What on earth are we singing? A series on the contemporary congregational song – Part 6

by Rev. Dr Daniel Thornton
19th January 2015

As a part of my PhD research, I have been periodically writing practitioner-oriented articles of my findings.  

The notion of consumer choice gives us the illusion that we’re in control of what we buy (or sing for that matter), but when it comes to what we’re singing in church, how free are we?

I was having a chat with someone in the field of contemporary congregational songs (CCS) who I’m sure would want to remain anonymous, although you would know them well.  They have been around a while and made the comment that the previous generation of songwriters for congregational songs never entertained the idea that they might be able to live off the income from their worship songs.  In the late 1980s, early 1990s CCLI[1] was only just getting off the ground, and sales of Christian music centred around the big Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) artists of the day.  For those of you who have been around a while, just think of Michael W. Smith’s How Majestic is Your Name (1981) or Amy Grant’s El Shaddai (1981, 1982).  But today, this veteran went on to explain, the picture is very different, a “CCLI hit” can make more than just a “living” for a songwriter, it can set them up for a lifetime of significant residual income!

So, the question was raised; how different is the CCS culture of churches today than it was 20 or more years ago?  Now that there’s “real” money in it, who’s pulling the strings?  And what does that mean for the average church, worship leader, CCS composer or worshipper?

Unlike some of the YouTube “overnight” pop song sensations that appear from time to time (think Justin Bieber, Avery, Cody Simpson, or Gangnam Style), CCS that local churches tend to favour are from quite established sources.  Of the 25 representative CCS that I analysed, 10 were from the Hillsong writers, four were from Matt Redman, four were from (or popularised by) Chris Tomlin, two were from Stuart Townend, and two from Tim Hughes.  Even the few that weren’t from these prominent writers/worship leaders, were not from obscurity; Israel Houghton’s Jesus At the Center  is on the list, as is One Thing Remains (Your Love Never Fails) brought to prominence by Jesus Culture.

The point is, every one of these “hit” CCS came from well known, well established producers.  They were promoted from influential cross-denominational platforms; for example, Hillsong Conference, Passion Conference, Soul Survivor, and Worship Central.  In fact, they were often cross-promoted; for example Hillsong Conference inviting Matt Redman, or Tim Hughes, or Chris Tomlin to their platforms, while Chris Tomlin invites Hillsong, or Matt Redman, or Jesus Culture to the Passion Conference etc.   They were all swiftly uploaded to YouTube (at least all the CCS written since YouTube’s inception in 2005) within days of official commercial release (and sometimes even pre-release).  Interestingly, they were often not initially uploaded by the song owners, but rather by fans.  Sheet music, especially for releases over recent years, was instantly made available through CCLI’s SongSelect online resource, as well as many other free and commercial online/offline facilities.

The point to be made here is simply how much we are marketed to, when it comes to CCS.  Every conference is effectively also a teaching session on how to sing/play the latest CCS, and an indoctrination session on what’s “in.”  Now, please don’t hear any cynicism in these statements, for I’m not necessarily suggesting that each of these CCS producers goes out of their way to manipulate church worship environments to their commercial ends.  I know many of these producers/writers/worship leaders personally, and I don’t think they’re “just in it for the money.”  However, there is also no question that CCS is a commercial enterprise and returns very handsomely not only to the writers, but to the churches or movements or record labels/publishers that successfully invest into them.  So then, as much as we really are free to choose whatever we want to sing in our local churches, we are often simply following the herd.

Having said that, many times songs emerge that composers thought were not their best, or not the most catchy, or marketable, but Christians somehow resonated with them, and the rest as they say is history.  Tim Hughes’ Here I Am To Worship was one such song, where Redman (Hughes’ mentor) suggested it wasn’t particularly great and asked what else he had.  Equally, Redman notes that 10,000 Reasons was a song he was surprised to see take off the way it did, as it was simple, and didn’t have a bridge or any big musical build up.  The Hillsong United guys noted that Oceans was probably not the most “singable” song on the Zion album, but it’s the one everyone connected with.  So, there are conflicting dynamics at work.  On the one hand, we are almost force fed the next latest and greatest CCS at every conference or seminar or event we attend, and through YouTube and Facebook.  While on the other hand, churches ultimately choose songs that are working (to one degree or another) with their worship teams and congregations.

The bottom line is that we should continue to be discerning.  Just because it’s out there and packaged well and promoted strongly, is not an indication of its quality, musically or doctrinally, nor is it an indication of its relevance to our local congregations.  There are indeed some amazing established CCS composers/producers out there, worthy of inclusion into our churches’ musical expressions of worship.  However, if we don’t also look into our own congregation for expressions of creativity that carry the life and revelation from our own church, then we are missing out!  Yes, local songs are not going to come as polished and packaged as the latest commercially backed and promoted live worship album… but hey, there might be a diamond somewhere in that dirt, just waiting for someone to find it, polish it up, so everyone else can see it shine! So, go forth and choose!

[1] Christian Copyright Licensing International, a copyright royalty collection agency specifically focussed on licensing churches to use copyrighted worship music.