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The Business of Worship Music

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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.

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