Church music is changing. Again.

For Baptists and other evangelicals in the free church tradition, these changes have always been difficult to quantify. In the past we would rely on the anecdotal evidence compiled by leaders who had occasion to visit many of our churches. These trend spotters offered tentative conclusions about changes they observed, but could not offer much more than an informed opinion.

Now a survey has revealed how GARBC churches are embracing new congregational songs at the same time they are dropping some older favorites. A closer look at the changes shows how GARBC attitudes about church music may be changing as well.

The list of Top 50 Worship Songs was supplied by Christian Copyright Licensing International, a private company that licenses copyrighted songs for use in church services. As such, the idea of a Top 50 list should be approached with a few caveats. First, the list represents only songs that are still under copyright. GARBC churches still use many classic hymns and gospel songs for congregational worship, but these public domain songs are not tracked by CCLI. Also, the list best represents churches that reproduce song sheets and songbooks, or who use lyrics projected on a screen. Churches that use only hymnals or other commercially printed sources would not be represented in this survey. And one final disclaimer: Readers should remember that surveys are descriptive, not prescriptive. While we may gain a better understanding of what is happening, the data does not tell us what should be happening!

The survey data is valuable because it represents the 839 GARBC churches who subscribe to the CCLI service, about 65 percent of GARBC churches.

Missing from the list

Those who grew up in GARBC churches will immediately notice that some cherished favorites have fallen from relative favor in our services. For instance, the Top 50 list does not contain the last of the great postwar gospel songs (“How Great Thou Art,” “Victory in Jesus”). Nor does it contain any of the Youth for Christ and Singspiration choruses (introduced 1945–1965), gospel songs written by John W. Peterson (introduced 1950–1980), or gospel songs written by Bill Gaither (introduced 1960–1990).

Also missing from the list are songs published by Majesty Music (Frank Garlock and Ron Hamilton), though their hymnals continue to be used in many of our churches.

Another fact is even more surprising: the list reveals the comparative absence of “praise and worship” songs published by Maranatha Music (introduced 1970–1990), as well as songs popularized by early CCM performers such as Michael W. Smith, Amy Grant, and Steve Green (1980–2000). I make these observations with keen interest, because our movement of churches has had its share of disagreement over these categories. From time to time our leaders would offer their opinions on gospel songs, or “Gaither songs” or “CCM songs.” Now it appears as though the churches that formerly used these songs have largely moved on to newer material.

Quick shifts in popularity

The broad song categories just mentioned are being replaced by very new worship songs. Note how the top 25 list now has only two songs written before 2000. Comparing the list to a similar CCLI list published by the Baptist Bulletin in 2009, we notice how 18 songs have dropped off the Top 25 list in a space of only three years, including “You Are My All in All” (Dennis Jernigan), “As the Deer” (Martin Nystrom), “Shout to the Lord” (Darlene Zschech), “Great Is the Lord” (Michael W. and Deborah D. Smith), “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” (Rick Founds), “I Love You, Lord” (Laurie Klein), and “The Heart of Worship” (Matt Redman). Yes, these songs remain in our top 100, but their fall from the Top 50 list illustrates how quickly a song can shift in popularity.

Death of the 7/11 chorus

At the height of the Worship Wars, critics complained about the “7/11 chorus,” brief lyrical sentiments that seemed to feature seven words repeated 11 times. Yes, the snarky insult was also a deliberate allusion to a convenience store. Critics wondered if the lyrical and musical content was the equivalent of fast food rather than a substantive meal. Perhaps the best of these choruses had some potential as brief congregational responses—if they were offered along with service elements of more substance. But at the lowest point in the mid-1990s, it seemed like some church services offered a steady diet of only choruses. In addition to offering a truncated view of worship, some churches were in danger of squandering the valuable teaching opportunity provided by songs of more substance.

Now the survey shows how the era of the “praise and worship” chorus is fading. Most of the current Top 50 songs are not written in the single-verse format. On our Top 50 list, see the recent contributions from Keith Getty, Stuart Townend, Mark Altrogge, Steve and Vikki Cook, and several others. Many song writers are crafting new songs for the church by adopting the older structures of metrical hymnody, featuring carefully crafted lyric poems full of rich metaphors with stricter attention to form and rhyme scheme. The shorter works that remain tend to have more complex song forms, with structural devices such as a bridge, turnaround, or prechorus.

The trend toward older song forms is also mirrored by a growing appreciation of our treasured hymn heritage. Several songs on the list combine a classic hymn with a new melody or chorus. (See “Amazing Grace [My Chains Are Gone],” “Glorious Day [Living He Loved Me],” “The Wonderful Cross,” and “Jesus Paid It All.”)

Increasing our objective focus

If one were to sing through all 50 songs listed here, perhaps certain observations could be made about their lyrical focus. Objective worship songs (an emphasis on God and His works) seem to be gaining in relative popularity over subjective songs (an emphasis on our response to what God has done for us). This objective versus subjective tension has been a matter of controversy since the early days of our association, when leaders wondered if our church services borrowed too heavily from the evangelistic songs of revivalism. The same problem reared its head in the 1990s, when the idea of a “seeker sensitive” service became controversial.

For GARBC churches, the question was never “should we do one or the other?” Rather, the question was one of balance. Our beliefs about church services are strongly influenced by our understanding of New Testament teaching about the gathered church. We worship in the free church tradition, emphasizing a Word-centered approach to service planning and a memorial view of the Lord’s Supper. When compared to the broader spectrum of mainstream liturgical churches, GARBC churches offer more opportunities for the congregation’s testimony, mutual encouragement, and exhortation. But these “subjective” themes, if left unchecked, can lead to a diminished emphasis on objective worship. Perhaps the new Top 50 list is showing a helpful shift in our balance between objectivity and subjectivity.

Different than our evangelical peers

The new survey also hints that GARBC churches choose different songs than those used in the broader spectrum of evangelicalism. By comparing the GARBC Top 25 list to the general CCLI Top 25 list representing all churches, certain contrasts can be made. In this reporting period, 13 songs on the GARBC list did not appear in the CCLI Top 25. In my opinion, the songs “added” by GARBC churches are more substantive replacements for the most popular songs in evangelical churches—a good sign. For instance, contemporary hymns from the writers listed here are comparatively more popular in GARBC churches than they are in the broader list of evangelical favorites.

Same old challenges

Surveys sometimes report bad news. Having offered the opinion that the Top 50 list shows a more thoughtful approach to congregational song (especially when compared to the excesses of the 1990s), I would also like to pause for a brief “Hmmm.” Our zeal to “sing a new song” should be tempered by a more careful evaluation of the lyrics and music.

Every era has its own vapid songs that become popular despite their inferior art and lyrical content. In the early days of our association, we often sang gospel songs from Methodist and Holiness sources—and some of them were great songs. But then we found ourselves asking to “live above the world” on some nebulous “Higher Ground.” Were we singing about a second work of grace? Hmmm.

At the height of the Charismatic movement in the 1970s, we inadvertently sang confusing lyrics with differing views on the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the presence of God, and the nature of the coming millennial Kingdom. Halfway through the song, we’d start to think, “Whoops—Did I really sing that?” Looking up, we’d notice that our pastor was busy scribbling a note in the bulletin, a future warning to a song leader who should have planned more carefully.

Today our list of new songs poses the same challenges for congregations who wish to sing with theological discernment. Song number 23 on our list, “Counting on God,” features a chorus where the title phrase is repeated four times. That’s it. And the lyrics of the verse aren’t much stronger:

I’m in a fight not physical.
And I’m in a war
But not with this world.
And You are the light that’s beautiful.
And I want more, I want all that’s Yours.

The song “Fill Me Up,” number 37 on our list, has a chorus with the title phrase repeated four times, followed by this verse:

You provide the fire, And I’ll provide the sacrifice.
You provide the Spirit, And I will open up inside.

Here I must offer an opinion: These songs are good candidates for a short lifespan. On any given Sunday, when our leaders could be choosing from 500 really great songs, do we have time for lyrics that don’t seem to say much at all?

Studying our core hymns and gospel songs

Does this survey prove that GARBC churches have abandoned the canon of traditional hymnody? No. Again, this survey reports only songs that are still under copyright (rule of thumb: written after 1923). Most GARBC churches continue to emphasize a loosely formed collection of 250 standard hymns and gospel songs, what we consider the best expressions of our doctrine and spiritual aspirations. We’ll discuss this hymn heritage in the next issue of the Baptist Bulletin, offering our attempt to identify which hymns have been used most frequently by GARBC churches. We’ll also feature an interview with Ken Osbeck, a retired GARBC music director who has written extensively about our hymns and gospel songs.

Kevin Mungons is managing editor of the Baptist Bulletin. The Top 50 survey data was provided by Christian Copyright Licensing International, Inc., covering the period April through September 2011. The survey data is based on a sample of the 839 GARBC churches who subscribe to the CCLI service.