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How Has Christian Music Changed Over Time?

In the previous article on this subject, we explored the self-centredness of modern worship. Today, we ask: in what other ways has gospel music changed over the years? This will not be based on personal opinion, but real results from a comparison of hundreds of hymns.

To carry out this study, I chose several hymn writers and worship leaders to compare. These include Isaac Watts, John Newton, Stuart Townend, Hillsong Worship, Bethel Music and Elevation Worship. Having collected 50 songs from each artist, I started to tally up the total occurrences of various keywords and phrases. This provided me with clues as to the general direction we are headed in.


5 Ways Christian Music Has Changed Over Time:

The findings of my analysis show the following 5 ways that worship music has changed through the years:


1. It is more individualistic

The first and perhaps most significant shift that has taken place from old hymns to modern worship music is the increase of individualism. Classic hymns were far more collectivistic. How do we know this? A simple comparison of the number of singular and plural first-person pronouns shows a drastic increase in the percentage of singular pronouns (such as me, myself and I) over plural ones (such as we, our and us). Take a look at the chart below showcasing the results when comparing the lyrics of 50 hymns/songs from each artist:

A comparison of singular and plural self-referencing pronouns in worship music (old and modern) showcasing an increase of individualism between Isaac Watts (with 66.8% references to the singular self) and Elevation Worship (with 93.2% references to the singular self).


Note the whopping increase of individualism between Isaac Watts (with 66.8% references to the singular self) and Elevation Worship (with 93.2% references to the singular self). That marks over a one-third increase in individualistic self-references compared with references to the collective church. One could argue that this has more to do with a change in culture than a change in the church. However, another current Christian artist I did not include in the above chart seems to prove otherwise. When Stewart Townend's songs were put to the same test, only 70.8% of his first-person references were found to be singular. Townend's result is closer to Isaac Watts and John Newton than Hillsong, Bethel and Elevation Worship. 

Finally, it’s important to notice that in each case, Hillsong shows the least change, Bethel the second most and Elevation Worship the greatest change compared with Isaac Watts and John Newton. This isn’t necessarily as simple as one era versus another. Within our era, there remains a remnant who refuses to welcome the world into their lyrics.


2. There is less emphasis on sin

This one is a real eye-opener. For this study, I compared the use of the word 'sin' in worship lyrics from various artists (50 songs from each artist). Of course, I included every variation of the word I could think of (such as sins, sinner, sinned). The results speak for themselves, there is less than 1/4 the number of mentions of 'sin' in Elevation Worship's lyrics when compared with Isaac Watts and John Newton:

A bar chart showing the number of times sin is mentioned in worship songs from the past to the present day, decreasing by over 80%.

There is an 81% drop in the use of the word 'sin' in hymns between Isaac Watts (18th century) and Elevation Worship (21st century). It could be argued that modern worship groups are therefore less gospel-centred than former hymn writers. An obvious objection to such a conclusion, however, would be that the word 'sin' is less common in general. This is true. Ironically, there has been a general 81% decrease in the use of the word 'sin' between these centuries according to Google's data. Surely, then, the church is just going with the flow of the world.

Let's put this theory to the test. Perhaps modern songs mention failure, faults, flaws, wrongs, crimes, mistakes, stumbling or falling among other similar phrases. I therefore repeated the test using sin's synonyms. Having done this, there was a little more balance. Yet the trend remains evident. Here are the results:

A chart showcasing the use of the word 'sin' and related synonyms in various song lyrics from old hymns and modern songs. The results show a 58% decrease in the mention of sin.
There remains a 58% decrease in the mention of our sin (in the many ways it is referred to in old and modern English).

3. There is more emphasis on wanting than needing God

Through time, as the fear of God has declined, God has been seen more and more as a means to an end. Evangelists are less concerned with warning and more concerned with uplifting the lost into the Kingdom. We tell them that God loves them and has a plan for their lives, leaving out His plan to judge those who don't receive His Gift of eternal life. The new gospel message is: "Try Jesus, He won't let you down!" This is not the message of Scripture. We need Jesus.

Sadly, Christian music increasingly emphasises our desire for God over our need of Him. In the chart below, we compare the number of times God or His salvation is referred to as a want and a need in 50 songs by each Christian artist:

A bar chart showing an increase in the total number of times God or His Salvation is referred to as a desire rather than a need (from 0 mentions to 14 mentions of our want of God from Isaac Watts to Elevation Worship).
Neither Isaac Watts nor John Newton referred to God or His Salvation as a desire. Yet Hillsong, Bethel and Elevation each refer to our desire for God more than our need of Him. Once again, however, this trend does not reflect every Christian artist in the present day. Stewart Townend referenced our need for God (3/5) once more than our desire for Him (2/5).

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4. There is less emphasis on God's word

The importance of God's word in the believer's life has been increasingly overlooked by songwriters. The following chart shows the number of references to God's word (including synonyms) in 50 worship songs produced by each Christian songwriter or group.

A bar chart showing a decrease in the total occurrences of words & phrases related to God’s Word in hymns written by various Christian song writers.

Between Isaac Watts and Elevation Worship, there is an 84% decrease in the number of references to the Bible in worship lyrics. This is no small deal. Elevation Worship mentions God's Word just 3 times in 50 worship songs. If that doesn't highlight a major issue in the church, I don't know what will.

Why are we losing sight of God's word? Stick around until the conclusion to find out my theory.


5. There is a greater emphasis on 'feelings' of God's presence than the Holy Spirit

Last but not least, when comparing the number of times the Holy Spirit and our ‘feelings’ of God’s presence are mentioned, we notice another upward trend. Notice how many times each of the following artists mentions our feelings of Him (in 50 of their songs):

A bar chart signifying the total occurrences of references to the Holy Spirit and feelings/the experience of God’s presence in hymns written by various Christian artists.
As you can see, references to both taken a jump. Most significantly, Elevation Worship refers to feelings of God’s presence 4 times more than John Newton. Yet, notice the variation between modern worship groups Hillsong, Bethel and Elevation. Even in recent times, there seems to be a rising emphasis on feelings rather than God's Spirit Himself.
Is this the general direction the church is heading in? I hope not. The lyrics analysed from Hillsong, Bethel and Elevation were written around the same time. This shows that there are varying degrees to which modern worship lyrics diverge from those of traditional hymns. Generally, we have seen that Stewart Townend is closest to traditional hymn-writers and Elevation Worship, furthest away.

To wrap things up...

We've noticed some very obvious trends toward more focus on me, my wants, the Holy Spirit and my experience of Him and less focus on sin, my need for God, and God's word. We will now seek to piece our findings together to discern what's causing all of this. Firstly, it's clear that 'me', my 'wants', and my 'feelings' of God’s presence are all feel-good subjects that boost self-worth and dignity. On the other hand, my sin and my need for God are humbling and bring down the ego.

This leaves us with two trends to explain: an increased interest in the Holy Spirit and decline in references to Scripture. I’d like to suggest that such is the root of the problem. With the drastic rise in charismatic churches, many have esteemed spiritual experience over knowledge. Encountering God is often seen as the peak of spirituality, whilst head-knowledge is almost looked down on. As a result, we’ve given more weight to our senses than God’s revelation.

Our individualistic worldview coupled with our feelings-based spirituality has led us to a place where we uphold what feels right to us as individuals. This is not a good direction. If anything, we should be more unified and assured of God's word now than ever. We need to heed the words of Jesus: "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” (Luke 9:23-24)

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