Many favorite songs of Sunday worship in the 1960s are not properly classified hymns. They are gospel songs. These are songs that focus on personal testimonies of how great it is to be a Christian. “Blessed assurance! Jesus is mine! O, what a foretaste of glory divine!” “What a fellowship! What a joy divine! Leaning on the everlasting arms.” “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear.”
The words of the songs are words we give to one another. We are not addressing God. We are not telling God, “Do thy friends despise, forsake thee?” The “we” in “We shall rejoicing, bringing the sheaves” are the people around us.
As might be expected, songs like these were largely written for revival services. They describe being saved and living as a Christian. They are openly sentimental, easy to sing, and emotionally joyful. In singing the lyrics we encourage one another and, hopefully, move any lost sinners present to turn their lives over to Christ.
Many contemporary songs used in worship do not focus on these things. In these songs, God is either directly addressed or God is the subject being praised. Here’s a 2011 listing, based on CCLI of the top five songs used in Sunday worship:
- How Great Is Our God
- Mighty To Save
- Our God
- Blessed Be Your Name
- Here I Am To Worship
Songs either to or about God -- not songs about the Christian life. One fact some may find surprising is, if we go all the way back to 1900, the top five songs used in Sunday worship are exactly like that:
- All Hail the Power
- Come Thou Almighty King
- Holy, Holy, Holy
- O For a Thousand Tongues
- Love Divine, All Loves Excelling
Most contemporary worship songs, like most great hymns the church sang in 1900, focus directly on worship. God is either directly addressed or is the subject.
And yet, in 1900, many gospel songs had been written and were widely popular. Based on paper rollers sold for music boxes by Sears in 1900, songs like Just As I Am, I Love to Tell the Story, Bringing in the Sheaves, and What a Friend We have in Jesus were being heard and enjoyed in homes throughout America. And, of course, Christians would certainly have sung songs like these at revival meetings.
Sunday worship, however, was all about worship. The primary direction of the music was vertical (to God) rather than horizontal (to the other people present). In that important aspect, contemporary Christian music can be said to have returned to, not turned away from, the traditional worship of the church.