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Is Modern Worship Self-Centred? | Shocking Results!

There's a popular idea floating around that modern worship songs are increasingly self-centred. It is time we analyse the data and settle the debate once and for all. Are we losing sight of what matters? Are we shifting our attention to ourselves?

To find out, I chose some prolific Christian songwriters (past and present) and collected 50 songs from each. I then compared the number of pronouns that refer to self (such as I, me and my) with those that refer to God (such as You, Thee, Thy, He and His) for each hymn writer or worship group. This was no simple task since God can be referred to in the first person and self in the second or third person. Through this, I hoped to discover whether modern worship groups refer to self (rather than God) more or less than classic hymn writers.

 

Shocking Results: How The Tables Have Turned!

To begin with, let's compare the results of four notable names in the world of worship. Isaac Watts (1674-1748) is considered the 'godfather of English Hymnody'. He contributed over 750 songs to our hymnbooks, including 'When I Survey the Wondrous Cross' and 'Joy to the World'. Next, I couldn't skip past the author of 'Amazing Grace' (the world's most popular hymn), John Newton (1725-1807). We'll compare these classic hymn writers with modern worship groups, Hillsong Worship (1983-present) and Bethel Music (2001-present). The results are displayed below, showcasing the percentage of pronouns referring to self (in red) and God (in blue):

A bar chart comparing classic hymns to modern worship songs and showing an increase in self-centredness over time (from 39% to 59%).

As you can see, there appears to be a general increase in self-centredness when comparing these four influential contributors. There is a 51% increase in references to self between Isaac Watts and Bethel Music. That's a big difference! And there's more. When comparing Watts and Newton with Hillsong and Bethel, we see a transition. While Watts and Newton reserved the majority of pronouns for God, Hillsong and Bethel used most pronouns for self.

 

What does this mean?

Of course, we must keep our heads screwed in when looking at these results. Referring to oneself is not a bad thing. Singing "I surrender all" or "Abide with me" isn't exactly self-centred. However, statistics speak volumes. If 90% of my prayers refer to self and only 10% to God, something is wrong. It does appear that a general shift has taken place towards more self-focused worship. 

We must also bear in mind that groups like Hillsong and Bethel do not necessarily represent modern worship. Popular songwriter Stuart Townend (1963-present), for instance, had a score similar to John Newton when put to the same test (46.3% pronouns referring to self rather than God). On the flip side, Fanny Crosby (1820-1915), who authored 'Blessed Assurance' among nearly 9,000 other hymns, used more self-referential pronouns (61%) than Hillsong Worship and Bethel Music. Of course, Crosby came after Watts and Newton, but we should be careful about generalising too much.

Perhaps generalising is our problem. Let's take Hillsong as an example. Thanks to their fame, Hillsong seem to receive more criticism than any other modern worship group. Yet, notice that there is only a 5% increase in self-referential pronouns from John Newton (of the 18th century) to Hillsong Worship (of the 21st century). We should also remember that Hillsong's writers are made up of a host of artists. Some may be on the right track where others have room for growth. This is why it seems best to review each song individually, rather than condemning an entire group of professing Christ-followers and their music.

 

Is worship becoming individualistic?

Another major criticism of modern worship music is that it is increasingly individualistic. Let's put this to the test also. If true, we will further confirm a general trend of increased self-centredness. We will now compare the number of pronouns used for self with the number of first-person plural pronouns (such as we, us and our). To make things more interesting, we'll include an even more modern worship group, Elevation Worship (2007-present). The question is: Have we become more focused on the individual self than ourselves as a collective? Take a look at the chart below:

A bar chart showcasing the percentage of pronouns referring to self vs those referring to ourselves (plural) in worship songs by various hymn writers.

 

By the looks of the above chart, the next worship group to step on the scene will be done with plural pronouns in worship. No more 'us'; just 'me, myself and I'. There has been a whopping 79.5% decline in the use of plural pronouns from Isaac Watts to Elevation Worship. If that doesn't suggest a major general increase in individualism, nothing will. These are not obscure hymn writers, these are highly influential contributors to congregational worship. Isaac Watts and John Newton top the list on the Christian History Institute's 'Hymn Writers' Hall of Fame', whilst Hillsong, Bethel and Elevation are the leading Christian worship bands according to Ranked. The fact that there is a clear upward trend as we progress (or regress) to the modern day is undeniable.

 

What does this mean?

As we've established, this data alone could be challenged. While those we've compared are major influences in the world of worship, we should be careful about generalising as a result. However, this data supports the suspicions many people have about modern worship music. When coupled with God's word and our experience, it is evident that we are becoming more self-centred. First, let's consider a well-known Bible verse that prophecies the devolution of human nature in the last days. 2 Timothy 3 begins: 'But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self...'. This is the very first characteristic of humans living in the last days. We will become self-centred, loving self before God and others.

Now, consider modern-day life and the factors that are steering us in this direction. We drive individual cars to individual offices and work for individual incomes. We spend hours on our phones, depending on social media to satisfy our hunger for connection. As churches like Hillsong and Bethel grow larger and larger, they're becoming centres to encounter God and catch a blessing, rather than houses for collective worship and fellowship. Commitment is being championed less and less as major places of worship become service providers. This turns church visitors into consumers. As a result, fewer and fewer Christians know what it means to be members of the body of Christ. It's all happening before our eyes.

 

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Final Words

As Stuart Townend highlights by his emphasis on God in worship, the general direction of the majority does not have to be ours. As Jesus said, love for God and others sums up the Law and the Prophets. This involves a denial of self and a willingness to lay down our lives for God's Kingdom. Let's avoid being consumers. Let's attend our churches ready, not to be served, but to serve!

I thought I'd close by comparing the pronouns of this very article to see how self-centred I am. The results are 77% references to us (first-person plural pronouns) and only 23% to me (first-person singular pronouns). 

Bar chart showing the percentage of first-person singular pronouns and first-person plural pronouns for various songwriters, followed by the results from 3rd Day's article.

 

Credits: Songs Used For This Study

In case you're interested in the exact 50 songs I collected for each hymn writer or worship group, they are listed below.

 

Isaac Watts

1. When I survey the wondrous cross
2. O God, our help in ages past
3. The heav'ns declare Thy glory, LORD
4. We sing the mighty power of God
5. Jesus shall reign where'er the sun
6. Blest are the humble souls that see
7. Up to the hills I lift mine eyes
8. Behold what wondrous grace
9. Come, we that love the Lord
10. Shout to the Lord, and let our joys
11. Give to our God immortal praise
12. My God, my King, thy various praise
13. Before Jehovah's awful throne
14. My dear Redeemer and my Lord
15. Great God, with wonder and with praise
16. Blest be the everlasting God
17. I'll praise my Maker with my breath
18. What shall I render to my God
19. The law commands, and makes us know
20. My Shepherd will supply my need
21. Why do we mourn departing friends
22. Sweet is the work, my God, my King
23. Lord, I am vile, conceived in sin
24. Life is the time to serve the Lord
25. The God of mercy be adored
26. Join all the glorious names
27. This is the day the Lord hath made
28. Jehovah reigns, His throne is high
29. Great is the Lord, exalted high
30. When I can read my title clear
31. Behold the sure foundation-stone
32. Consider all my sorrows, Lord
33. There is a land of pure delight
34. Hast thou not known, hast thou not heard
35. Before the heavens were spread abroad
36. Alas, and did my Savior bleed
37. 'Twas in the watches of the night
38. Great is the Lord; his works of might
39. Come, dearest Lord, descend and dwell
40. The promise of my Father's love
41. O God of grace and righteousness
42. My God, the spring of all my joys
43. To God the Father, God the Son, And God the Spirit, Three in One
44. At Thy command, our dearest Lord
45. My God, my everlasting Hope
46. Not to condemn the sons of men
47. Jesus, in thee our eyes behold
48. My heart rejoices in thy name
49. My Saviour and my King
50. From age to age exalt his name

 

John Newton

1. Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
2. How sweet the name of Jesus sounds In a believer's ear
3. May the grace of Christ our Saviour
4. Begone, unbelief! My Savior is near
5. How tedious and tasteless the hours
6. Approach, my soul, the mercy seat
7. In evil long I took delight
8. I asked the Lord that I might grow
9. Behold the throne of grace!
10. Come, my soul, with every care
11. Safely through another week
12. Anxious, I strove to find the way
13. Let us love and sing and wonder
14. Though troubles assail, And dangers affright
15. One there is, above all others
16. How happy they who know the Lord
17. Now may He Who from the dead
18. Jesus [Father], hear our humble prayer
19. Though in the outward Church below
20. Supported by the Word
21. What think ye of Christ, is the test
22. As once for Jonah, so the Lord
23. The peace which God alone reveals
24. Great Shepherd of Thy Chosen Flock
25. Poor, weak, and worthless though I am
26. For a season called to part
27. Christ bears the name of all his saints
28. Does it not grief and wonder move
29. While, with ceaseless course, the sun
30. Let us adore the grace that seeks
31. In vain our fancy strives to paint
32. Sovereign grace has power alone
33. Quiet, Lord, my froward heart
34. Savior, visit thy plantation
35. Let worldly minds the world pursue
36. A Word from Jesus calms the sea
37. Ah, what can I do
38. Confirm the hope thy word allows
39. Prayer an answer will obtain
40. The church a garden is
41. John, in a vision, saw the day
42. How prone the mind to search for ill
43. Brethren beloved for Jesu's sake
44. Chief Shepherd of thy chosen sheep
45. Fierce passions discompose the mind
46. In themselves as weak as worms
47. Lord, what is man? Extremes how wide
48. May this be a much-favoured hour
49. Oft as the bell, with solemn toll
50. Encouraged by Thy word

 

Fanny Crosby

1. Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
2. Pass me not, O gentle Savior
3. Jesus, keep me near the cross
4. Jesus, I come to Thee, Longing for rest
5. More like Jesus would I be
6. I must have the Savior with me
7. Tell me the story of Jesus, Write on my heart every word
8. All, all to Jesus, I consecrate anew
9. Let our hearts be always cheerful
10. Master, Thou callest, I gladly obey
11. I am praying, blessed Savior
12. I am happy, O my Savior
13. Loving Savior, hear my cry
14. A wonderful Savior is Jesus my Lord
15. My song shall be of Jesus
16. Some day the silver cord will break
17. Take the world, but give me Jesus
18. I am Thine, O Lord, I have heard Thy voice
19. In Thy cleft, O rock of ages
20. Wonderful love that found us
21. Nearer the cross my heart can say
22. Safe in the arms of Jesus
23. Lord, at Thy mercy seat
24. Open mine eyes, dear Savior
25. I believe in God the Father, Who created heaven and earth
26. Take Thou my hand, and lead me, Choose Thou my way
27. I am redeemed, O praise the Lord
28. Redeemed, how I love to proclaim it
29. We are never, never weary of the grand old song
30. He knows, let this my comfort
31. I know not the hour of his coming
32. There is joy in my heart all the day
33. All the way my Savior leads me
34. Pray on, pray on, believing ones
35. Fearless and faithful, trusting and true
36. My happy soul rejoices, the sky is bright above
37. Keep Thou my way, O Lord, be Thou ever nigh
38. O the joy that we may know when united here below
39. He feedeth his flock like a shepherd
40. Trusting in Jesus, my Savior divine
41. Glory ever be to Jesus
42. On Calvary's distant mountain
43. 'Tis a goodly pleasant land that we pilgrims journey through
44. Jesus, my only Hope, Friend ever dear
45. O Lord, my soul rejoiceth in Thee
46. Praise Him! praise Him! Jesus, our blessed Redeemer!
47. There's a promise from the Lord
48. Glory, glory, glory, Lord our Creator
49. O the blessings we receive
50. I would ever follow Thee

 

Hillsong Worship

1. That’s the power (Hillsong Worship, 2021)
2. Surrounds me (Hillsong Worship, 2021)
3. Freedom (Hillsong Worship, 2021)
4. Hope of the ages (Hillsong Worship, 2021)
5. Never walk alone (Hillsong Worship, 2021)
6. Resurrender (Hillsong Worship, 2021)
7. Song for His presence (Hillsong Worship, 2021)
8. All to Him (Hillsong Worship, 2021)
9. Who You say I am (Hillsong Worship, 2018)
10. You are life (Hillsong Worship, 2018)
11. The passion (Hillsong Worship, 2018)
12. God so loved (Hillsong Worship, 2018)
13. Be still (Hillsong Worship, 2018)
14. Remembrance (Hillsong Worship, 2018)
15. Valentine (Hillsong Worship, 2018)
16. Touch of Heaven (Hillsong Worship, 2018)
17. Lettered Love (Hillsong Worship, 2018)
18. The Lord’s prayer (Hillsong Worship, 2018)
19. New wine (Hillsong Worship, 2018)
20. So will I (Hillsong Worship, 2018)
21. Seasons (Hillsong Worship, 2018)
22. Behold (Then sings my soul) (Hillsong Worship, 2016)
23. Love so great (Hillsong Worship, 2016)
24. Look to the Son (Hillsong Worship, 2016)
25. Crowns (Hillsong Worship, 2016)
26. What a beautiful name (Hillsong Worship, 2016)
27. Your Word (Hillsong Worship, 2016)
28. Let there be light (Hillsong Worship, 2016)
29. In control (Hillsong Worship, 2016)
30. Grace to grace (Hillsong Worship, 2016)
31. Elohim (Hillsong Worship, 2016)
32. I will boast in Christ (Hillsong Worship, 2016)
33. As it is (in Heaven) (Hillsong Worship, 2016)
34. O praise the Name (Hillsong Worship, 2015)
35. Love on the line (Hillsong Worship, 2015)
36. One thing (Hillsong Worship, 2015)
37. Open Heaven (River Wild) (Hillsong Worship, 2015)
38. Transfiguration (Hillsong Worship, 2015)
39. What a Saviour (Hillsong Worship, 2015)
40. Heart like Heaven (Hillsong Worship, 2015)
41. Jesus I need You (Hillsong Worship, 2015)
42. Here with You (Hillsong Worship, 2015)
43. In God we trust (Hillsong Worship, 2015)
44. Faithfulness (Hillsong Worship, 2015)
45. Never forsaken (Hillsong Worship, 2015)
46. This I believe (Hillsong Worship, 2014)
47. Heaven and earth (Hillsong Worship, 2014)
48. No other Name (Hillsong Worship, 2014)
49. Depths (Hillsong Worship, 2014)
50. Calvary (Hillsong Worship, 2014)

 

Bethel Music

1. Made For More
2. Nothing else
3. Surrounded by Holy
4. Beauty
5. Back to life
6. I see the light
7. Every hour
8. Narrow road
9. Where the glory is
10. There is freedom
11. The great beyond
12. Precious blood
13. Isn’t He beautiful
14. I am your Beloved
15. Time and time again
16. Inheritance
17. Our King Jesus
18. Come up here
19. Resurrection day
20. Still standing
21. The power of His love
22. Fresh fire Fresh wind
23. Keep me burning
24. Our Father
25. The blood
26. Tend
27. Let my life be worship
28. In the ordinary
29. Our Jesus
30. Stand in awe
31. I still believe
32. Jesus my King
33. Forever be praised
34. Honesty
35. Simple
36. I belong to Jesus
37. Homecoming
38. I believe
39. Son of suffering
40. Weathered
41. Too good not to believe
42. Reason to praise
43. I belong to Jesus
44. Hymn of Heaven
45. Send me
46. My King forever
47. He reigns
48. Standing in miracles
49. All hail King Jesus
50. Ring and robe (Welcome home)

 

Elevation Worship

1. Jehovah
2. More than able
3. Trust in God
4. No body
5. Make a way
6. Been so good
7. Runnin
8. Praise
9. Same God
10. LION
11. This is the Kingdom
12. Dancing
13. Water is wild
14. Welcome resurrection
15. Forever YHWH
16. No one
17. You really are
18. Why
19. The one you love
20. Might get loud
21. Old church basement
22. Jireh
23. Wait on You
24. Million little miracles
25. Shall not want
26. Come again
27. Used to this
28. Names
29. Mercy
30. Before and after
31. Build Your church
32. RATTLE!
33. My testimony
34. Graves into gardens
35. Available
36. Authority
37. Never lost
38. No one beside
39. There is a King
40. Gone
41. It is so
42. See a victory
43. Love won’t give up
44. With You
45. Hallelujah here below
46. Mighty God (another hallelujah)
47. Here again
48. Won’t stop now
49. Worthy
50. Power

 

Stuart Townend

1. In Christ alone
2. You're the Word of God the Father
3. Oh, to see the dawn [The power of the cross]
4. All my days [Beautiful Saviour]
5. The man who calmed the sea
6. There is a hope
7. The wonder of forgiveness
8. An altar of remembrance
9. We believe [Apostles’ Creed]
10. Before you I kneel [A worker’s prayer]
11. Belovèd and blessèd
12. May the peace of God our heavenly Father [Benediction]
13. Our God is strong and mighty [Breaking out]
14. By faith we see the hand of God [By faith]
15. Christ be in my waking
16. You’ve placed a hunger in my heart to see Your glory [Come to us]
17. Come, people of the risen King
18. Behold the Lamb who bears our sins away [Communion hymn]
19. There is an everlasting kindness [Compassion hymn]
20. Worry seems to know my every move [Courage]
21. Creation sings the Father's song [Creation sings]
22. What love is this [Everlasting love]
23. From the breaking of the dawn [Every promise]
24. What love has captured me [Filled with wonder]
25. For the cause
26. Fullness of grace in man's human frailty [Fullness of grace]
27. To see the King of heaven fall [Gethsemane]
28. To You we bring our hymn of praise [Glory be to God]
29. Good Shepherd of my soul
30. Lord, I'm grateful [Grace]
31. For the gifts of heaven [Harvest hymn]
32. Will You hide me in your shelter? [Healing streams]
33. Hear the call of the kingdom
34. Holy Spirit, how I love you
35. Holy Spirit, living breath of God
36. How deep the Father’s love
37. We have sung our songs of victory [How long?]
38. How shall I sing that majesty?
39. O Church of Christ, invincible [Hymn of the Church]
40. I know not why God’s wondrous grace
41. O Church arise and put your armour on [O Church arise]
42. See what a morning [Resurrection hymn]
43. Spirit of heaven, flood over me
44. The Light of the World
45. Who paints the skies?
46. The King of love
47. The perfect wisdom of our God
48. We've come to praise You
49. With His hands He made me
50. We are heirs of God Almighty

 

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