Andrea C. Hunter on Contemporary Worship Music’s Thou-to-I Shift
Her wide and deep experience with contemporary worship music gives Andrea C. Hunter keen insight on how it can form—or malform—Christians and congregations.
Andrea C. Hunter is a songwriter, director, producer, writer, and editor in San Juan Capistrano, California. She runs Recon Records, a worship and prayer label, and has dozens of CCLI credits. Hunter has worked in the recording industry, in academia, and at Worship Leader magazine. In this edited conversation, Hunter talks about changes in contemporary Christian music that affect congregations.
How have your faith and work journeys influenced the worship music projects you choose?
I grew up in Mormonism and as a young adult was born again into the charismatic stream of Christianity. My first music project was recording and producing the album Intercessor with Marty Goetz and other friends. It was birthed out of hearing Jack Hayford, a Foursquare pastor, teach about intercession.
I was in an intercessory prayer group that met at the recording studios of Chris and Freddie Perren. They’d undergone a radical conversion and worked with artists such as The Mighty Clouds of Joy, the Jackson 5, Peaches and Herb, and, later, Boyz II Men. As we prayed together one night, the idea for an LP of songs appropriate for a community intercessory prayer meeting came to me. Gathering friends together to make the album introduced me to the concept of worship not only as intercession, but doxology.
How did your years at Warner Bros. Records fit with your growing career as a songwriter and producer?
My proclivity for producing music as sung prayer was already set when I became the director of worldwide communications at Warner Bros. Records. I encountered the widest variety of music, as WBR had over 50 affiliated labels, and met so many gifted and kind people there, like TaTa Vega, who sang on the title song of Jeremy Riddle’s album Beautiful Jesus (Recon Records). She translated that song with her mom and sang backing vocals in Spanish.
I also met the most gifted session players in the world—believing Christians who were totally comfortable with making a recording studio a sanctuary. They donated their gifts to Healing Presence, a project I made for the AIDS Resource Ministry (ARM, now called Embracing Life Ministries)to give away to HIV/AIDS patients for the AIDS Resource Ministry. And Warner’s printing facility printed the cover for free.
What did you learn at Worship Leader magazine?
Heading up Worship Leader’s book review section exposed me to a rich banquet of Bible translations and theological reading material, some from projects supported by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. This fueled my desire to know God more deeply and to mine Scripture for treasures. I learned from leaders of worship, both living and in the great cloud of witnesses, that worship is at the heart of existence and that worshiping God in “truth” encompasses all our humanity, heart, mind, body, and spirit.
I also encountered historian Lester Ruth and songwriter Josh Lavender via Worship Leader. Both have the same heart for restoring songs from the past and for writing new songs for missing spaces in the church’s sung worship (Trinitarian, God-focused, intercessory, missional, lament, justice- and compassion-oriented), We’ve hosted song retreats together. I might add that the involvement of WL’s publisher, Chuck Fromm, with The Odes Project and with “pastness” added to my fascination with early Christian worship.
You also worked at Fuller Theological Seminary. . . .
Yes, my early experiences in Mormonism and Christian faith created a suspicion of seminaries, which speakers sometimes referred to as “cemeteries.” I am concerned about approaches to theology that treat Scripture without reverence or deconstruct rather than build up faith. Nevertheless, at Fuller I learned about and saw the imago Dei [image of God] through men and women who teach and lead there as guardians of truth and interpreters and translators of Scripture.
What changes have you seen in contemporary worship music in your decades as a producer, songwriter, and worshiper?
I’ve seen the proliferation of worship-based labels and their influence on congregational worship. Most writers and artists I know are serious about their faith and about expressing it responsibly in song. Many have input from mentors and pastors and are accountable to a community. However, from my immersion in the entertainment industry and in music-focused contemporary churches, I know that gifting, character, and scriptural understanding don’t always go hand in hand. Traveling artists and itinerant worship leaders can fall prey to the same insecurities that drive many artists outside the church. The desire for love and adulation without some accountability makes for a shaky foundation for writing songs for the church.
Most Christian labels today are sub-labels of non-Christian business enterprises that care most about profit. Even strictly Christian enterprises often buy into the prevailing culture of song construction. In the writing rooms of Nashville, they are spinning songs not for the whole church, but for a particular type of person—the type who buys contemporary music. And they’ve nailed down the demographic and what they like. It is a known fact that most popular Top 40 music uses one- and two-syllable words propelled by sticky hooks (which the psalmists did well: “His steadfast love endures forever”). “Christian music,” as an executive at Word Records told me, “is personality driven, not content driven.”
What worship music trends have you noticed in congregations?
I visit enough churches to know that many worship models operate concurrently. Some churches sing mainly hymns, gospel music, or ’70s choruses. Some base their liturgy on Chrysostom. But in the churches I attend most often, I’ve seen a big drop in diversity of musical content, style, performance, and composition date. Christian worship music in many churches is now predominantly band-based, soft to aggressive rock. It’s mainly from the last few years or decades rather than stretching back centuries.
In churches where congregational singing used to feature complex harmonies or one group echoing another, the norm is now unison singing. Often the worship band sings and the congregation chimes in as able or merely listens.
I’ve seen the worship focus move from “Thou” to “I”. The I-Thou measurement for worship is the degree to which the song focuses on I/me versus God/Thou. Songs have drifted from being about (or to) God to about what God does or has done for me. This isn’t inappropriate if in balance. The psalmist declared, “He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand” (Psalm 40:2, NIV). That’s a little “I,” while “Thou” does the heavy lifting. But if the “I” becomes pronounced, and God is an amorphous “great,” but we don’t know exactly why, then narcissism can take over. Rather than collaborating with God, being actors in God’s story, we become the lead. Another worship drift I see is the move from corporate to individualistic.
Do you see any link between contemporary Christian music changes and worship changes?
Because there is a statistically proven correlation between contemporary Christian music and church growth, there can be subtle pressure to embrace music that is not fully formed in God’s image. Instead of choosing music that would feed the sheep, knowingly or unknowingly leaders may abdicate curation to radio programmers. They choose music to fill the pews and support church infrastructure. We need to ask, “How does this song reflect God’s glory and form God’s people? Will taking its premise to its logical endpoint lead to God or away? Is it truth, and can the Spirit affirm it as such? Will it sustain faith in the face of loss or imminent death?”
Do you still find value in contemporary worship music?
Absolutely! Especially from worship artists who remain true to their God-given gifts. Years ago, I watched Christian worship music imitate artists and songs that topped Billboard charts. The styles moved from the
folk/pop/R&B artists of the ’70s to rock sounds of U2 and later Coldplay. This imitative/isomorphic trend continues. And, by the way, I like U2 and Coldplay.
What brings me joy are those who lead worship with a pastor’s heart, who reflect God’s freshness and originality rather than mirroring and recycling someone else’s pop voice or style. I'm also blown away by the new crop of writers who blend history, orthodox theology, Scripture, biblical imagination, and contemporary artistry, expressly tuned to God and the congregation: Misha Goetz and Josh Lavender come to mind, among so many others.
Listen to “What Love Is Like” by Melanie Tierce-Slay, Josh Lavender, Jordan Rife, and Andrea C. Hunter (words and chords here). It’s based on Peter’s experience of the John 18 story of Jesus in Gethsemane and is part of Hope Is Stirring, an album by Awaken Worship Collective.