony Skinner :: Jesus Culture, 2008)

Enough said!

Example 2

So take me as you find me All my fears and failures

Mighty to Save (Ben Fielding, Reuben Morgan :: Hillsong United, 2006)
Counterexample

Saved the Day has a line that, if it were the only line of its kind in the song, I would count as feeble confession:

Rescued from the shackles of my failure

Saved the Day (Michael Neale :: Phillips, Craig & Dean, 2006)

However, there is a later line that is a strong confession, and so the earlier line can be understood in the light of the later one, and not seen as a fault:

Oh God, You rescued me From my iniquities

5. Improper Prayers

It is right to make petition to God in our songs. David does it many times in the Psalms. Not every prayer is a good and God-honouring prayer, though.

Example

At line 5 we proclaim, “Here I Am to Worship“. But look at what we have just sung in lines 2 to 4:

Open my eyes let me see
Beauty that made this heart adore you
Hope of a life spent with you

Here I Am to Worship (Tim Hughes (2001)

This seems to give the game away. We are not really here to worship; we are here to get another fix of the ecstatic vision of God that has previously aroused a sense of worship in us. And, we are also here to seek a deepened assurance of our standing with God, rather than worshipping him for the standing he has already given us. (See, for instance, Romans 5:1-2).

To his credit, Tim Hughes soon after includes a number of lines of true, seeking-nothing worship:

You’re altogether lovely
Altogether worthy…
King of all days
So highly exalted
Glorious in heaven above

For me, though, and I expect for  others, they do not undo the damage done by the previous lines. Our priority has been announced up front, and it is us, not God.

Example 2

Pour out Your power and love As we sing holy, holy, holy

Open The Eyes Of My Heart (Paul Baloche, 1998)
  • In Acts 4:31, the disciples received a fresh filling of the Holy Spirit when they had re-avowed their commitment to God in the face of persecution. Paul Baloche seems to encourage us to seek the same merely for singing “Holy, holy, holy”.
  • God’s love for us never changes. The prayer “pour out your love” should strike us as an offensive denial of his goodness.

6. Photobombs

I covered that topic in my previous post, so there is no need to say any more here.

7. Poor English

Depending on the audience they have in mind, songwriters may sometimes justifiably use slang or bad grammar in their songs to make them more approachable to people who aren’t sensitive to grammar, and for whom slang just feels like a normal part of language. However, if you are choosing songs for congregational worship, and your congregation is diverse in age and background, please don’t choose that kind of song. People in the congregation who have ears for good English, and who dislike slang, will feel unable to worship God via such songs. You will have excluded them from the worship at that point.

Example

When He rolls up His sleeves He ain’t just putting on the ritz…
And the Lord wasn’t joking When He kicked ’em out of Eden…
It wasn’t for no reason That He shed His blood…
And so you better be believing that Our God is an awesome God

Awesome God (Rich Mullins, 1998)

The chorus and second verse of this song have some powerful, wonderful, non-slangy lines, but the lines I’ve quoted here from the first verse mean that the song just isn’t suitable for use in an age-diverse congregation.

Example 2

vastly lost in this world

Sea of Faces (Aaron Sprinkle, James Mead, Jon Micah Sumrall, Kyle Mitchell, Ryan Shrout :: Kutless, 2004)

Back to high school, please, Aaron Sprinkle and team!

Example 3

I don’t need a temporary man-made deity
When I got the real thing

One True God (David Allen Clark, Mark R. Harris :: Mark Harris, 2007)

I got! I got! Why? “I’ve got” would have scanned just as well. I would have rated this excellent song a perfect 100, but for that piece of poor grammar. Certainly, it’s a tiny slip, but it’s enough to rile many older members of the congregation. Songwriters, you could have catered for them without making your song any less approachable by younger people, if only you’d taken the time to care about it and think! 


The next few paragraphs describe some particular kinds of grammatical transgression, but there are many others.

Ill-Fitting Changes of Tense

In some songs, the tense changes from past to present or vice versa for no apparent reason other than to make the number of syllables in the verb fit what the tune needs at that point. A craftsperson truly concerned with the glory of God would labour to find some way to rewrite the whole line, or even the whole song, to avoid the problem.

Missing Needed Words

Sometimes, a line plainly needs another word in it to make it grammatically correct, but the songwriter hasn’t supplied one, apparently because doing so would not work within the constraints of the tune. To my mind, that’s not good enough for something to be offered to God in the context of corporate worship.

Example

With one voice we proclaim His great worth
Lord our God

Great is Our God (Eric Marshall :: Young Oceans, 2012)

“Lord our God” should be “The Lord our God”. It’s a small matter, but it bugs me and it will bug others.

Example 2

The dead are raised
The sinner saved
The work of your power

God, You’re So Good (Brett Younker, Kristian Stanfill, Brooke Ligertwood, Scott Ligertwood :: Passion, 2018)

To be grammatically consistent with the first two of those lines, the third one needs a verb—e.g., something like, “This is the work of your power”.

Extraneous Words

The opposite problem is when a line contains unnecessary extra words that make it scan, but also make it ungrammatical.

Example

The moon and stars they wept

Forever (Bryan Johnson, Kari Jobe, Kari Jobe, 2013)

“They” is unnecessary. If the songwriters had written “all” instead of “they”, the line would have been grammatically correct and would still have scanned. But they didn’t.

Slangy Abbreviations

E.g., ’cause instead of because. There is no need for such abbreviations—it is not hard to sing two syllables on a single note, if that’s what the metre of the tune requires.

Slangy Space-Fillers

Example 

There’s a nearly-wonderful song, “Cry Out to Jesus” (Max Powell :: Third Day, 2005). Nearly, but the last line is “Oh, yeah”. Don’t do that, young songwriters! Find words that everyone, of all ages, can rejoice to sing.

Example 2

and God, right here all I bring is all of me

I Will Lift My Eyes (Jason David Ingram, Jeffrey Stephen Norman :: Bebo Norman, 2006)

“Right here” is the kind of verbiage that will spoil any song for many in the congregation. Likewise, “right now”.

8. Sloppy Sentimentality

How He Loves”, mentioned previously, contains this line, “So heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss”. Some people are offended by it, others (e.g. Mel Wild) defend it. It is not my purpose here to adjudicate, but it should be obvious that something so divisive is not a wise choice for worship in a diverse congregation. It might be received well in a homogeneous congregation such (apparently) as Wild’s own, but the average congregation is not like that.

The whole of “How He Loves” is an example of a Christian Contemporary Music (CCM) sub-genre that some have termed the “Jesus is my boyfriend” type. Regardless of your own preferences, Mr or Ms Music Curator, please don’t ever include such songs in your selection for a diverse congregation. Don’t exclude a significant proportion of the congregation from participation!

Another Example

Altogether wonderful to me, my love

Here I Am to Worship” (Tim Hughes, 2001)

Some, including many who have a deep and adoring relationship with our Saviour, will feel uncomfortable when asked to sing such a line.


Preview of my Next Post

In my next post, I plan to publish a list of contemporary Christian songs that don’t have any of the faults that I have discussed here in this post, and so which I believe provide a good starting point for anyone trying to select songs for use in an age-diverse and/or education-diverse congregation.

So far, I have analysed about 130 of the most popular contemporary Christian songs from the past thirty or so years. I have found 38 that I rate at 100% on my evaluation scale, and a further 20 that score from 90 to 99 and so might still be candidates, depending on the exact profile of your congregation. There is, then, plenty of choice available!

If this serious of posts then continues to roll out as I envisage, I will in a later post explain my rating method, but I thought readers would like to see the list of the best first, and perhaps start putting it to use.


Image source and attribution: DiliffSt Patrick’s Cathedral Choir, Dublin, Ireland – Diliff, Cropped, CC BY-SA 3.0

Floodlight or Photobomb?

Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father
There is no shadow of turning with Thee
Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not
As Thou hast been, Thou forever will be

Great is Thy faithfulness, Great is Thy faithfulness
Morning by morning new mercies I see
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me

Summer and winter and springtime and harvest
Sun, moon and stars in their courses above
Join with all nature in manifold witness
To Thy great faithfulness, mercy and love

Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide
Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside

Great is my Gratefulness?

When Thomas Chisholm began, “Great is Thy Faithfulness”, he wrote, “Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father / There is no shadow of turning with Thee”. Imagine, now, that Chisholm had instead written “Great is my gratefulness, O God my Father / There is no shadow of turning with Thee”, and the chorus had said,

Great is my gratefulness
Great is my gratefulness

Morning by morning new mercies I see
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided
Great is my gratefulness, Lord, unto thee

What difference would those changes have made to the overall impression given by the hymn, and its impact on those singing it? God is still being glorified, isn’t He? It’d still be a great hymn, wouldn’t it? Well, yes but…

That very slight change of wording would have partially turned our attention away from God, encouraging us to look, also, at the hymn writer. It would have been as though the writer had intended to give us a photo of God, but he had stuck his own head, selfie-style, into the frame. He would have photobombed what should have been a wonderful song of praise.

Thankfully, Chisholm didn’t do that, but I think that some modern writers do exactly that in some of their worship songs. Happily, most of the songs that make it onto the Christian music charts and become staples in contemporary worship services do not make this mistake but some do. Whenever in the past I heard such worship songs, before I had thought of the “photobomb” analogy, I would think, “That’s nearly an excellent song, but something doesn’t feel quite right about it. I can’t put my finger on it, but something’s askew”.

Well, now I can put my finger on it. It’s the photobomb, and I hope through this blog post to encourage writers of worship songs to think about it when they craft their lines.

That doesn’t mean that a song of worship can’t express the writer’s own emotional response to the glory of God, and to the blessings they have received from God. David does it frequently in the Psalms, but without photobombing.

Nor does it mean that you have to steer clear of “I” and “my” (or “we” and “our”) in what you write. One of the greatest modern worship songs, “I Can Only Imagine”, uses “I” many times, but in such a way that there is no distraction from the glory of God.
Look at the first verse:

I can only imagine what it will be like
When I walk by Your side
I can only imagine what my eyes will see
When Your face is before me
I can only imagine.

The “I” draws our attention briefly to the writer/singer, but only to discover that they are holding up a mirror that turns our total attention immediately to Christ, so that the writer/singer has dropped out of our consciousness. Far from photobombing, the writer has turned on a floodlight that illuminates only the Godhead.

And the same floodlight is turned on in the chorus, so that “I” and “my”, though mentioned, are inconsequential and all we seem to see is Jesus:

Surrounded by Your glory
What will my heart feel?
Will I dance for You, Jesus
Or in awe of You be still?

That’s not how it feels in my hypothetical “Great is my gratefulness” example. Sure, the following lines turn our eyes to God, but the writer is still lingeringly in the picture, saying, “What a good, spiritual person I am to feel so grateful to God”. A “floodlighter” may mention him/herself, but only in such a way as to erase him/herself from the picture and leave us seeing God alone. The “photobomber” stays perceptible in the frame.

Some Photobomb Examples


Important Note

In these examples, I have been thinking about the song lyrics as though they are in the mouths of a congregation whose voices are united in (what should be) worship. In my view, the lines I have quoted below are photobombs in that context. Some of them, however, could be fine if sung as a personal testimony

Oceans

(Matt Crocker, Joel Houston, Salomon Ligthelm :: Hillsong United, 2013)

Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)” is one of the most popular Christian songs of the past decade, but I cannot enjoy singing it because, to my mind, some of its lines are photobombs. Consider these:

In oceans deep 
my faith will stand
And I will call upon Your name
And keep my eyes above the waves
When oceans rise 
My soul will rest in Your embrace
For I am Yours and You are mine.

I want to cry out to the writers, “Matt, Joel, Salomon, please get yourselves out of the picture, and let me see Jesus! I don’t want to sing or applaud a song that seems to celebrate your own piety and courageous commitment, or—if I were to take those words into my mouth in congregational worship—my own. Yes, you make mention of the underpinning grace and faithfulness of God,

“You grace abounds in deepest waters
Your sovereign hand Will be my guide
Where feet may fail and fear surrounds me
You’ve never failed and You won’t start now”,

but those lines seem more like a feeble flicker than a floodlight, and, overall, the  song seems to put Crocker, Houston and Ligthelm into the starring role. Your intentions were, I’m sure, worshipful, but the end product does not live up to the intentions.”

One Thing Remains

(Brian Johnson, Christa Black Gifford, Jeremy Riddle :: Jesus Culture, 2010)

Another very popular song is “One Thing Remains”, but it is also spoiled, to my mind, by a photobomb (as well as by some other faults that I won’t mention here).

[Your love] never runs out on me
Because on and on, and on, and on it goes
Before it overwhelms and satisfies my soul

Can you sense the “Great is my gratefulness” tone of those lines? For me, they constitute a photobomb.

Always

(Jon Foreman :: Switchfoot, 2009)

I’m caving in
I’m in love again

Blech! Get out of the picture, Jon Foreman!

Thank You 

(The Katinas, 2001)

Just a little while longer I wanna pray
Can’t get You off my mind so I came to say…
Here I am with all I am
Raise my hands to worship You

Show me Your Glory 

(Johnny Mac Powell, Marc Byrd, Mark D. Lee, Bradley B. C. Avery, Samuel Tai Anderson, David Carr :: Third Day, 2001)

Show me your glory
send down your presence
i wanna see your face…
When i climb down the mountain
and get back to my life
i won’t settle for ordinary things
i’m gonna follow you forever
and for all of my days i won’t rest ’til i see you again

So self-centred and sbrashly confident! The song’s writers might read that comment and say, “Hey, that’s unjust—that’s not what we were feeling at all.” And I would reply, “That may not have been your intention, but that’s what your photobombish lyrics convey. Somehow, there will have been a different way that you could have said a similar thing, but so it wasn’t a photobomb. Writing lyrics that truly glorify God is hard work. If you value God’s glory, be prepared to do the work!”

You Are Everything 

(Linda Creed, Thom Bell :: Matthew West, 2009)

Cause You are everything that I breathe for
And I can’t help but breathe you in Breathe again
Feeling all this life within Every single beat of my heart…
what I was meant to be More than just a beautiful mess

How He Loves

(John Mark McMillan :: David Crowder Band, 2005)

And I realize just how beautiful You are,
And how great Your affections are for me
And my heart turns violently inside of my chest.

Nothing Without You

(Mitch Dane, Bebo Norman :: Bebo Norman, 2004

I love You, yeah
With all my heart With all my soul With all my mind
And all the strength I can find

Reading the journals of the saints, people who rose far above most of us in their love for God, even they wouldn’t have claimed that much for themselves. Maybe Bebo is a saint such as the world has never seen before, but even if she is, it isn’t right to put these words into the mouths of a disparate congregation and thereby have them offer a falsehood to God!

Give You Glory

(Jeremy Camp :: Jeremy Camp, 2006)

We have raised a thousand voices 
Just to lift Your holy name
And we will raise thousands more 
To sing of Your beauty in this place
We give You glory Lifting up our hands and singing holy
Glory, lifting up our voice and singing holy
As we fall down before You
With our willing hearts we seek
So we give You all our praises
And lift our voice to sing
Our hope is drenched in You
Our faith has been renewed
We trust in Your every word

Many of the words in this song are pointless, describing the mechanics of how we are worshipping God, rather than actually worshipping. It’s an ultra-photobomb!

Top of My Lungs

(Tony Wood, Jim Odom, Ryan Wingo :: Phillips, Craig and Dean, 2006)

I need you so.
I don’t care who knows,
From the depths of my soul,
Let my love be loud.
I sing a joyful noise!
All of my days A joyful noise!
I lift up my voice!

814

(Mark Barlow, Hailey Swags, Benjamin Robert Schuler :: Isla Vista Worship, 2019)

But I’m pushing my dreams to the side of me
Cause they can’t love me like You do
What I had was less exciting

Final Comments

I hope that writers of Christian worship mudic will think about the concept of photobombs and wrestle to construct their lyrics to avoid them. In some of the songs I used as examples in the post, I was not only disappointed in the song because of its photobomb(s); I was disappointed because I could see that there was a potentially superb worship song there, and photobombs had stopped it reaching its potential. Songwriters, please bless the Church even more, by eliminating the photobombs.

I also hope that music leaders will use the concept of the photobomb when they are selecting worship songs for singing by a congregation that spans a wide age range. In a future post, I hope to discuss other faults, too, that make certain contemporary worship songs unsuitable for use in an age-diverse congregation, but for now, if you spot a photobomb in a song’s lyrics, don’t ask the congregation to sing it. Many in the congregation might not notice it, but for those who do, it will kill the sense of worship, as they will feel unable to take the words into their own mouths and offer them to God.

Having foreshadowed that future post, let me also foreshadow another one, where I will show that there are dozens of contemporary Christian songs that not only contain no photobombs, they don’t have any of the other faults, either. In other words, there is plenty of choice available of worship songs that can be sung with rejoicing by everyone in the congregation, from the young to the old. A unified, all-age service is absolutely possible, without the oldies having to make grudging concessions to the youth, or vice-versa.


Image Attribution: Mark Sullivan via Canadian Film Centre from Toronto, Canada [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D