Lester Ruth: Is God Just Hanging Out on the Sofa? (Initial Wonderings about the Inactivity of God)

A few years ago I published in a couple of places a review that I had done about the Trinitarian quality of the most used contemporary worship songs in the United States. The study looked at the lyrics of any song that had appeared on one of CCLI’s twice-a-year list of the most used 25 songs. One of the things I noticed in that study was how few of the songs mentioned two or more of the Triune Persons (e.g., the Father and the Son) in the same song and, the few times it was done, how little the songs spoke about any sort of activity the Persons did to, with, or through each other.

The striking thing about that omission is how out of sync it is with the New Testament, where the interactions of God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit are reported quite frequently. Indeed, what the Three do to, with, and through each other seems to be the heart of the apostolic Gospel. (Look at Romans 1:1-4 for example.)

And so I had begun wondering: how do the most used songs speak about divine and human activity? Who gets the most and the best verbs? While I haven’t finished my analysis on the 91 songs that have appeared on the CCLI lists, I can make some preliminary observations:

  • The songs have more instances of human activity than divine (just under 500 instances of human activity and just over 300 for divine);
  • A few of the songs have no references to divine activity at all;
  • Interaction among the Persons of the Godhead is pretty minimal, as I have already noted;
  • The doctrine of the atonement (what it means for Christ to die) is largely underdeveloped (it’s interesting to note that I can find only one instance of the verb “crucify,” which is in the song “Above All”);
  • There is little remembering God’s activity prior to the first coming of Christ and remembering divine activity in the second coming of Christ;
  • The most used verb attributed to God is “come,” which is connected with God more than the words save, love, or die.
  • There are as many instances of the songs speaking of us loving God as they do of God loving us.

All of this data does not mean that I don’t like contemporary worship music, which some might have thought after the first study. I actually love this music. And this data does NOT mean that we shouldn’t use these songs. Of course, we should use them. It should mean, however, that we are conscious of how the rest of the things we do in worship help to paint a richer biblical portrayal of God’s redeeming activity because, in the end, aren’t we saved by what God does rather than by what we do? If so, let’s let God have some good verbs.

Originally posted July 2010

Originally appeared here: Anamnesis: the IWS Newsletter, July 2010.

About the author

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