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Hillsong music focuses more on Jesus than before

A new US study shows lyrical emphasis has shifted during past decade

Hillsong’s songs have changed in the way they talk about God, according to researcher Nelson Cowan, a doctoral student at Boston University.

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In a paper published this month, Cowan argues that “Hillsong’s lyrical repertory has not remained monolithic, but over the years has both deepened in doctrinal engagement and widened in doctrinal scope.”

The paper, entitled, ‘Heaven and Earth Collide’ Hillsong Music’s Evolving Theological Emphases is published in the latest edition of Pneuma, the Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies.

The focus of the study is examining the lyrics of Hillsong songs published between 2007 and 2015. This takes us from the end of Darlene Zschech’s time as worship pastor up to the Empires album by touring band Hillsong United.

In earlier years, Cowan notes, Hillsong music under Geoff Bullock and Zschech experienced several waves of change. In 2012, Eternity documented how Hillsong had begun intensive vetting of their lyrics by Robert and Amanda Fergusson, a senior associate pastor and teaching pastor at Hillsong church.

“Hillsong Music emphasises, above all, Jesus’s role in the salvation of humanity.” – Nathan Cowan

This fits with Cowan’s theory that Hillsong’s music has changed with the increasing stature of this international church.

Cowan took the lyrics of the 158 unrepeated tracks issued by the groups Hillsong United and Hillsong Worship between 2007 and 2015. He examined how they addressed God, the worshipper and analysed their doctrinal content. This examination concluded several versions of atonement, the kingdom of God, the Trinity, mercy and justice, and the Holy Spirit.

Cowan gives an example in a footnote: “If the chorus proclaimed, ‘You died for me, Jesus / You died for me, Jesus,’ I coded this as ‘atonement’ one time. However, if atonement themes appeared in the chorus and in a separate verse, I coded it as ‘atonement’ twice.”

The atonement (the doctrine that Jesus died for our sins to reconcile us to God) was the most common doctrine, followed by the doctrine of the incarnation (that Jesus is God come to earth as a man). The atonement category perhaps unsurprisingly was complicated, including references to “Christ’s example on the cross as a demonstration of God’s love toward humanity,” as well as many concerning “substitutionary, penal substitutionary, and satisfaction,” which are about Jesus dying in our place, or paying the price for our sins.

“As Hillsong becomes increasingly global in presence and in resource distribution, the impartation of consistent doctrine seems to have increased in priority.” – Nathan Cowan

Cowan finds that for Hillsong the kingdom of God is both here and now, and coming. Hence the Heaven and Earth Collide title of his study.

Some things did not change in Hillsong lyrics during the period Cowan studied. These include songs about Jesus as God and man, the majesty of creation, and the biblical justice themes such as care of the widow and children.

However, one big shift that emerges was a change from songs about how “I” or “We” address God, to a third person style of writing about him. Cowan gives the example of Hillsong’s United Rule which teaches that love came “crashing down to bring the world to life” and “hope came dancing on an empty grave / death has lost its rule to the King of grace.” Cowan notes an increasing percentage of Hillsong’s songs that are “didactic” or teaching songs.

In other words, what Cowan found was an increasing number of songs that teach about God directly rather than reflect our experience of him or personal relationship with him. “As Hillsong becomes increasingly global in presence and in resource distribution, the impartation of consistent doctrine (contra the sole overwhelming focus on the experience of atonement and justification) seems to have increased in priority.”

“As time went on and we saw the impact our songs were having across all denominations, we became more and more aware of the responsibility and the privilege to be speaking into the broader church.” – Steve McPherson

Cowan quotes Steve McPherson in conversation with another Hillsong researcher Mark Evans: “I do believe we initially set out to write music for our congregation but as time went on and we saw the impact our songs were having across all denominations, we became more and more aware of the responsibility and the privilege to be speaking into the broader church, and I believe our songwriting changed accordingly. Our focus went from being local to global.”

The Song I Believe features prominently in Cowan’s theses. He cites it as an prime example of the increase in didactic songs and a corresponding decline in devotional writing. He notes that Ben Fielding and Matt Crocker wrote it in response to John Dickson of the Centre for Public Christianity, who Cowan spies from Boston is an Anglican.

“The many seemingly “simplistic” words of praise or devotion uttered in Hillsong lyrics are supported by complexly layered, sonically rich instrumentation. Somehow, a simple, seemingly rote recitation of “I believe in God our Father, I believe in Christ the Son, I believe in the Holy Spirit, Our God is three in one” has been received as a powerful, heartfelt worship anthem across the globe.”

Jesus is increasingly the focus of Hillsong songs, Cowan finds. “The increasing frequency of highlighting the second Person of the Trinity is indicative of Hillsong as a global presence but also of its emphasis on salvation. While Christians across the world are not in agreement Christologically, most can affirm that Jesus is foundational to Christianity. Hillsong Music emphasises, above all, Jesus’s role in the salvation of humanity.”

Hillsong insiders will surely respond that they’ve always been about Jesus but for any Christian to be accused of becoming more focussed on him is surely no bad thing.

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