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From Martin Luther to Hillsong United: Individualism in Contemporary Christian Lyrics

I grew up in a contemporary Evangelical Protestant church. In college I began attending traditional Anglican and Catholic churches. The contrasts between these settings were great, but one in particular has continued to surprise me: namely, the vastly different ways Christians sing about God and his relationship with the Church. And it occurred to me that because many of the songs sung in traditional churches were written before the onset of modernity – an era jump-started by the French and Industrial Revolutions, both of which began in the late 18th century[1] – a comparison of their lyrics with those of more recent songs might capture important differences between current and pre-modern Christianity. The following paper is one such comparison, and it tries to capture one such important difference. Its guiding question is as follows: How do the lyrics of contemporary Christian worship songs – the style popular in evangelical, charismatic, and non-denominational Protestant churches – compare with the lyrics of pre-modern hymns?


My study was a comparison between two data sets. Sample #1 consisted of the lyrics of ten pre-modern worships songs (hymns), and sample #2 consisted of the lyrics of ten contemporary worship songs. The ten pre-modern hymns were taken at random from Kenneth W. Osbeck’s 101 Hymn Stories and 101 More Hymn Stories,[2] with the criteria that they were both used in actual church services and written before the onset of modernity. The contemporary songs were taken from the list of songs most frequently used at Eastern University’s student-led “Wednesday Night Worship,” which is a very contemporary worship service.

My effect size calculations say whether these samples contain too few songs to have statistical significance. But I admit immediately that neither sample was collected randomly enough to be guaranteed to represent the whole of pre-modern hymns or contemporary worship songs. This is a weakness in my study – but as someone who has sung a great number of both kinds of music, I believe each sample to be representative. It will have to be the task of future studies to confirm or refute me.

I performed both quantitative and a qualitative analyses on these samples. In the quantitative analysis I calculated the recurrences of certain words and phrases in proportion to others in search of differences between the samples. For instance, I calculated the frequency of singular vs. plural first person pronouns. This presented a challenge: songs are different lengths, so tallying the number of singular pronouns in a sample absolutely would give more statistical significance to longer songs. To prevent such an error in any part of the study, I calculated the relevant percentages of each song individually, and then calculated the average percentages of each sample as a whole.

Throughout this analysis I was forced to make many interpretive decisions. For instance, in counting the actions of God that do and do not include direct reference to the singer(s) of the song, I decided not to count the sentence “his ear to harken to my need” as an action of God (where the verb would be “to hearken”) but instead as a reference to the ear of God, which is said to have the purpose “to hearken to my need.” Given the number of such decisions, I must admit from the outset that someone else’s quantitative analysis would likely result in percentages that differed from mine. So I make use of these numbers not as irrefutable facts but as tools to draw out a few of the themes that I see in the samples.

In the qualitative analysis I used the results of the quantitative as a launch pad for further discussion of themes that are difficult to see through numbers alone. This analysis at last allowed me to connect contemporary worship to the modern era. Because this connection follows upon the qualitative analysis, which in turn follows upon in the quantitative analysis, we will begin with the quantitative analysis.

Quantitative Analysis

I limited this analysis to three questions: (1) Who do these songs identify as their singers? (2) How is God named in these songs? (3) In what contexts does God act in these songs?

Question #1: Who Do the Songs Identify as Singers?

Songs often assume different perspectives. For example, a song may assume that a single person is singing, or that a group is singing. We can discover whether an individual or a group is assumed by finding the frequency of different types of pronouns within a song’s lyrics. If a song usually uses the singular first-person pronoun “I,” then we can say it assumes an individual singer. If the song usually uses the plural first-person pronoun “we,” we can assume a group. So we may wonder: what pronouns are usually used in pre-modern songs versus the contemporary songs?

My analysis revealed that the use of singular pronouns (percentage of singular pronouns per song) significantly differed between the pre-modern (Mean=30.00, Standard Deviation=48.30) and contemporary (M=84.41, SD=26.23) worship songs; t(18)=3.13, p<0.01 in a one-way independent samples t-test. Effect size evaluating the difference between both groups was large, r=0.59. [3] In other words, my analysis revealed a statistically significant difference between the samples; the pre-modern songs assumed a collective perspective 50% of the time, an individual perspective 20% of the time, and did not specify a singer 30% of the time. Almost conversely, the contemporary songs assumed a collective perspective 15.5% of the time and an individual perspective 84.5% of the time.

Question #2: How Do the Songs Name God?

Worship songs use many names to refer to God. One way to organize those names is to classify them into four major categories: (1) the generic “God,” (2) names of the members of the Trinity, (3) Titles of God (Rod of Jesse, King, Love, Lord, etc.), and (4) second person pronouns (You, Thee, etc.). So we might wonder: How is God named in the pre-modern songs versus the contemporary songs?[4]

My analysis revealed that the proportion of second person pronouns to other names for God differed significantly between the pre-modern (M=1.10, SD=1.10) and contemporary (M=73.68, SD=22.31) worship songs; t(18)=10.163, p<0.00001. Effect size was significantly large, r=0.92.

In other words, my analysis revealed a second statistically significant difference between the samples. The pre-modern songs referred to God with names of the Trinity 52% of the time, with the generic “God” and titles of God about 25% of the time each, and almost never with “You” and “Thee.” Almost conversely, the contemporary songs referred to God with “You”s 74% of the time, rarely using any other name.

Question #3: How Does God Act in the Songs?

God does and is asked to do many things in worship songs. One way to categorize all these actual and desired actions is to split them into two categories: descriptions of actions that include direct reference to the singer(s), and descriptions of actions that do not. Some examples of the first category are “You unravel me,” “You make beautiful things out of us,” and “With us sideth”; some examples of the second are “Ransom captive Israel,” “Christ hath burst the gates of Hell,” and “You stood before Creation.” So we might wonder: Which kind of action is God usually doing or being asked to do in the pre-modern songs versus the contemporary songs?

My analysis revealed that the frequency of actions descriptions attributed to God that contain direct reference to the singer(s) (M=18.52, SD=32.58) and the frequency of those that do not (M=76.54, SD=42.22) significantly differed, t(16)=3.264, p<0.003, one-tailed. Effect size was large, r=0.74. In other words, my analysis revealed a third statistically significant difference between the samples. The pre-modern songs characterize God as acting without direct reference to the singer(s) 81.5% of the time. Almost conversely, in the contemporary songs God acts with direct reference 85% of the time.

These are not the only questions that could be asked of these samples. Thus, these are not the only results that these samples could yield. Nevertheless, they are the results I’ve found.

Qualitative Analysis

The three differences revealed in my quantitative analysis together point to several overall qualitative difference between the contexts assumed by the pre-modern and contemporary worship songs.

In the pre-modern lyrics, a community of singers is assumed, God has a plethora of names, and God acts most often without direct reference to the speakers. Thus, these lyrics seem to suggest both that the Christian has a relationship with God primarily as a part of her community rather than as an individual, and that she is more focused on God’s work in the world in general than in his work in her particular community.

In the contemporary lyrics, an individual singer is assumed, the singer refers to God primarily as the personal “You,” and most of God’s actions have a direct relation to the singer (which is to say, the individual singer). Thus, these lyrics suggest three things: that the Christian has a relationship with God primarily as an individual rather than as a member of a community, that most of a Christian’s knowledge of God is directly related to her individual life, and that the Christian should focus more on God’s actions in her own life than in the world in general.

These differences hint at another. Each set of songs requires the singer to be familiar with different things if she is to understand their lyrics. The pre-modern songs frequently use the names of the Trinity and refer to God’s actions in the two Testaments; they thereby require the singer to have a basic knowledge of Trinitarian theology and biblical history if she is to understand lines like “The Three in One and One in Three” and “O come, Thou Key of David.” If she does not have such knowledge, she will not understand, although the songs may have a pedagogical role in teaching her such things.

The contemporary songs, generally, do not require such knowledge. Rather than referencing Trinitarian doctrines and biblical events they often reference God’s actions in the life of the individual singer. This means they require her to consider some of her experiences as experiences of God acting in her life. If she does not have any memories of such experiences, she will not understand lines like “all my fears were drowned in perfect love” and “when all of a sudden, I am unaware of these afflictions, eclipsed by Glory.” Although, in that case, the songs may have a pedagogical role in teaching her the role of experience in the spiritual life.

Contemporary Worship as Uniquely Modern Worship

While the era of modernity is characterized by many themes, “individualism” may be its most well-known tenet. Alexis de Tocqueville defined modernity as a kind of force that draws people ever in upon themselves and away from their community, and which increases the emphasis on the importance of the individual subject in every aspect of human life.[5] Such a force seems to be at work in contemporary worship lyrics, especially in contrast with pre-modern lyrics. For in such worship, we see not a unified community but a collection of individuals, singing primarily about their individual experiences of God, all the while referring to him as the “You” who contrasts their “I”s. Here we see the entire God-World relationship redefined out of communal terms and into the terms of the individual. This is individualism embodied in a group.

More traditional Christians, with their emphasis on theology and the Church, will undoubtedly view this change negatively. Evangelicals, with their emphasis on personal relationships with God, will surely view it positively. I will not here take a side. Instead I will end with questions. Is individualism the only ideal of modernity embodied in contemporary Christian music? What other themes may be found in it? How is modernity embodied in Christianity beyond these lyrics? And, perhaps most interestingly, why hasn’t contemporary worship music dissolved the congregations who sing it, given Tocqueville’s claim that individualism dissolves groups by isolating individuals from others and confining them “wholly in the solitude of [their] own heart?”[6] I do not know. There is much to be discussed in future studies.

[1] Robert A. Nisbet, The Sociological Tradition (New York: Basic Book Inc., 1966), 21-23.
[2] Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1982); Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 More Hymn Stories (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1985).
[3] Cohen, J (1992). “A power primer.” Psychological Bulletin 112 (1): 155–159. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.112.1.155
[4] I should make three notes about how I carried out my analysis of this question.
If pronouns followed name for God, as in “God the Father, he is great,” I counted the pronoun as a member of whatever class the first reference belonged to. This prevented a false inflation of members of the fourth category. For where a “he” can follow after “God,” there is usually no pronoun to follow after “You” except another “You.”
The name “God” is sometimes used to refer specifically to God the father, rather than to the Christian deity in general. In such cases I counted the reference as a member of the second category.
In sample #2, song #9, I decided to count “He” as a derivative of “You.”
[5] Alexis De Toqueville, Democracy In America, trans. and ed. Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 482.
[6] Ibid. 484.
Cohen, J (1992). “A power primer”. Psychological Bulletin 112 (1): 155–159. doi:10.1037/0033-  2909.112.1.155
Quentin Faulkner, Wiser than Despair: The Evolution of Ideas in the Relationship of Music and    the Christian Church, (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1996).
Bob Gersztyn, Jesus Rocks the World: The Definitive History Contemporary Christian Music      (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2012).
Robert A. Nisbet, The Sociological Tradition (New York: Basic Book Inc., 1966), 21-23.
Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1982).
Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 More Hymn Stories (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1985).
William C. Rice, A Concise History of Church Music (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1964).
Robb Redman, The Great Worship Awakening: Singing A New Song In the Postmodern Church    (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002).
Alexis De Toqueville, Democracy In America, trans. and ed. Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba        Winthrop (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 482.
Pete Ward, Selling Worship: How What We Sing Has Changed the Church (Waynesboro:             Paternoster, 2005).
Andrew Wilson-Dickson, The Story of Christian Music: From Gregorian Chant to Black Gospel an Authoritative Illustrated Guide to All the Major Traditions of Music for Worship        (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996).
“No Longer Slaves,” Bethel
“Beautiful Things,” Gungor
“Beautiful,” Jesus Culture
“You Hold Me Now,” Hillsong United
“The Stand,” Hillsong United
“From the Inside Out,” Hillsong United
“Revelation Song,” Phillips, Craig and Dean
“Holy Spirit,” Jesus Culture
“How He Loves Us,” David Crowder Band
“Oceans,” Hillsong United
“I Bind Unto Myself Today,” St. Patrick
“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” Unknown
“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” Martin Luther
“Now Thank We All Our God,” Martin Rinkart
“Praise Ye The Lord,” The Almighty, Joachim Neander
“The Doxology,” Thomas Ken
“Jesus Christ Is Risen Today,” Charles Wesley
“I Sing the Mighty Power of God,” Issac Watts
“Jesus Shall Reign,” Issac Watts
“O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” Bernard of Clairvaux