A few thoughts on church music

Gary Huffenberger - Staff columnist

Many of us remember singing “This Little Light of Mine” and “Fishers of Men” in children’s Sunday School.

In addition to the lessons in their words, singing them could be fun and engaging. If I remember right, “This Little Light of Mine” often involved hand gestures to signify a lit candle and seeking to make Earth a brighter place.

Music can sometimes soothe us when we’re troubled, and the late folk singer Pete Seeger said that some music can even help us do something about the world’s troubles. He and others have thought that some songs can have powerful effects, perhaps in particular when we sing it out.

Seeger felt, as he put it, that it’s vital to have songs on our lips and not just in our ears.

There are church songs that apply a healing balm to a hurting psyche, and such music will always be welcome. But for this commentary, we will consider whether the potential of Christian songs to stir us toward a brighter world is wanting in one respect.

Accordingly, let’s focus on one question concerning church songs. The question is: Are the ties of community as contained in the good news underrepresented in the song lyrics?

According to a study by Ryan Klein, the lyrics of contemporary Christian worship songs are much more likely to use the pronoun “I” as contrasted with the pronoun “we” than was the case with hymns composed prior to the late 1700s.

“My analysis revealed a statistically significant difference between the [church song] samples; the pre-modern songs assumed a collective perspective 50 percent of the time, an individual perspective 20 percent of the time, and did not specify a singer 30 percent of the time. Almost conversely, the contemporary songs assumed a collective perspective 15.5 percent of the time and an individual perspective 84.5 percent of the time,” Klein writes.

Klein interprets these results as suggesting that with the contemporary songs, we sing as though the church isn’t so much a unified community as a collection of individuals.

Insofar as Klein may be on to something, a shift from singing largely about “we” to largely about “I” can be questioned. After all, Jesus’ model prayer begins with “Our Father” not “My Father.”

And while some may suspect the pre-modern hymns did not refer to the individual person enough, we also at the same time can wonder whether the contemporary lyrics emphasize “I” too much.

So here’s a suggestion for writers of church songs. Please create plenty of music that speaks to the possibilities that arise when we journey life together, and link loyally to one another in powerful community.

Huffenberger is a News Journal staff writer. Reach him at 937-556-5768 or ghuffenberger@wnewsj.com .


Gary Huffenberger

Staff columnist