There are five types of Christian songs used in Churches today: declarative, confessional, prophetic, celebratory, free style and… ok, there’s even as sixth. The post below discusses each, as part of a broader reflection the theology of music, and especially thoughts on Christian songs.
“Christian music” and “Christian songs”, like Christian art or Christian anything, are very difficult to define. Is a piece of music “Christian” if it is written and/or performed by a Christian? Does the theme/content define a song as Christian? Or does the context, and particularly the way the song/music is used, determine that a song/music is Christian? Or is there a spiritualistic definition of Christian music: music/songs are only Christian if the Holy Spirit is involved in the entire process, from conception to performance to listening? Or is it all of the above (mixed method)?
Assuming a lot of grey area around this, let’s just assume there is plenty of variety in Christian music and songs. And to focus, let’s think about songs used in the context of the Church. For that, there are generally five types of songs:
1. The Declarative songs
These songs (or hymns, whatever you want to call them), declare the praises of God, they talk about God’s goodness, holiness. They proclaim the truth of God and his works. Sometimes these songs focus also on the events of scripture, and objectively declare what happened and what will happen. Many hymns are like this, which begin with a proclamation of God’s goodness and end with the hope of resurrection. Often, older Christians (though also some youngsters) bemoan the loss of declarative songs because modern worship has tended to, they say, shift the focus away from God, to human beings.
Example: A classic example of a declaration song is “Majesty” (the old one). Consider the lyrics, it simply declares the Majesty of Jesus. And even though it is a call to the Church to worship the Majesty, it still declares that God/Jesus is Majesty.
2. The confessional songs
But confessional songs are also part of the musical canon of the Church. Here, the Christians say “thank you” to God, they “request” God’s presence, they confess their sins, they ask for forgiveness, they proclaim that God is truly part of their lives. Unlike the declarative songs, these songs focus on the subjective experience of Christian living. Where, regardless of the truth of the Bible, that God is above all, sometimes, God does not feel above all in our life, sometimes God is not praised by us every day, so these songs are a restatement of faith, a desire to keep on singing, keep on praising God.
Example: An interesting parallel example would be the song “Majesty” (the new one, by Delirious and popularised by Hillsongs United). In that song, the focus is a little more on the confession of how God’s “grace has found me” and how “I am changed by your love.” It’s not simply the “I” coming in, but the song is an affirmation that God has truly made an impact in my life.
3. The prophetic songs
Unlike the declarative and confessional songs, that is the church (or individual in the Church) singing to God, the prophetic songs speak from the point of view of God, and the audience is the Church. Interestingly, if one googles “prophetic worship” what turns up most commonly is “free style”/spontaneous worship. However, prophetic as understood as “speaking forth the word of God”, the goal of prophetic songs would be to teach, to inspire the Church/congregation, to stir the church/believers into action, or help them do something (remember something); sometimes perhaps even warn. To put it simply, prophetic songs are songs that draw from scripture and speaks to the Church from God’s point of view. The scripture in song movement had examples of these types of songs; where the song quoted scripture represented God speaking to the hearts of people.
Examples: The classic song that comes to mind is “Servant King” by Graham Kendrick, that is a call to the church to “let us learn how to serve.” In modern songs, I think there’s “Days of Elijah,” especially in its emphasis to “prepare ye the way of the Lord.”
4. Celebratory songs
These songs, popular with Sunday schools and youth groups, are songs that have lots of actions, often scripture in song, but the goal is more to get the group together, connect with other Christians, improve the mood, and even the fellowship etc. The theology of the song is of less importance, more important is the effect of the singing (and the manner of singing of the song) has on its audience. Oftentimes these songs open the worship time, especially in youth groups, to help the congregation become more free (like icebreakers).
Examples: Usually any song with coordinated actions, even “Lord I lift your name on High”, but consider “B-I-B-L-E” or “I’ve got peace like a river.”
5. Free Style
The Free Style songs are typified by singers who spontaneously create new songs on stage, and/or speak words of declaration/confession/encouragement while the music is playing in the background. Sometimes the worship leaders encourage the audience to join in the creation of new songs as they are singing. This freestyle singing is a mixture of prayer with music, features atmospheric music/sounds in the background, encouraging the members to create their own words to God on the spot. It can be more like a confessional (often is) but is even declarative, and often is sung in-between more traditional songs, but it exists as part of the way music is seen in some churches.
Examples? I’m sure there’ll be several on YouTube, but consider one popular example, Kim Walker-Smith’s “Jesus”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nTIFKariq-E
6. Mixed method songs
In most cases, it’s rare to find songs that do not blur lines of the categories. Many songs combine two or more elements of the above, which may begin for instance with declarative aspects and move towards confessional, or even have aspects of prophetic teaching in verse one that is followed by the confessional chorus, etc.
Example? So many, but how about, “There is a Redeemer,” by Melody Green, a song that’s primarily declarative, but incorporates thanksgiving and also a personal hope of “When I stand in glory, I will see His face.”
(this post will be updated with possibly more examples. If you have examples, or further types of songs, would love to hear them in the comments section below).