Contemporary Christian pop music might be taking Psalm 100’s command to “make a joyful noise unto the Lord” a little too far. Jamie Grace’s “Beautiful Day” was one of the top 10 Christian songs of 2014 and has a typically peppy chorus: “This feeling can’t be wrong / I’m about to get my worship on / Take me away / It’s a beautiful day.” Switch it out for Pharrell’s “Happy,” and a congregation might not be able to tell the difference.
The upbeat lyrics of “Beautiful Day” aren’t exceptional. I took a look at the last five years of Billboard’s year-end top 50 Christian songs1 to see whether Christian pop is unrelentingly cheerful. I looked at pairs of concepts across the entire collection of lyrics2 (life and death, grace and sin, etc.)3 and calculated the ratio of positive to negative words. For every pair I checked, positive words were far more common than negative ones.
There were 2.5 times as many mentions of “grace” as “sin” in the songs’ lyrics. Other pairs were even more lopsided: There were more than eight mentions of “life” for every instance of “death,” and “love” was more than seven times as common as “fear.” (For the record, 1 John 4:18 — “perfect love casts out fear” — is advice for spiritual formation, not lyrics writing.) Parishioners may find too much positive language dispiriting. When Christian pop songs and hymns are “excessively positive or wholly positive,” they often “come across as cotton candy and inauthentic,” said Richard Beck, a psychology professor at Abilene Christian University and the author of several books on the intersection between theology and psychology.
But Christian music hasn’t always been so one-note. I wanted to compare the sentiments of modern songs with those of an earlier tradition of American Christian music: shape note.4 Shape note was the popular music of its day, according to filmmaker Matt Hinton, a former religion professor at Morehouse College and the co-creator of “Awake, My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp,” a documentary about modern shape-note singers. Shape note is named for the way the sheet music is written, using shapes to make sight-reading easier. It was commonly sung across the American South in the mid-1800s and is still sung today by a mix of Christians and folk-music enthusiasts.5
For most of the pairs of concepts, the shape-note hymns also had more positively associated words than negative ones, but the shape-note songs aren’t as unremittingly positive as the contemporary songs.
Hinton sees the darker themes of shape note as integral to Christian worship. Mixing in negative language makes it easier to tell the positive story of salvation, Hinton said. He sees shape-note texts as placing “a profound emphasis upon grace.” And because of that emphasis on grace, “there’s an emphasis on the reality of sin,” Hinton said.
Beck agrees and identifies one group of Christians who are particularly poorly served by uniformly upbeat themes in worship: “Winter Christians,” a group that Beck describes as having a relationship with God that is more touched by pain, distance or doubt. They can’t recognize themselves in the “Walt Disney-fication” of contemporary Christian music, Beck said, and when their experiences with Christianity aren’t reflected in hymns, they tend to assume that there’s something “wrong or diseased about who they are.” But Winter Christians aren’t alien to Christianity, Beck said: The Bible’s psalms of complaint reflect their struggles.
David W. Stowe, author of “No Sympathy for the Devil: Christian Pop Music and the Transformation of American Evangelicalism,” said that Christian pop wasn’t so “Jesus is my boyfriend-y” when it first began borrowing from secular pop music. In the 1960s and ’70s, Christian bands started to bring amps and drum sets into worship services but still included somber themes in their songs. In the Cold War period, singing about death and the Last Judgment didn’t put Christian singers too far outside the mainstream. Secular pop music, created under the specter of nuclear war, also had apocalyptic themes. But when that secular pop music moved on from this fear, so did the Christian music, Stowe said.
Sunny music, untouched by fear or doubt, may make it harder for congregations to lift every voice — including those of Winter Christians — and sing.
CORRECTION (June 4, 2016, 10:15 a.m.): A previous version of this article misstated the New Testament book that was the source of the phrase “perfect love casts out fear.” It comes from the First Epistle of John, known as 1 John, not the Gospel of John.