Last week, Leah Libresco wrote a piece for FiftyThirtyEight about how peppy Christian pop music tends to be. She studied thematic content in the last five years of Billboard’s year-end top 50 Christian songs. She found that the lyrical content skewed disproportionately toward hopey-gracey themes and away from sinny-judgment themes. She writes:
I looked at pairs of concepts across the entire collection of lyrics (life and death, grace and sin, etc.) and calculated the ratio of positive to negative words. For every pair I checked, positive words were far more common than negative ones.
There were 2.5 times as many mentions of “grace” as “sin” in the songs’ lyrics. Other pairs were even more lopsided: There were more than eight mentions of “life” for every instance of “death,” and “love” was more than seven times as common as “fear.”
Just a few quick reflections on this.
1. The most obvious thing to note is how untrue to life this lyrical content is. It is a sad thing that this music doesn’t reflect more the reality of the human condition in a fallen world where children get cancer, fathers desert their families, and strong men rule and oppress as dictators. Life hurts. We suffer real evils and have real tears streaming down our faces. The church’s songbook ought to reflect that. Song writers would do well to take note that nearly a third of the Psalms are songs of lament (48 to be exact). They deal with death, depression, and all the darker themes that seem to be absent from the music mentioned above. And they teach the people of God how to hope in God in the midst of trial. It seems to me that Christian music done right would reflect the whole range of human experience and would do so with unflinching honesty and hope. That is what the Psalter does. Christian song writers and consumers should aspire for the same.
2. I used to be a big consumer of contemporary Christian music (CCM), but now I am not. In days gone by, I not only listened to the music, but I also read the liner notes. I could tell you that Chris Rodriguez and Wayne Kirkpatrick were regulars on Michael W. Smith albums in the 80’s and 90’s. But that was then, and this is now. I don’t know beans about what is happening currently in CCM. In fact, I was surprised to read that Christian “pop” music was still a thing at all. I thought it had gone the way of the Dodo and had given way to contemporary worship music (which I don’t listen to either). I say all that to let you know up front that there are others who could speak more authoritatively about the current landscape of CCM than I can. Having said that, I do know that there are artists and songwriters out there doing good work. They are writing the kind of music that does reflect the human condition with biblical faithfulness. I hear and learn of this music mainly in my church, and I have our worship pastor Matt Damico to thank for that. On a weekly basis, he mines the depths of both the church’s traditional hymnody and the best of what is available from modern song writers. The stuff is out there. We simply need to find it and support it.
3. It seems to me that Andrew Peterson and The Rabbit Room group are trying to foster a real community of songwriters who are aspiring to this kind of work. May their tribe increase.
James Harold Thomas
I miss Rich Mullins. Somebody uploaded his entire “first” album from back when he was still a student at Cincinnati Bible College. I like the old rough version of “Sing Your Praise to the Lord” even better than the later polished version.
the biblical context before and after this verse is ‘the Peace of Christ’:
“8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think on these things.”
Christian music has been a challenge for me since I became a Christian in 1981.
In my Seattle AG church of 18 years, I played Trombone in the church orchestra. I noticed the first of the “better than mediocre” Christian music back then, to me, was Second Chapter of Acts. I started listening to a lot of Michael W Smith, Amy Grant, etc.
In 1998 I started playing bass and cut my teeth on Hillsongs. I loved playing the stuff, but it was sort of “lyrically simple and repetitive” worship music. In the meantime I pretty much stopped listening to much music (Christian or otherwise) unless it was stuff I was playing or wanted to play. This really put me out of touch with the whole music scene. I like a single Third Day song (Thief), Rebecca St James’ version of It Is Well, and that’s about it.
And here we are today. Five years in Kentucky, I now play in a Southern Gospel band that makes the rounds of small local (mostly baptist) churches. I’m not a fan of southern gospel as something to listen to, but have noticed when I try to listen to CCM it just sounds, for lack of a better word, insincere. In fact, of late I’ve been seeking out “covert Christian” songs in the secular community from artists such as U2 (I still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking for), Phillip Phillips (Home) and many others. These songs really do hit people “where they live”. I find I prefer the “non-Christian” Christian songs because they slip the message in without using a nine pound hammer. They come across as truly sincere and from the heart. And for me that is what matters. Music hits me at an emotional level via words, chord progressions and arrangements. Heck, it’s why, though it’s embarrassing, I really like the stuff from Taylor Swift. Pure Quality from start to finish (and “formula” thrown in for good measure).
I’m not a fan of overtly Christian music. I like music to be like the message of Christ: God is the message, but it hits us where we live. It laughs with us. It cries with us. If a Christian artist can do that, great. But there are many secular artists who are Christian that actually do it better.
How about “Why Me, Lord”, by Kristofferson? Simple, powerful, and from the heart.
Ok, not sure WordPress will show my name. While I’m sure people could figure it out, it’s Matthew Beech.
Anyhow, I never thought there was a difference between CCM “pop” music and CCM “worship” music. Both seem to be rather man-centered and offer little in ways of true worship. I can think of one or two bands where that is different, but that’s about all.
I guess “pop” would be like the Top 40 on secular radio and CCM Worship like the “adult contemporary” station?
Having been in several church “worship” bands, I don’t compare Christian “pop” to Christian “worship” music. Rather Christian “Performance” music vs Christian “worship” music. To see the difference, watch Michael W. Smith’s “worship” concert DVD and compare it to his earlier concert video (Big on songs like “Picture Perfect” with him running around on stage and looking all high energy and stuff).
Worship music is designed to be sung along to by the congregation and often includes 15 minutes or more of “scatting” and harmonious band improvisation while everyone gets “in the spirit” at the end of each song. I’m not really a big fan of that and, when I’m in the congregation I kinda stand there looking around (or at my phone) while I wait for the song to end.
Then there is Christian “performance” music. It is when a person or group performs a Christian song for a crowd (be it a congregation or some other gathering of people) as a form of entertainment. My southern gospel band is more of a performance band, but many of our songs are very well known by the congregation (e.g. I’ll Fly Away) and everyone sings along. At that point, a performance can become a worship service, sort of like the Michael W. Smith “Worship” concert.
A straight word count is going to miss the broader truth of (who knows how) many songs where the “positive” words are delivered as part of a broader exposition of the gospel. MercyMe’s Greater and Flawless come to mind, which (by my best take) are both songs about the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. I don’t think they gloss over doubts, fears, and shame, but in form and content they do favor the “peppy” side of the doctrine.
Do love me some Andrew Peterson, though. : )
As a horn player and a millennial, I came into CCM at a good time and at a strange time.
My family was going to a Lutheran church (LCMS) back in the mid/late nineties and some friends in youth group got me turned onto a band called the Orange County Supertones. Never heard ska before. But a strange rock beat with horns was pretty cool. Lyrically, they were pretty sound, not only with mentions of grace and forgiveness but also with the problem of sin. They joined the likes of The Insyderz (from my own Motor City) and Five Iron Frenzy. You had Newsboys, MxPx, Project 86 and others. The from the late 90’s to early 2000’s, you had the greatest amount of talent in the Christian music scene. Anybody remember the Cornerstone Festivals?
Within CCM, you also had issues. Many labels would not give good bands (musically wise) record deals due to not meeting the dreaded required JPM’s. (Jesus per minute). It started becoming fairly legalistic.
What’s weird is that i would normally disagree with the purpose of monitoring every song for how many times there is a positive theme or negative theme as I think that’s bordering on legalism, but in this case, I think it has merit. If only for the fact that Christian music (broader worship music) should be well rounded and have a semblance of a Gospel theme. You can’t have a Gospel theme without mentioning our inability and sin. However, it’s shouldn’t be all dark. At the same time, it shouldn’t be all grace filled either, which unfortunately is where it is now and to be honest, a lot of the modern worship music you here on the radio and in churches is repetitive and watered down.
I find there to be more mentions of the problems of sin in the Christian metal genre, but even they will pull it back to grace and hope. I think of Demon Hunter’s ‘Artificial Light’, referencing secular bands that will lament the problems that everyday people have, but it’s truly empty because they offer no solution (or a false one).
Denny, have you heard of Keith and Kristyn Getty?
Most of it is just inauthentic – people singing from the circumference of their souls, and that just comes through. Not all CCM artists, for sure, but so much of it is just ear candy and doesn’t serve the body of Christ well at all. Bring on the spirit of Rich Mullins! So grateful for the likes of Kenwood Music, Sovereign Grace Music, Sojourn Music (who even have 2 albums based solely off of the hymns and lyrics of Isaac Watts, with creative, amazing melodies and arrangements), and also Indelible Grace, just to name a few. Also Page CXVI, among others like the Gettys. None of these are CCM and usually aren’t played on the radio, but for those that know them, there’s substance. And that’s what is largely missing from much of CCM. It just so often comes up empty. There are exceptions for sure (such as Steven Curtis Chapman. Mack Powell, and the guys from MercyMe – legit, grace-filled men), but by and large the industry seems too satisfied to create that which sells. I and my church are grateful for the exceptions. That and us just being creative with the best old hymns are what makes up our worship each week.
Also, what’s interesting is the (welcomed!) movement towards a more liturgical service format. Rehearsing the rhythm of the gospel not only in the lyrics of our songs, but also in the flow of the service. Many churches are still putting on the Sunday morning “show,” but a wonderful and growing number of churches are moving towards more substance, and that includes songs with theological weight. These artists and churches I have mentioned above have refused to compromise theology for the sake of creativity, and doing a fantastic job of bringing theological weight together with singability and creativity. It is a GREAT time to be leading worship today . . . IF you know where to look. There’s more great music now than ever before. But there’s also more chaff than ever before. Having an actual worship PASTOR (meeting all of the pastoral qualifications of 1 Tim 3 and Titus) is therefore critical as they pastor God’s people through theologically rich, congregational worship. We teach and admonish by means of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs; teaching and admonishing are the roles of godly, qualified men in the church. Show me a church with that kind of Pastor of Worship, and I will show you a church that eschews much of the CCM in favor of true food, with a melody.
Barry, are you aware that Kristyn Getty is the niece of John Lennox?
Demon Hunter has a song called ’16’. It is directed at inauthentic Christian bands that are having their 15 minutes of fame. Directed then at minute 16.
For Today’s older stuff is pretty good, haven’t listened to the last album (and there may be one this year), if you like that style. Don’t think I’d play it Sunday mornings in church, though. Personally, I think Shane and Shane’s Bring My Nothing is excellent (I think that’s the name) and Ghost Ship’s self titled album, as well.
They do have some good stuff. Yeah, definitely not that stuff on Sundays at church, haha. unless you wanted to do a Sunday evening metal service (now that’d be sweet). I do think you could definitely do some ska with the Insyderz praise albums songs and some of the Supertones praise music-‘For the Glory’ and ‘Wise Man’ would work.
But the nice thing about most metal bands is that they have the slow ballad, even Christian ones. I want Demon Hunter’s ‘Carry Me Down’ acoustic version played at my funeral.
I think even Third Day has lost some substance (completely gone country) and the Newsboys….ain’t what they used to be. Much like Audio A basically telling Kevin Max that they were going to be doing straight praise music going forward and him leaving. That dude has a sweet voice. I liked early Audio A stuff better (Underdog album).