The Business of Worship Music

Christians absorb more theology from what they sing than from most other sources.

It is a business. Nearly all churches today have a CCLI (Christian Copyright Licensing International) or other music license, which is purchased for a yearly amount based on congregation size. You will see it in small letters under a song projected on the screen. It’s a way for songwriters to be compensated when a church uses their music. I have no problem with that: “The laborers are worthy of their hire.”

What many people don’t understand is that an artist who makes it to the top 25 list of CCLI songs can reap a huge amount of money, I mean hundreds of thousands of dollars. Well—big swallow—what’s wrong with that?

Here’s the problem. Contemporary Christian musicians are not any more immune to the lure of money than you or I are. And they can make lots more by writing songs that are like the ones in the top 25, with similar emotive words and chord changes. The logic of all this is that the songs will begin to sound strangely similar. From there it spreads to Christian music and hymnal publishers. 

And the problem is worldwide. I was privileged to teach for a semester at a Korean seminary attended by not only Koreans but students from all over the world. I looked forward to experiencing the unique forms of worship and song that emerged from various cultures. What I heard in chapel worship services were all the same songs on the top of the CCLI list. These future pastors were not learning how to worship with the unique gifts of their own cultural settings but according to the business model of the Christian music conglomerates.  

I fear the same thing may be happening in many local churches. There’s a strong urge to model our worship on what we see as successful and what we hear on Christian radio. As a result, what many congregations sing in worship is overly influenced by a business model rather than what’s theologically rich and spiritually healthy for the life and worship of the congregation.

I’m not saying that all the songs and artists in the top echelons of the CCLI world are shallow or imitative. But I’ve heard from talented songwriters who produce theologically robust and musically inventive music that there is enormous pressure from publishers and distributors to go with what sells. And the results are plain to see.

So what’s the answer? We first need to acknowledge the problem, and it’s not trivial. There’s an old saying that Christians absorb more theology from what they sing than from most other sources. If that’s the case, then, considering the CCLI top 25, we’ll soon be in a theological desert.

Once we recognize the problem, pastors and music leaders in congregations need to be much more careful about what their congregations are singing. It may take some work, but I know of contemporary-Christian-music-singing churches who carefully plan worship music with musical and theological sensitivity. The material is out there, and sometimes it comes right from budding artists in their own congregations.

I’m not saying we all have to haul out our hymnals and sing Genevan Psalms, though it’s a terrible mistake to leave behind the riches of the past. Last week my church sang a wonderfully rich old Isaac Watts hymn all dressed up in a brand new tune for guitar, mandolin, and accordion. I’m saying that whether we sing our praises and laments to God accompanied by an organ or a band, our worship music profoundly affect the faith formation of our congregations. We can’t put this enormous responsibility in the hands of the music business.

About the Author

Len Vander Zee is a retired CRC pastor now serving as interim minister of preaching at Church of the Servant CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich.

See comments (7)


Leonard Vander Zee’s article “The Business of Worship Music” is unfairly critical of contemporary Christian music and CCLI (the organization that administers royalty payments to songwriters). The author's suggestion is that the Christian music industry is an evil empire forcing musicians to write and produce an unvaried and uninteresting mix of theologically vapid music.
I have no idea how much today’s leading Christian songwriters earn for a “hit”, but I suspect it’s nowhere near the hundreds of thousands of dollars the author suggests. And most people who follow popular music understand that simply copying another song is not the best way to write a hit. The most popular songs usually rise to the top because there’s something unique and interesting about them. The same is true for contemporary Christian music.
As a worship leader, I often choose songs from CCLI’s top 100. I find that they are varied and rich. Many songs have lyrics taken directly from scripture. Others are based on or inspired by ancient hymns, and still others could be classified as new hymns. Where they lack some of the theological rigour of classic hymns they compensate with greater emotional depth. 
Hymns that reach people (and by extension, God) have always been born out of deep experience and the movement of the Spirit. The same is true for new music. It will not come from composers who create out of an obligation to produce "theologically robust and and musically inventive songs."


Before you judge today’s leading worship songwriter’s too harshly, take a closer look at the kind of people they are and the sacrifices they make to participate in God’s kingdom work. 

Really?  Did we really need another match lit in the tinder box of worship wars?

I think Leonard Vander Zee brings up an insightful point in this article. It was a timely read for me, as I was just reflecting on some popular Christian music that our family has been listening to on the radio--realizing it is, in fact, shaping our kids' theology, sometimes in ways I'm not comfortable with. For the most part, I am thankful that they want to sing "worship" songs in the van, but at the same time I want to make sure that we aren't solely listening to watered-down gospel songs that gloss over some harder-hitting truths of Scripture, or even go against Truth. Realizing that the Christian music industry is motivated by money (I shouldn't have been surprised) makes me want to be even more aware of how we saturate ourselves with it. It's all about discernment and not blindly accepting everything that comes our way.

I am sorry......but the author seems to be expounding from a long ways up the ivory tower. To intimate that "emotive chord changes and words are motivated by monetary be in the top 25 CCLI" insulting and disrespectful. Saying that "not all of the songs and artists in the top echelons of CCLI are shallow and imitative" is a backhanded way of saying most songs are imitative and shallow.

 We use a wide variety of music in our church.....and not everyone likes every song......but for the most part we try to respect one another.

I would ask the author to substitute "preaching business" wherever he has used "music business"........and see how the article feels. There are more parallels there than you might think. When Jesus walked the earth.......He was not enamoured with those who deemed themselves highly qualified they looked down on the Goyim.

I am an old peasant of the land.......and I have learned that the language of the heart concerning worship and music is very individualistic.......and beautiful worship happens when we can adjust our attitudes to get in resonance with one another.

"If Christians are absorbing more theology from what they sing than from what they hear"........maybe the expounders of the message need to make some adjustments.

I've been blessed with the privelege of being a church musician for over 35 years and my choices of preferred worship songs include traditional and contemporary songs.  If I'm given the task of choosing or reviewing worship songs, my first step is often simply to view the words of the song.  If the words do not relay a proper message, I don't care how good the tune sounds.  If you were to read the words and the listeners received no benefit, why sing the words?   If the message is great, then I'm hoping the tune is pleasant and appropriate for the diversity of the congregation.  Not all songs require 4 part harmony (or even keyboards) but, occasionally, the best singing I get to hear & see (by having one of the best seats in the church... up front behind the keyboards) does involve a younger generation fully appreciating an "oldie". And I often experience the joy of seeing/hearing an older generation get wrapped up in a new song.   The analogy I use is that a great tune without a proper message is like a cake that has great icing but the cake tastes bad.  The cake (message) is the primary objective; the icing (tune) is seondary.  And some of our newer "recipes" are fantastic!  

As a lay man worship leader, I can heartily say that Leonard Vander Zee hit this one out of the park.  He did not suggest that CCM is an evil empire forcing vapid music.  Rather, he rightly noted that it is a profit-driven industry where the soft power of sales figures reverse engineers what's produced.  Add that to the general lack of hermeneutical, exegetical, theological and Biblical literary skill in evangelical Christianity, and the results are not surprising.

Concordantly, I object to the use of unfiltered CCM in a church service like I would to a pastor reading some well-known and well-published pastor's sermon verbatim.

But he also rightly points out that there's hope.  Many are resisting the top-down, astro turf, franchise model of Sunday music and taking a more grass roots approach (much like how a preacher worth their salt hones their message for their own particular audience/congregation/context).

Okay, Jeff, I guess we'll have to agree to disagree about how accurately we're paraphasing Mr. Vanderzee's original article. He did write this: 

"There's an old saying that Christians absorb more theology from what they sing than from most other sources. If that's the case, considering the CCLI top 25, we'll soon be in a theological desert."

Personally, I've been very blessed by many of the songs in CCLI's top 25 and I know many members of my congregation have as well. So, I'd be interested to know which of these songs in particular you and Mr. Vanderzee see as the offenders. It's easy to talk in vague generalities. And then I'd like to hear the playlist of songs that have been written by the hermeneutical, exegetical and theological scholars -- not sure that would be the case for any of even the most beloved hymns. Hmmm....