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Message in the Music: Studying Contemporary Praise & Worship

Message in the Music: Studying Contemporary Praise & Worship

by Abingdon Press, Richard J. Mouw (Foreword by), Brian Walrath (Editor), Brian D. Walrath (Editor)

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The definitive guide to the meaning of today’s most popular praise and worship songs.

Few things influence Christians’ understanding of the faith more than the songs they sing in worship. The explosion of praise and worship music in the last fifteen years has profoundly affected our experience of God. So what are those songs telling us about who God is?


The definitive guide to the meaning of today’s most popular praise and worship songs.

Few things influence Christians’ understanding of the faith more than the songs they sing in worship. The explosion of praise and worship music in the last fifteen years has profoundly affected our experience of God. So what are those songs telling us about who God is? In what ways have they made us more faithful disciples of Jesus Christ? In what ways have they failed to embody the full message of the gospel?

Working with the lists of the most frequently sung praise and worship songs from recent years, the authors of this book offer an objective but supportive assessment of the meaning and contribution of the Christian music that has been so important in the lives of contemporary believers.

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The Message in the Music

Studying Contemporary Praise and Worship
By Brian D. Walrath

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2007 The United Methodist Publishing House
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-687-64564-0

Chapter One

How Great Is Our God: The Trinity in Contemporary Christian Worship Music

Lester Ruth


According to the Bible, every good and perfect gift is a heavenly one, coming from the Father of lights (James 1:17). Such gifts must include the fullness of the revelation of God unless we want to say that humans have their own power to conjure up a true vision of God. The witness of the apostles, recorded in their writings and crafted by subsequent Christians into a statement of faith, is that God exists and acts as three Persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) in one Godhead. This is the classic Christian faith.

If this is scriptural Christianity, then why should Christians settle for anything less in the content of worship than the fullness of this revelation of God, particularly when the revelation itself is a gift from God? Why should churches be happy with worship that is less than true to God?

Perhaps churches are satisfied with worship that does not reach for a full vision because a consumerist culture leads us to believe that the most critical thing is that worship be true to us. Perhaps some are scared that our worship will become cold if it becomes "theological."

But could not a fuller, richer vision of God actually stimulate love, not quench it? Could not a more complete vision of God lead to a deeper love, rather than away from it? Theology can give us more motives to love God, not fewer. And there is every reason why such theology could take lyrical form in songs. Christian history is full of outstanding examples of songwriters who offered up such lyrics for the church to adore the Triune God. It is not just the latest generation who knows passion for the God revealed in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Trinity is not just an abstract concept, some theological idea that Christians are supposed to take a test on or write a paper about. It is not some detached doctrine that we know we are supposed to agree with, checking it off a list of right beliefs like items on a packing list for vacation. "Okay, kids, let's make sure we have the first aid kit and the doctrine of the Trinity just in case something happens."

The doctrine of the Trinity is a vision not only of God but also of our greatest longings for salvation and our deepest hopes in worship. It liberates by affirming the blessed thought that salvation and worship do not depend upon me. Both are gifts of participating through the Holy Spirit in the incarnate Son's communion with God the Father. People as diverse as theologian James Torrance and songwriter Matt Redman delight in this truth. Thus, Trinitarian belief reminds us that God is not some passive bystander in worship or salvation, desperately hoping that we will work ourselves up before being happy with us.

And this doctrine is important to help us avoid pitfalls, perhaps even idolatry. As one person put it, "Believing right things about God is an essential component in honouring God appropriately." Worshiping the Trinity is a large part of what makes worship orthodox. ("Orthodox" comes from Greek words that mean "right glory.") Because how we relate to God is shaped by our worship experience of God, Trinitarian content in worship is very important. Long after the music has faded, worship songs have created in us a sense of how all this God and salvation stuff fits together. If we lose the Trinity, if we have worship that is less than true to God, we end up with a very different faith, a very different hope of salvation, and, ultimately, a very different God than the one revealed in Scripture.

In light of the foregoing, this chapter focuses on Trinitarian theological content by asking five questions about how the most-used contemporary worship songs lead Christian congregations to pray to and worship the Triune God. I conclude this chapter by discussing some possible reasons the core repertoire is minimally Trinitarian and whether future worship songs will become more adoring of the Trinity.

Throughout this chapter, I will argue that the theological content of the lyrics of the top 77 songs that constitute the heart of CWM between 1989 and 2005 reveals that this core repertoire has few explicit Trinitarian aspects. The Christians who write and use these songs expect them to express a relationship with God that must be rooted primarily in the heart, not in a common faith. This emphasis provides the focus of this chapter: lex amandi, lex orandi, that is, the rule of loving establishes the rule of praying. The classic maxim from the ancient church was lex orandi, lex credendi, that is, the rule of praying establishes the rule of believing.

Method of Analysis

There are five questions that govern the qualitative analysis presented in this chapter: 1. Do the songs name the Trinity or all three Persons of the Trinity? 2. Do the songs direct our worship toward the Trinity as a whole or toward one of the Persons of the Trinity? 3. Do the songs remember the activity of the Divine Persons among Themselves?

4. Do the songs see Christian worship as participation of believers in inter-Trinitarian dynamics or activity? 5. Do the songs use the character of inter-Trinitarian relationships to explore a desired character for relationship among Christians, for example, unity, love, sacrifice, or humility? These questions build upon each other. What they get at is an upward spiral of understanding how our salvation is communion with the Triune God. They try to point at dimensions of what theologians might call a Trinitarian economy of salvation, that is, how God has been revealed and acted on our behalf to bring us into fellowship with the Trinity. It assumes that redemption is a cooperative venture by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and that salvation involves being brought into the fellowship these Three have with each other. In some real way, we can experience this communion within the church, particularly as it worships.


Do the Songs Name the Trinity or All Three Persons of the Trinity?

None of the 77 songs explicitly uses the word "Trinity" or "Triune," and only four songs explicitly refer to or name all three Persons of the Trinity: (1) Glorify Thy Name; (2) Father, I Adore You; (3) Shine, Jesus, Shine; and (4) How Great Is Our God. The first two songs are praise songs with three verses structured on the Trinity. The description of the Trinity in Shine, Jesus, Shine comes as the standard feature of the recurring chorus: "Shine, Jesus, shine, fill this land with the Father's glory / Blaze, Spirit, blaze, set our hearts on fire." How Great Is Our God is the truly exceptional song, both in this list of four and in the entire corpus of 77 songs. It alone worships the Triune nature of God ("Godhead Three in One / Father, Spirit, Son"). Only one song in addition to these four (How Can We Name a Love) speaks of God as "Father." In the handful of songs that refer to the Holy Spirit, seven refer to the "Spirit" (but none explicitly uses the name "Holy Spirit").

Beyond an explicit reference to the Father in the five songs above, seven more of the 77 songs make clear reference to the First Person of the Trinity, using terms other than "Father." Some of these songs use other names like "Holy One" (Give Thanks) or "Most High" (Our God Reigns). Some speak of "God," but the composer clearly refers to the First Person as in "God sent His Son / They called Him Jesus" (Because He Lives).

Thirty-seven of the songs, however, make explicit reference to the Son, or Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity. Twenty-seven of these songs specifically speak of Jesus, Christ, or Jesus Christ. The other ten speak of Christ more generally as "Lord," "God," or "King," but Christ is clearly meant, for example, Lord, I Lift Your Name on High recalls Christ's coming, cross, and resurrection.

However, it is not always clear to which person of the Trinity the lyrics are referring. The most frequently used titles for the divine object of worship are "Lord" (47 occurrences), "God" (28 occurrences), and "King" (18 occurrences). In 29 of the 47 occurrences of "Lord," it is difficult to determine exactly who this "Lord" is, as seen in the most frequently appearing song among the 77, I Love You, Lord. In 14 of the 28 occurrences of the title "God," the lack of additional context or names likewise obscures the specific identity of "God." For the third most used title, "King," the level of clarity is much higher. Except in a few cases, the songs make clear that the "King" is Jesus Christ. But there is even less clarity in the five songs that do not explicitly use any common divine title or name: I Could Sing of Your Love Forever, Breathe, Above All, Draw Me Close, and When I Look into Your Holiness. As the Deer and You're Worthy of My Praise were not included because they speak of the recipient as King.

The same pattern of Christ-centeredness is seen in those songs whose purpose is to contemplate the divine name. Only one (Glorify Thy Name) shows an explicit intention to worship the entire Trinity, while six songs focus on Jesus Christ and three are generic contemplations of the divine name (How Majestic Is Your Name, Bless His Holy Name, and Blessed Be Your Name).

Do the Songs Direct Our Worship toward the Trinity as a Whole or Toward One of the Persons of the Trinity?

As noted above, only one song explicitly worships God for being Triune, and only two lead to direct worship of the Trinity. Directly addressing worship to the Trinity as a whole or to the Holy Spirit is the most minimal aspect of this body of 77 songs. Similarly, very few songs explicitly address the Holy Spirit in worship. Of the seven that name the Spirit, only four direct worship to the Spirit—the same four that name all three Persons of the Trinity (Glorify Thy Name; Father, I Adore You; Shine, Jesus, Shine; and How Great Is Our God). The other three songs that mention the Holy Spirit simply make reference to the worshiper's enjoyment of the Spirit.

Directly addressing worship to the First Person of the Trinity fares no better. Of the twelve songs that make clear reference to the First Person of the Trinity (God the Father), only four explicitly worship the Father in direct address: the two songs internally structured by Trinitarian naming (Glorify Thy Name and Father, I Adore You) and two others (Give Thanks and How Great Is Our God). One other song that distinguishes the First Person of the Trinity (Bind Us Together) possibly addresses God the Father in petition, depending upon whether its prayer to the "Lord" has God the Father in mind. (Open Our Eyes, Lord is another possibility.) Perhaps some of the composers had God the Father in mind in the songs that speak of the "Lord" or "God" generically, but the lack of context or content makes it difficult to tell. However, given the stronger tendency to name the Second Person of the Trinity throughout the entire body of 77 songs, it is more likely that most of these generic references are to Jesus Christ.

Directing worship toward Jesus Christ is a much stronger phenomenon. As noted above, 37 of the 77 songs make distinct reference to Jesus Christ. Thirty-two of these directly address Jesus Christ as the recipient of worship.

However, the basis for worshiping Christ varies in these 32 songs. Twelve acknowledge Jesus Christ's divine nature, either explicitly or implicitly. Several root worship of Christ in remembrance of His activity, usually referencing His death and resurrection. Others speak of Christ's exalted status, most clearly seen in those songs that are essentially strings of Christ's titles. Songs that speak of Christ's exalted status frequently connect it to His Kingship and occasionally to sheer contemplation of the name "Jesus" itself. Clearly, worship of Christ is more fully developed in the 77 songs than worship of God the Father or the Holy Spirit. Of course, this assessment omits whatever conclusions might be drawn from songs that speak of "Lord" or "God" in a generic manner.

Do the Songs Remember the Activity of the Divine Persons among Themselves?

It is not surprising that the answer is "no" or "very minimally." Without naming, and thus not distinguishing between, the Persons of the Trinity, it is difficult to discuss how these Persons have acted among themselves or in concert.

As a whole this body of 77 songs is what some might call "functionally unitarian." In Glorify Thy Name and Father, I Adore You the composers symmetrically make each Person of the Trinity the object of worship but do not explore how they interact. The structure of the songs, with equal statements of adoration and petition, implies equality between the Father, Jesus, and the Spirit. The third, Shine, Jesus, Shine, has more nuance because the recurring chorus makes Jesus the mediator of the Father's glory and the Spirit the enabler of our participation in this glory. Shine, Jesus, Shine is exceptional in that it implies our reliance upon Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit to experience God the Father. How Great Is Our God is exceptional, too, in being the only song that makes God's Triune nature the explicit basis for adoration.

Eleven songs among the 77 make clear reference to two distinct Persons of the Trinity: eight discuss the Father and the Son and two discuss the Son and the Spirit. Another song (Better Is One Day) distinguishes between the "living God" and the Spirit of this God, but it is unclear who is meant by "living God." If the Father is in view, then this is the only song that speaks of the Father and the Holy Spirit, without reference to the Son. (Open Our Eyes, Lord is also another two-Person song if the unspecified "Lord" is God the Father or the Holy Spirit.)

Of the eight songs that discuss the Father and the Son, six focus on the theme that the Father has given the Son to save us. Four of them have brief references: the "Holy One" has given Jesus Christ His Son (Give Thanks); God sent His Son for healing, forgiveness, and pardon (Because He Lives); we are "purchased" by God's Son (Bind Us Together); and Jesus is the Lamb of God (You Are My All in All). The two that explore this theme in greater depth are both derived from the "Suffering Servant" prophecy found in Isaiah 53. In I Stand in Awe, for example, God brings about the suffering of the Lamb of God for the singer's sin. The song Our God Reigns shares a similar perspective, although the emphasis on God bringing the suffering is muted.

The two remaining Father/Son songs have very undeveloped associations between the two Persons. In Jesus, Name above All Names, the composer speaks of Jesus as Son of God, Emmanuel, and God with us as part of stringing together names and titles for Christ without explanation. The connection between Father and Son in How Can We Name a Love is even more tenuous.

Similarly, the two songs that clearly speak of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit make only passing references to their relationship. In You Are My King the singer has the Spirit of Jesus as a result of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection. In Surely the Presence of the Lord the singer feels the "sweet Spirit" as a result of the Lord Jesus fulfilling the promise of His presence according to Matthew 18:20.

Apart from the lack of naming the Father and the Holy Spirit, three other factors contribute to the lack of emphasis on the activity of the Trinity.

The first is the tendency within many songs to emphasize character traits or the status of God/Jesus Christ/the Lord/the King singularly without contemplating the dynamics of the Trinity itself. The song Forever affirms that God is faithful, strong, and with us. Shout to the Lord proclaims that no one compares to Jesus as the singer's comfort, shelter, and tower of refuge and strength. More Precious Than Silver speaks of the Lord being of more worth than silver, gold, or diamonds. He Is Exalted rejoices that the King is forever exalted on high, while heaven and earth rejoice in His holy name. And As the Deer, a very popular song, speaks of the song's recipient being the singer's strength, shield, heart's desire, friend, brother, sole satisfaction, real joy giver, and apple of her/his eye without specifically naming the recipient as God. In these songs the nature of the Trinity and its activity are rarely put forth as the basis for the worship.


Excerpted from The Message in the Music by Brian D. Walrath Copyright © 2007 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Robert H. Woods Jr. is Associate Professor of Communication and Media at Spring Arbor University in Spring Arbor, Michigan.

Brian D. Walrath is Associate Professor of Music and Worship Arts at Spring Arbor University in Spring Arbor, Michigan.

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