What Are We Singing, and Why? Pt 1

At the Worship Conversation, a two day event for worshippers and worship leaders that followed this year’s Big Church Day Out, CCLI asked a simple question: What makes a great worship song?

Then I had the pleasure of interviewing Daniel Thornton, an Australian worship leader, songwriter, composer and, intriguingly, the “world’s leading expert on the contemporary congregational song.” Daniel is conducting a PhD to find the “science” (my word) behind the songs that churches can and want to sing. Using CCLI’s list of the top 25 songs reported by churches, he is attempting to discover what it is about these particular songs that has made them so universally popular in churches.

I was keen to find out what Daniel has found – why churches choose to sing certain songs and not others, and whether his research could influence the way ‘congregational songs’ are written in the future…

Daniel, tell us about your PhD. Why study the ‘contemporary congregational song?’

Most people talk about praise & worship or contemporary worship music. I chose the “contemporary congregational song” because I think it’s really dangerous to use the word “worship” when we’re only referring to songs. I think most people know that worship is a lifestyle, but we still talk about praise & worship when we mean worship music. So in an academic context I needed a term that was not so linked to other expressions of worship. We even talk about praise & worship as meaning fast songs/slow songs, so we’ve made “worship” into “slow songs.”

No one has done this research before and I really want to help songwriters. I’ve been a local worship pastor and I’ve had so many conversations with my team, with other pastors… you have these subjective conversations around songs going, “I like this song, but I don’t like that song… this song is going to work…I didn’t think the congregation engaged with that one…” Most of those conversations are just subjective opinion. So my question is, “What’s the data? What can the average Christian actually sing – does anybody know?” We say, “that song’s too high…that song’s too low”. These are all subjective opinions. I want to know what the average Christian can sing, and I want to know what songs resonate with them…not just the songs we
make them sing – CCLI can give me that data, but it can’t actually tell me individually how people in the congregation are connecting with the songs.

Some of the most fascinating findings for me have been my online surveys. I’ve been asking people of all ages and from across the denominations to sing a song without any accompaniment. There’s a few things I wanted to find out. One of them is simply their song choice – so the song they naturally choose without any prompting. And already… it’s diverse! I expected that some of the top CCLI songs would keep appearing, but actually when people get to sing by themselves it is a vast array of songs they choose.

Contemporary songs are sometimes accused of dumbing down worship, and lacking creativity. Do you think that’s fair? Can you reveal what you’re finding through your PhD?

There’s a big tension in that space. There are lots of arguments about the lack of theological depth in contemporary songs but I don’t see those conversations really going anywhere useful. Even though many contemporary songs are actually getting a bit more theologically attentive than they were perhaps 20 years ago, my question is why do they have to be completely inclusive of all Christian doctrine? A song is a limited vehicle, even those that we think are theologically profound, ultimately it’s just a sliver.

In an oral culture, you want to capture all your theology in song because that’s the way that you teach and learn that theology, and that’s crucial. But actually we’re in an age where we’ve got more vehicles that we’ve ever had for that theology. Preaching is available everywhere and anywhere, versions of the Bible and commentaries are available at the touch of a button. We’re not short of theological options. I still believe song is a very powerful vehicle for theology because it actually puts it in our mouth so then that becomes the theology of our confession rather than just the theology that we read or listen to. So yes, there is something important about song, but I do wrestle with this idea that songs need to encapsulate all our comprehensive theology. Ultimately they can’t individually, but CCLI has thousands of songs in its database, so actually there’s probably an impressive theological database amongst all those songs.

But how many are churches singing on a Sunday? Perhaps three, four? And which ones are churches choosing to sing? People have asked me; “Why aren’t we singing more lament songs?” “Why are they not in the CCLI charts?” It’s because churches are choosing not to sing them, not because they don’t exist. So really the question is why are churches choosing to sing the songs they are, and that’s really what I’m looking at. I’m looking at the songs that are most sung, that are most popular, and asking; What are the lyrical, theological, musical components that come together to resonate with churches?

So presumably when you’ve gathered all the answers you’re going to be the ultimate songwriter…you’ll be writing the songs that churches are guaranteed to want to sing…

(Daniel laughs). That’s the danger of the research. Clearly what I’m not going to come up with is some hit Christian song formula, because of course if anyone could do that…

…It would no longer be art, it would be science…?

Yes, and part of what I’m doing is talking to the writers. I’m gauging peoples reception and engagement with the songs but I’m also getting the intent from the songwriters – what they thought when they were writing it. And sometimes the way people are engaging with a song is a long way away from what the songwriter intended for the song … or they thought the song wasn’t going to work and it took off, or they thought they’d got something quite profound and it didn’t take off. So I’m not trying to come up with a formula.

But there definitely are some key findings. If I had to reduce it down to a sentence it would be that contemporary congregational songs work when they resonate with the vernacular music of the people who are singing them – so the music of their culture. Certainly in a broad western culture that’s going to be pop music of some form or another.

They contain theological truth. There is interpretability in them – they contain metaphors and poetry that allow people to interpret. Certainly some people will argue and choose not to sing certain songs but the bottom line is they always contain some kind of fundamental theological truth. One of the powerful things about a song is that five people can listen to it and actually get something different out of it, that it can speak to them in a personal way. So great songs have lyrics that allow them to be interpretable.

As well as an element of the Holy Spirit working through them?

Yes, so “10,000 reasons for my heart to find”… Clearly what people envisage when they sing that lyric is going to be diverse. “You call me out upon the water”… They’re metaphors and this sort of poetic language and metaphor is really important in songs. And finally, directly related to that is some kind of personal applicational connection, or resonance. I think it comes out of all of those elements – with the music they connect to, with the theology they resonate with, with the pictures they invisage that relate to them individually.

See Part Two of the interview here.

Daniel Thornton was talking to CCLI’s Rich Burrough. 

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