Assessing the Top 5 Worship Songs List

This week I put up a list of "The Top 5 Worship Songs From the Past 10 Years."  Actually, there were 4 top 5 lists, as I asked some of my church music leader friends to contribute. I had some followup thoughts to this post and wanted to share them, along with an un-scientific assessment of the lists.

The assessment will be first: 

1. Out of all the songs only two were repeated among the 4 lists: "How Great is Our God" and "Everlasting God."
2. Out of all the songs 7 of the authors/composers had more than one song among the lists: Brenton Brown, Chris Tomlin, Jesse Reeves, Matt Redman, Jonas Myrin, Brian Johnson, Matt Maher.
3. Out of all the songs, 5 were authored/composed by women: Jenny Lee Riddle, Christa Black, Brooke Ligertwood, Leslie Jordan, Mia Fieldes.
4. Out of the 18 songs listed, 9 are over 5 years old: This means the playing field was evenly split.
5. Out of all the songs only 1 (I believe) could be said to be in a minor key: "Sovereign Over Us."
6. Basically ALL the selections come from "mainstream" worship providers: The only song from what could be called "alternative" worship is The Brilliance's "Our God Alone." There are other songs on the lists from less popular worship artists/composers, but they could hardly be considered to be out of the mainstream: Aaron Keyes, New Life Church's "Great I Am", and John Mark McMillan are all either decently popular in their own right, are on or have been on major record labels, or have had their songs covered by major worship artists (Michael W. Smith with "Sovereign Over Us", David Crowder and others with "How He Loves")

And here are some observations:
1. Even as I posted the list, I realized it was an exercise in futility. Something I hinted at and something commented on by Amanda Holm Rosengren, who contributed to the list, is that in order to even pick our lists we had to severely limit our scope of selection, eventually choosing only from the most mainstream and popular worship music. This means we did not necessarily select what is "best", but only what is "best" from a narrow slice of global church culture and "best" from what has already been accepted as mass-appeal worship music. Sure, Chris Tomlin is hands down the most well known song leader, composer, and worship artist around, but really he is merely the chief representative of a specific cultural expression of music: Western pop music which has become the default form of "contemporary" worship music. So, not only is there more music available than is possible for the Church to sing that falls within the pop music expression, but there is even more music available which would fall outside that expression, music that gets very little attention at all. Here, the list could be long but includes more independent or alternative worship forms, art-song, and any non-Western or non-white worship music repertoire. The last one of this list is something I know very little about but is more vast than I can even comprehend. There is so much music out there that is has lead me to this conclusion, something I will expound more on at length in the future: it is not important that churches know the best cutting edge songs, but instead that they simply learn a set of songs to sing together so they can best commune with God as a people. The songs themselves don't exactly matter, so long as they are theologically sound and aesthetically beautiful. 

All in all, there is just no way to process through all the worship music out there. As someone who loves music and culture and being exposed to great art, what really pains me to think about is how the "best" songs probably are not getting heard because of the myriad choices available to us and the limitations small artists face in distributing their work. It is disconcerting to me that we might be led to think that God's blessing is on Tomlin's or Redman's or Hillsong's music more, because it is being heard and sung by more people, that it should be obvious God wants the Church to sing their music since it is already the most available and thus sung by the most people. What is difficult for me is truly believing that God is blessing many many songwriters to write for the Church while also knowing I will never actually hear or sing their music myself (here is a great example of a recently written, exceptional song that hardly anyone will ever listen to and has little chance to take off in churches: "In the Silence of the Beginning" by Chris Juby). As song leaders, the gatekeepers to the music in our congregations, what do we do about such a thing?

2. At 5, I was surprised there was such a high number of women author/composers. Though it could be higher, I was pleased to see this.

3. Based on people's comments, I am surprised at people's hatred towards some of the song choices. The choice of "Everlasting God" in particular drew criticism, for being difficult to sing and for containing embarrassingly simple lyrics. I find it amazing that what for some is an instrument for the Church to express her worship to God is for others an unsightly stumbling block. There's no accounting for taste...

But even so, the criticism some of these songs received has led me to realize even more that:

4. As the years go on I am increasingly losing faith with the music of modern worship. There were a number of songs in the lists of my friends I had never heard before so I decided to give them a listen. Honestly, I found most of the music either quite annoying or bland and derivative. A lot of these new songs contain what I would call "non-melody melodies," which are 2-4 note highly repeated motifs possessing no life of their own but merely bound to the structure of a 4 chord progression. It is plain for everyone to see that our music is getting dumber, and actually there is proof this is a culture wide pandemic. The apple has fallen far from the folk melody and art-music roots of the Reformation tree that is our Church music heritage. 

Although there is currently a huge hymn resurgence taking place in the Church its influence has not yet reached the most mainstream of worship artists/composers.  So what are we as song leaders going to do about? Articles like this one and books like this one are good places to start, but I also think we all should get our hymnals out and start learning as many of the old tunes as we can and then we should listen to more Baroque and "Classical" music, allowing all the melodies and harmonies to seep into our psyches. I am speaking to myself as much as everyone else when I say this.

5. I was pleased to see the variety of lyrical subjects in the lists. From general worship songs, to songs about the cross, to songs for troubled times, to songs about a number of specific themes (various individual Scripture passages, the book of Revelation, Palm Sunday, the Holy Spirit), there was a good variety to choose from. 
Related Articles on Worship and Worship Music
Ask a Worship #1: What is the great misconception about your job?
Why I've Never Sung Matt Redman's '10,000 Reasons' At My Church
Music Matters: Two Versions of Aaron Keys "Sovereign Over Us"
4 Things I Learned About Worship By Being on a Podcast
5 Pieces of Advice For Matt Redman (not that anyone asked...)
Dear CCLI: Here are 5 ways you can become better

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