What on earth are we singing? 2019 report gives snapshot

There’s no question that what we sing as Christians says something about us.  So, what have you been singing?

Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) are the largest licensor of churches around the world. Churches report the songs they use, and twice a year CCLI release the results and distribute royalties to song owners. According to CCLI’s recently released data from a 2019 reporting period, this is what you’ve probably been singing.

  1. 10,000 Reasons
  2. What a Beautiful Name
  3. Praise The Name (Anástasis)
  4. Who You Say I Am
  5. In Christ Alone
  6. How great is our God
  7. This is Amazing Grace
  8. Build My Life
  9. How Deep the Father’s Love
  10. Raise A Hallelujah
  11. Living Hope
  12. Cornerstone
  13. This I Believe (The Creed)
  14. Glorious Day
  15. Great Are You Lord
  16. Amazing Grace (My Chains are gone)
  17. Reckless Love
  18. The Lion and The Lamb
  19. Good Good Father
  20. Come To The Altar
  21. Blessed Be Your Name
  22. How Great Thou Art
  23. Man of Sorrows
  24. King Of My Heart
  25. Only A Holy God

So, what do the 25 currently-most-sung songs reveal about Australian Christians at this moment in time?

They are singing recently written songs, the median year being 2014. The newest on the list, “Raise A Hallelujah” (from the Bethel stable), was only released on YouTube in January 2019, but quickly found its place in the worship sets of churches through the immediacy of streaming media sites. Two other songs have made it into the list for the first time, “Living Hope” and “Only a Holy God”.

There are only two Australian producers represented on the list, Hillsong, of course, and “Only a Holy God” comes from CityAlight out of St Paul’s Castle Hill, NSW. This relative newcomer to the industry are finding a popular niche among mainline churches who want to bridge the gap between hymns and contemporary congregational songs.

Six of the top twenty-five are from Hillsong, a few less than they have historically accounted for.  Five songs (or six if you one count “Living Hope”, co-written by Phil Wickham and Brian Johnson) are from Bethel, which has become a hub for a collective of worship leaders and artists over the last decade. Wickham has another song on the list, “This Is Amazing Grace”.

Among the other North American sources, three songs come from Chris Tomlin/Passion, two of which (“Amazing Grace (My Chains Have Gone” and “How Great Is Our God”) have charted highly through CCLI for over a decade. “Good Good Father” could be additionally attributed to Chris Tomlin, since his recorded version (2015) of the original Housefires song gave it a substantial boost in profile. However, the original (co-)writer of the song Pat Barrett has gained his own prominence and has followed up with another globally prominent CCS, “Build My Life”. Rounding out the North American influence is one song (“O Come To The Altar”) from Elevation Church, which has had a few global contemporary congregational song successes in the past couple of years.

Five songs are from the UK, which include four of the oldest songs on the list, “How Great Thou Art” (1949/1953), Stuart Townend’s “How Deep The Father’s Love” (1995), “In Christ Alone” (2001) co-written with Keith Getty, and “Blessed Be Your Name” (2002) from Matt & Beth Redman. The other UK song is also co-written by Redman, “10,000 Reasons”, which has remained as the number one (or number two) song on the CCLI charts for the past five years.

“Darkness”, “heart”, “name” and “praise” occur in 11 songs, with “sin” following close behind in 10 songs.

The contemporary congregational songs (CCS) no longer in the top 25 include the classics, “Here I Am To Worship” (2004), “Mighty To Save” (2006) and “Shout To The Lord” (1993), all of which have had long and illustrious seasons at or near the top of the CCLI charts.

Most songs fit into the category of Praise/Thanksgiving (76%), while 20% are Prophetic/Declarative and 4% are primarily Worship.  In terms of the key words and themes across the top 25, “love” is the most common, occurring in 14 songs. There are some interesting ties for second place.  “Darkness”, “heart”, “name” and “praise” occur in 11 songs, with “sin” following close behind in 10 songs.

The notion of “sin” would be seldom heard in many contemporary sermons, but for some reason it is easier to sing about than talk about. It is a word that summarises the general malaise of humanity and provides a contrast to, and meaning for, the saving work of Christ. “Darkness” provides a similar panoptic word covering all that is wrong with humanity and the world and is contrasted by a variety of words like “hope”, “joy”, “life” and “peace”. These are words that also appear fairly regularly in CCS lyrics, along with some less predictable ones, such as “breath(e)”, “forever(more)”, “grave”, “heaven”, and “sun”.

Also of interest is the way in which these songs address God. Eight songs utilise the term “Father” for God, much higher than in years past, even though it’s only a descriptive term rather than a direct address to the Father. Twelve songs use the term “God” while “Holy Spirit” is referenced in only one song (“This I Believe (The Creed)”). “Spirit” doesn’t fare much better with only one additional reference in “How Great Is Our God”.

Do these observations of contemporary congregational songs represent your faith?

The 2nd Person of the Godhead gets the great majority of references and the only direct address. Fourteen songs (56%) use “Jesus”, thirteen use “Son”, eleven use “Lord”.  “Christ” or “King” are both utilised in nine songs, seven use “Saviour”, and there are a scattering of other terms including “Lion”, “Lamb”, and “Messiah”. In fact, only two songs (“Good Good Father” and Reckless Love”) don’t reference or address the 2nd Person of the Godhead, while intimate lyrics in CCS are overwhelmingly only directed to Jesus. There is much more to unpack from my analysis, however, you didn’t sign up to read a thesis.

Do these observations of contemporary congregational songs represent your faith? They undoubtably represent Australian Christianity at large; a Christianity expressed within the broader culture of consumerism and celebrification, yet evidently focused on God (Jesus) in their worship. If such songs are discipling the Christian church, are you satisfied with how you’re being discipled? You have a voice.

Daniel Thornton is Head Of Arts at Alphacrucis College

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