You probably know what songs your church is singing. You probably know how that’s changed over the last year or few years. You may have seen the ‘top songs’ lists from Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI), Planning Centre Online (PCO) or PraiseCharts, but what’s the bigger picture? What are the trends in this genre? Where is it going? Is it the same around the world?
I have been writing articles, scholarly and professional, on the contemporary congregational song (CCS) genre since I started my PhD research, six years ago.  This article, however, is a first. It is also a commitment on my part to the ongoing analysis of the songs we sing as contemporary Christians. I would like to think that the songs we sing (and are ‘sold’) are scrutinised not just by each local church or a particular denomination or movement, but also academically, through rigorous scholarly analysis (that’s ideally still really interesting to read). That is what this series is about.
CCLI are the largest provider of licenses to churches employing CCS in their services. They are also the leading provider of sheet music for CCS, through their online repository, SongSelect. They conduct two reporting periods each year, and churches with licenses, such as the Church Copyright License (CCL) or Music Reproduction License (MRL), are asked to provide CCLI with information on the songs they have used. This information is used to determine the appropriate distribution of royalties. However, as a by-product, they also produce biannual reports to copyright owners, which show the top songs in each region, and for each license category (including one for SongSelect). Such a resource provides us with excellent data for answering the questions I posed above. I plan to write a new ‘worship snapshot’ each time a new report is released.
I’m going to focus on the top 25 songs from the CCL and SongSelect lists, as these reports are cross-regional and the sample is representative of the genre. I’m also going to write separate articles for the USA, UK and Australia. While I will cross-reference all of the reports, if you’re interested in a particular region, feel free to read that specialised snapshot.
Among the CCL and SongSelect top 25 songs list for the period ending April, 2017, there were 29 different songs. That is to say, 21 songs were common in both reports, an 84% correlation. The songs unique to the CCL report were: Look To The Son, Shout To The Lord, Holy Spirit, and King Of My Heart. Shout To The Lord is the oldest song out of these (1993), and has remained in the top songs lists for well over 20 years, and only just misses out on the SongSelect list coming in at #29. Similarly, King Of My Heart is #26 on the SongSelect list, and Holy Spirit is #27. Look To The Son, however, is further down at #49. It was #38 in the previous reporting period, which suggests that the sheet music was more popular at the time closer to release (2016), but has quickly waned. This is much more common for faster tempo songs (of which this is the only one among the four).
Faster tempo songs tend to have a shorter life in congregational worship, and therefore tend not to be reported over multiple reporting periods. Furthermore, faster songs seldom appear at the very top of the top songs lists, because not all churches with CCLI licensing can (or want to) reproduce the kind of up tempo songs emerging from producers such as Hillsong. Slower songs are much easier to replicate with a single guitar or keyboard, and are not as polarizing, stylistically, as faster songs can be. As true as all of that is, it doesn’t entirely explain why the sheet music was less popular than the actual inclusion of the song in church services. That is to say, one would expect that for the song to reach #15 in the CCL list, at some point, it should have reached a similar prominence in the SongSelect list. One reason might simply be that it’s only a three-chord (IV, I, V) repetitive song that many musicians would not require sheet music to learn. Additionally, Pentecostal/charismatic churches (who are more likely to sing faster Hillsong songs) likely have more musicians learning the song by ear, than those in more traditional settings.
The songs uniquely appearing in the SongSelect top 25 list, include: Christ Is Enough, Our God, Broken Vessels (Amazing Grace), and Hosanna. Again, these songs are not far from the top 25 in the CCL list; #30, #26, #27, and #28 respectively. In that sense, the lists are highly aligned, even though songs tend to appear first in the SongSelect list, then in the CCL list, as expected.
The oldest song on the list is How Great Thou Art (1949, 1953), which has appeared in the top 25 (or close to it) since reporting began, but received a particular resurgence when it was coupled with How Great Is Our God, which also appears in the top 25. In as much as one might consider How Great Thou Art a hymn, other hymns do not appear in these lists, not because they aren’t being sung, but rather because many of the most popular hymns are now in the public domain, meaning they do not require a licence from CCLI. Considering that the next oldest song is Shout To The Lord (1993), How Great Thou Art has uniquely marked the musical worship of several generations of Christians across diverse denominational settings.
The most recently written songs on the list are What A Beautiful Name, and Look To The Son. Both are from the Hillsong stable, and released in 2016. Look To The Son, we have already discussed, and it is unlikely it will appear again on any of the lists. However, What A Beautiful Name coming to prominence in only the last two reports (#3 in the last report), has quickly eclipsed all other songs, not only moving to #1 position on Australia’s CCL & SS charts, but featuring highly on the USA and UK charts, and receiving international acclaim with a recent Grammy Award. It has knocked 10,000 Reasons (Bless The Lord) off the top position after an impressive 3 year (6 reporting season) run. Even the very popular, This I Believe (The Creed), which sat at #2 for 4 seasons, was unable to displace 10,000 Reasons (it has now fallen to #9). 10,000 Reasons, itself, replaced a long running contest for 1st place between In Christ Alone (2001) and How Great Is Our God (2004).
Other movement on the charts includes, O Praise The Name (Anástasis) which appears at #3, its highest position since its release in 2015. Good Good Father fell from its #2 spot to 6th this report. This Is Amazing Grace, the fastest song on the CCL list besides Look To The Son, at #5, has slipped slightly from its #4 position last report, but held its prominence appearing on the top 25 since 2014. In fact, 15 of the top 25 (CCL) have been on the charts for at least 4 years, which indicates quite a slow rate of change for churches of their most-sung songs. Slipping off the top 25 lists is Shine Jesus Shine, which has had a phenomenal run in or near the top 25 for 30 years, and One Thing Remains (Your Love Never Fails).
New to the top 25 CCL are Look To The Son, King Of My Heart, and O Come To The Altar, and to the top 25 SS, What A Beautiful Name and O Come To The Altar. As expected, these are also recently written and released songs (2015-2016) by prominent producers of CCS.
Twelve of the 29 (almost half of the list) came from Hillsong. Five came from the UK, and the rest from the USA. In recent years, the source of top songs has diversified. Only a few years ago, there were 4 songs from Chris Tomlin on the list. Now, only How Great Is Our God and Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone) are left, which are both comparatively old in his output. Besides 10,000 Reasons, this is also the case for such worship song writing legends as Darlene Zschech, Tim Hughes, and Matt Redman. Why their earliest ‘hits’ should still be on the top songs lists and not their newer songs is an interesting question. It is not Pentecostal/Charismatic churches that keep these songs on the charts. The charts for such churches contain much more recent songs, which also turnover much more quickly. Without question, it is the rest of Christendom in Australia which is evidently slower to both implement new songs and divest itself of accepted songs. These non-Pentecostal/Charismatic denominations eventually pick up the ‘tried and tested’ contemporary congregational songs, and tend to keep them in their repertoire.
Female composers represent only 12.5% (6/48) of the top CCS writers in 28% (8 of the 29) songs. And except for Brook Ligertwood’s Hosanna and Darlene Zschech’s Shout To The Lord (both released by Hillsong), females in this list are always co-writers alongside male writers. On a related note, only four songs have a single writer, and none of them are recently written. Interestingly, the songwriter with the most credits in the top songs list is Jonas Myrin (five songs) who has done so through strategic co-writing with Hillsong writers, Matt Redman and Chris Tomlin. Other songwriters with the most credits include: Matt Crocker (4), Reuben Morgan (4), Ben Fielding (3), Joel Houston (3), Brooke Ligertwood (3), Matt Redman (3), and Chris Tomlin (3).
New producers on the list include, Elevation Worship and Bethel Music. Jesus Culture were key in bringing Bethel Music to initial international prominence. Their recordings of Revelation Song, One Thing Remains (Your Love Never Fails), and Your Love Never Fails, made a significant impact on the songlists of local churches. Bethel Music has since featured a number of singer-songwriters who have used that platform (live and streamed) to bring their songs to local churches. Hillsong was one of the most important pioneers of championing the church music label, over the artist. Individual writers come and go from Hillsong church, but the signing of their songs to the Hillsong (publishing and recording) label, allow Hillsong to retain its brand as a cohesive producer in the field.
This brings us to comparisons with the top songs lists of other regions. 20 of the Australian CCL top 25, are common with the USA’s, and 17 are common with the UK’s. The songs unique to the USA list are: Lord I Need You, Revelation Song, Our God, One Thing Remains (Your Love Never Fails), and Open Up The Heavens. On the Australian CCL charts, 4 of these songs are still fairly prominent; Lord I Need You (#51), Revelation Song (#46), Our God (#26), and One Thing Remains (#47). However, Open Up The Heavens appears all the way down at #367. Why this one song should be so comparatively low on the Australian charts is a mystery to me. Having said that, it is clear that in Australia, artists promoting their songs at key events like Hillsong Conference, gain much greater traction in the CCL charts, than those who don’t, and as far as I know, Vertical Church band has not featured at a Hillsong Conference.
In terms of theme and theology, songs in the Praise/Thanksgiving category significantly outweigh the other categories (as seen in the graph below), and in increasing measure to the weightings of my analysis in 2015. Praise/Thanksgiving as a primary focus is almost equal to the other three combined. One reason for this might be that anthemic songs are more likely to be found in the first two categories, and these are often featured in recent live worship events. However, anthemic songs can be found historically in the other categories, such as Shine, Jesus, Shine (Petition/Prayer), and Lord, I Give You My Heart (Worship). Hillsong songwriters have also moved towards the first two categories with their featured songs in recent years. Oceans (Where Feet May Fail) is their most recent song in the charts in the Worship category. The intimate language that marked many of the Hillsong slower songs from their early period, have given way to more consciously global Christian lyrics.
While Jesus is still the most addressed of the Godhead, the address of the Father and the Holy Spirit is notable in a couple of the top songs. The greatness of God is one of the most popular attributes in CCS lyrics, though God’s goodness has also had a resurgence. The ever popular theme of love, has been a little less prominent in this period’s top list.
There is indeed so much more that could be said about these lists and the songs comprising them. However, for this to be sustainable for me, and for you to want to read it, I will refrain from writing a thesis about every biannual CCLI report (p.s. that’s where the book comes in, which I’m working on as we speak). So, I leave you with the question, “What on earth are you singing?” and why? Until next time...
About the Author: Rev Dr Daniel Thornton is the Head of Arts at Alphacrucis College. He and his wife, Kris, are ordained with the Australian Christian Churches. Daniel is a professional composer and performer, and also travels extensively leading worship, ministering in churches and training worship teams around the globe.
 I use this acronym for both its singular and plural forms throughout my articles.
 Here are the links to the previous articles in the “What On Earth Are We Singing?” series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7. Further publications can be found at: https://alphacrucis.academia.edu/DanielThornton.
 Words and Music by Matt Crocker, Joel Houston, Scott Ligertwood, Reuben Morgan, and Marty Sampson ©2016 Hillsong Music Publishing.
 Words and Music by Darlene Zschech ©1993 Wondrous Worship.
 Words and Music by Katie and Brian Torwalt ©2011 Capital CMG Genesis / Jesus Culture Music
 Words and Music by Sarah and John Mark McMillan ©2015 Sarah McMillan / Meaux Jeaux Music / Raucous Ruckus Publishing.
 Words and Music by Reuben Morgan and Jonas Myrin ©2012 Hillsong Music Publishing. .
 Words and Music by Jonas Myrin, Jesse Reeves, Matt Redman, and Chris Tomlin ©2010 Atlas Mountain Songs / sixsteps Music / Thankyou Music / Vamos Publishing / worshiptogether.com songs.
 Words and Music by Joel Houston and Jonas Myrin ©2014 Hillsong Music Publishing.
 Words and Music by Brooke Ligertwood ©2006 Sony/ATV Music Publishing Australia.
 Words and Music by Stuart Wesley Keene Hine.
 Words and Music by Ed Cash, Jesse Reeves, and Chris Tomlin ©2004 Wondrously Made Songs / sixsteps Music / worshiptogether.com songs.
 Words and Music by Ben Fielding and Brook Ligertwood ©2016 Hillsong Music Publishing.
 Words and Music by Jonas Myrin and Matt Redman ©2011 Atlas Mountain Songs / sixsteps Music / Thankyou Music / worshiptogether.com songs.
 Words and Music by Matt Crocker and Ben Fielding ©2014 Hillsong Music Publishing.
 Words and Music by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend.
 Words and Music by Marty Sampson, Dean Ussher, and Benjamin Hastings ©2015 Hillsong Music Publishing
 Words and Music by Pat Barrett and Anthony Brown ©2014 Capital CMG Paragon / Common Hymnal Publishing / Housefires Sounds / sixsteps Music / Tony Brown Publishing Designee / Vamos Publishing / worshiptogether.com songs.
 Words and Music by Jeremy Riddle, Phil Wickham, and Josh Farro ©2012 Phil Wickham Music / Seems Like Music / Sing My Songs / Bethel Music Publishing / WB Music Corp.
 Words and Music by Graham Kendrick ©1987 Make Way Music.
 Words and Music by Jeremy Riddle, Christa Black Gifford, and Brian Johnson ©2010 Bethel Music Publishing / ChristaJoy Music Publishing / Mercy / Vineyard Publishing.
 ©2006 sixsteps Music / Vamos Publishing / worshiptogether.com songs.
 How Deep The Father’s Love (1995), Shout To The Lord (1993), Here I Am To Worship (2000), and Hosanna (2006).
 See my PhD thesis: Exploring the Contemporary Congregational Song Genre: Texts, Practice, and Industry (p. 189).
 Words and Music by Graham Kendrick. ©1987 Make Way Music.
 Words and Music by Reuben Morgan. ©1995 Hillsong Music Publishing.
 Such as Jesus, Lover Of My Soul (1992), The Potter’s Hand (1998), Dwelling Places (1999), or Eagle’s Wings (1999).