Lester Ruth: Don’t Lose the Trinity! A Plea to Songwriters

Let this piece serve as an earnest appeal to songwriters: please don’t lose the Trinity as you write songs! Why would I say such a thing? Because my study of the most used contemporary worship songs in the last fifteen years shows that there is a danger our songs reflect love for a god who does not fit the message of the classic, scriptural Christian faith.[1] I grow fearful that our songs disclose intense feelings but do not worship the God revealed in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. We are in danger of losing the Father and the Spirit in our worship. If songs have the power to form a people’s faith, then we stand at the edge of losing scriptural worship.

I reached that conclusion after studying the songs that appeared on Christian Copyright Licensing International’s (CCLI) top-25 lists for the years 1989 to 2004, the first lists available. There were two lists per year corresponding to the twice-a-year royalty payouts. I look at thirty lists. Only seventy-two songs appear on these lists. Titles appear in chart form below with average rank for the entire fifteen years and the last five years. I have included the number of times each song appeared on the lists for these same periods.

In a variety of ways these songs rarely contribute to the development of a Trinitarian faith. Take the issue of naming the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, for example. None of the songs refer to the Trinity or the Triune nature of God. And only three songs refer to all three Persons of the Trinity: “Glorify Thy Name,” “Father I Adore You,” and “Shine Jesus Shine.” This lack of naming is most obvious in the absence of references to God the Father and the Holy Spirit.[2] Only four songs speak of God as Father and only six refer to the Spirit, none of which use the name “Holy Spirit.” I counted another seven instances where lyrics refer to God the Father without using “Father.” An example is “Because He Lives,” which notes “God sent His Son / They called him Jesus.”

Who gets named in these songs? There is one group, almost half, that makes clear reference to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, in some way. Sometimes he is named explicitly. Sometimes the allusion is clear, for example, when worshiping the one who died on the cross. But there is another large group of songs where it is very hard to know who this God is. Many of these songs speak of some “Lord,” “God,” or “King” in a generic way. The term “functionally unitarian” comes to mind.[3] In five songs there is no name or title for God at all, just a reference to “You.”[4]

While naming Jesus is wonderful, only when we name all three Persons will we establish an accurate understanding of the Christian God. I acknowledge that not every song needs to instruct in extensive ways, but that should not mean that any song should be exempted from working out of a Trinitarian perspective or “syntax.”[5] Why should we be satisfied with something less than the fullness of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit? Why can’t our songs speak about God in the same ways and proportions as the New Testament? Not every song needs to instruct, but every song does need to form God’s people rightly. Songs will form faith one way or the other. That is why overt Trinitarianism is so important: the goal is being formed in a faith true to the New Testament. Being theologically sound is more than avoiding error or having some Scripture quotes in a song. It involves participating in the full, rich vision of the God disclosed in the New Testament.

The issue of naming leads to another tendency: directing worship toward Jesus Christ alone and neglecting to worship the Trinity as a whole, the Holy Spirit, or the Father. As one provocative essay ponders about worship today, “What ever happened to the Father?”[6] The two songs that worship the entire Trinity are structured by naming each of the Persons (“Glorify Thy Name” and “Father I Adore You”). Only three address any worship toward the Holy Spirit at all, the same three that name all three Persons. The biggest surprise is how little God the Father is worshiped. Only a small handful worships the Father directly and explicitly. Such a gap contrasts with how Christians from New Testament times onward have worshiped: commonly worship is directed toward God the Father through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. In comparison what the seventy-two contemporary songs most tend to do is worship Jesus Christ or worship a generic deity.

Contemporary trends in naming God and directing worship evolve into another omission: failing to remember the activity of God—and each of the three Persons specifically—as the basis for Christian praise and prayer. The omission is there whether one looks for how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit interact or how these three have cooperated to save the world. The most frequent song trait is to remember what Jesus Christ has done and, perhaps, to involve God the Father in that activity. The biggest gap is to remember the Spirit’s role in God’s saving mission to the world.

A couple of factors contribute to the shaky remembrance of God’s activity. The first is the songs’ tendency to emphasize divine character traits or status but not divine activity. The God in many of these songs is high and mighty, but also appears highly passive, too. Another factor is the failure to put God’s saving activity within a larger biblical framework. Few songs praise God the Father for remembering what he has done through Christ as part of a big biblical story. Why can’t we sing songs that sound like Ephesians 1? Let us praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and then recite what this God has done through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. This is biblical praise. Instead, in these songs, the saving work is attributed to a single entity—whether God, the Lord (unspecified), or Christ—and spoken of as a simple historic event. The songs leave even the atonement underdeveloped in its Trinitarian aspects.

With no naming of the Trinity and no remembrance of the Trinity’s activity, another thing happens in these songs: the songs do not contemplate worship as participation in the dynamics between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.[7] The songs tend to objectify God as the recipient of our worship activity. If God seems passive in these songs, we are not. Humans usually get the good verbs in the songs. This approach contrasts with the classic Christian understanding that worship is first of all Jesus Christ’s activity toward God the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit and that we are graciously invited into a share of his worship. It is Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ongoing heavenly ministry that ultimately is worship that is true and in the Spirit. The New Testament tends to take technical Old Testament worship words and apply them to Christ as he brings glory to the Father. He is the new temple, priest, sacrifice, Passover, and Passover lamb. Christ fulfills the scriptures in worship. These songs do something different: they tend to objectify Christ, turning adoration of him into its own end. Instead of Jesus as the mediator to worship God the Father, is music becoming a substitute mediator between us and the new object of worship, Christ Jesus?

Ironically, by making worship of Christ its singular end, I suggest the songs distance us from the truest intimacy with the divine, namely, being in Christ, filled with the Holy Spirit, sharing in his death that brings glory to God the Father. As Matt Redman describes a proper Trinitarian approach to worship,

[blockquote]We praise Jesus the Son with everything within us—but we also join with Jesus in worship as He glorifies His Father. As the Holy Spirit reveals the Lordship of Jesus to the depths of our heart, He also takes us into the Son’s relationship with the Father….Worship is to Jesus, yes—absolutely. We glorify the Son and magnify His name. But worship is also in Jesus and through Jesus and with Jesus…When our heavenly Father receives our worship, He receives it in the person of His Son and in the power of His Holy Spirit. [8][/blockquote]

Songwriters, please help us do this more. There are some Trinitarian songs out there, but according to the CCLI data our churches tend not to choose them. Help us love the Triune God. There is no greater spur of love and awe than to contemplate what the biblical God has done, who the biblical God is, and what our share is in the dynamics between the Persons of the Trinity. Give us songs that worship this God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—revealed in the New Testament. Give us songs that are true to God.

[1] CCLI neither endorses nor denies any conclusions I have drawn from the use of CCLI-obtained information. Return

[2] This is similar to Robin Parry’s review of Vineyard CDs from 1999 to 2004. See Worshipping Trinity: Coming Back to the Heart of Worship (Milton Keynes: Paternoster Press, 2005), 143. Return

[3] James B. Torrance, Worship, Community & The Triune God of Grace (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 20. Return

[4] “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever,” “Breathe,” “Above All,” “Draw Me Close,” and “When I Look into Your Holiness.” “Above All” does commemorate Christ’s crucifixion and eternal nature without naming him. “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever” refers to the “You” as “healer.” “As the Deer” and “You’re Worthy of My Praise” were not included because they speak (only) of the recipient as king. Return

[5] Parry, Worshipping Trinity, 131. Return

[6] For a broader investigation, see Susan J. White, “What Ever Happened to the Father? The Jesus Heresy in Modern Worship” available at http:// www.gbod.org/worship/white.pdf. Return

[7] To see another framing of desirable Trinitarian aspects in worship, see John Witvliet, “The Opening of Worship—Trinity,” in A More Profound Alleluia: Theology and Worship in Harmony, ed. Leanne Van Dyk (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 1-27. Return

[8] Matt Redman, Facedown (Ventura: Regal, 2004), 52. Return

The 72 Songs Appearing on Top 25 CCLI Lists
from April 1989 to March 2004
Note: Lack of data in 5 year columns means no appearance on those lists.
Title 15-Year Rank # of Time on Lists in 15 Years Last 5 Years Rank # of Times on Lists in Last 5 Years
Above All 39 4 24 4
Ah Lord God 49 5
All Hail King Jesus 10 22 42 2
Arise and Sing 71 1
As The Deer 4 29 5 10
Awesome God 9 25 8 10
Because He Lives 53 4
Better Is One Day 54 4 36 4
Bind Us Together 63 1
Bless His Holy Name 38 7
Breathe 30 5 16 5
Celebrate Jesus Celebrate 52 5 35 4
Change My Heart O God 22 17 13 10
Come Now Is the Time to Worship 24 7 9 7
Draw Me Close 47 4 30 4
Emmanuel 29 13 36 2
Father I Adore You 63 2
Forever 45 3 29 3
Give Thanks 2 29 7 9
Glorify Thy Name 8 24 23 5
God of Wonders 39 3 24 3
Great Is the Lord 33 18 34 5
He Has Made Me Glad 5 26 14 7
He Is Exalted 11 25 15 8
Here I Am To Worship 35 3 19 3
His Name Is Wonderful 51 6
Holy Ground 26 20
How Can We Name a Love 55 1
How Majestic is Your Name 23 19
I Could Sing of Your Love Forever 28 9 11 9
I Exalt Thee 12 25 31 5
I Give You My Heart 66 1 44 1
I Love You Lord 1 28 6 9
I Stand In Awe 66 1 44 1
I Will Call Upon the Lord 12 24 33 4
I Worship You Almighty God 56 3 43 1
In Moments Like These 61 1
Jesus Name Above All Names 15 21 40 2
Joy to the World 66 1
Let There Be Glory & Honor & Praises 66 1
Lord Be Glorified 56 4
Lord I Lift Your Name on High 6 21 1 10
Lord Reign In Me 56 2 39 2
Majesty 3 27 10 8
More Precious Than Silver 25 14 21 6
My Life Is In You Lord 44 7 28 7
Oh How He Love You and Me 42 9
Open Our Eyes 17 22 40 3
Open the Eyes of my Heart of my Heart 19 9 3 9
Our God Reigns 27 10
Praise the Name of Jesus 18 17
Sanctuary 41 5 26 5
Seek Ye First 36 13
Shine Jesus Shine 21 19 12 10
Shout to the Lord 14 13 2 10
Surely the Presence of the Lord 62 1
The Heart of Worship 31 5 17 5
There’s Some thing About that Name 59 1
This Is the Day 16 22 36 4
Thou Art Worthy 34 8
Thy Loving kindness 60 1
Trading My Sorrows 37 4 22 4
Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus 65 1
We Bring the Sacrifice of Praise 7 26 20 6
We Fall Down 42 5 27 5
We Have Come Into His House 47 5
Come Into His House
We Will Glorify 45 9
What a Mighty God We Serve 70 2
When I Look Into Your Holiness 70 1
You Are My All in All 20 11 4 10
You Are My King 31 5 17 5
You’re Worthy of My Praise 50 4 32 4

Originally Posted February 2006

About the author

DWS 701 Professor and Research Professor of Christian Worship at Duke Divinity School.