Recently, Religion News Services released an article entitled “There’s A Reason Every Hit Worship Song Sounds the Same.” This article has bounced around social media and has been shared quite a bit in the worship leader/songwriter community. The article explores song usage by congregations around the country as well as the origins of such songs.
One of the article’s main points is that the majority of popular songs used in worship by churches across the country are written and popularized by four megachurches. Instincts for many may be to jump in with a condemnation of modern music, the sonic diet of the average parishioner, or some other form of judgment. I want to encourage you first to ponder a few thoughts:
- Changes in the music industry. During the ’80s and ‘90s, there was a subculture of Contemporary Christian Music. This was a space where Christians created original music that was not intended for use in a worship service but was often marketed as an alternative to other music that was available more broadly. You could find this music in Christian bookstores, on the radio, and on tour. Eventually with the onset of digital streaming and sites like Napster (which made music broadly available for free) and the decline of physical album sales, the resources of traditional record labels started to dwindle. Musicians of all genres had to look for new ways to get music out and alternatives to record companies began to sprout. It seems predictable that large, well-resourced churches might step up to fill that void and become the gatekeepers in place of traditional record labels.
- A performance focus. Many of these churches have groups that go on headlining tours around the country. They put lots of time and effort into performance. They have tech teams, roadies, and lighting rigs. I once played at a festival where Hillsong was the headliner. A quick look backstage revealed gear that would easily rival or even exceed that of many larger touring bands. The average church in America doesn’t have a large band. Many churches have only a single musician, often a volunteer. This serves their context well. They aren’t, however, regularly writing and performing new songs in expectation of going on tour.
- Broad songwriting. I’m sure there are those that read the article and were surprised at the findings. All of these songs were written by such a small group of churches? To be honest, I was not surprised. These churches put a lot of focus on their music. They bring in top CCM writers to write for them and like the article mentions, follow formulas for pop and worship music. Yet I think the broader popularity of these songs can be traced to their focus as a church. These churches all fall into the “non-denominational” category (even those who still hold some affiliation to a denomination) which means they are much more likely to adhere to a broad statement of theological beliefsTherefore, their songs are also written with a broader and less-defined theology. For example, they aren’t exploring any denominationally specific doctrines such as infant baptism or what happens in the Lord’s Supper. As a result, these songs work with the theology of a larger group of churches and individuals. If you look closely, you will certainly see their theological influence, however, it may not always be as obvious as that found in traditional hymnody.
- Lack of focus on modern music. This last point may be obvious, and perhaps controversial, but it needs to be said. The reason there is a small group of large churches that have a majority of the most widely played modern songs across denominations is simple: they expend time and money to create this music. They promote it. They work on the craft and know what works and what doesn’t.
Historically, many of the more liturgical denominations like my own spend musical energy on the use of more classically driven expressions of music. This means that for those songwriters who write contemporary music in these traditions, there is not always widespread support, financially or otherwise. In fact, I have even faced direct discouragement from creating any sort of modern expression of worship, even songs based on hymnody. This leaves it to the larger CCM artists to provide the bulk of what is widely available for use in contemporary worship on any given Sunday.
The focus for many churches is not on performance, and this is largely true for 1517 Music as well. Our focus is on congregational singing and creating theologically rich songs. We believe you can have both regardless of what style of music you choose. The only way to change the current state of worship songwriting and production is to create something different.
I want to leave you with one final thought: How would Christendom be different had we decided that because the printing press was such an influential tool, and the prints were so beautiful, we should not use the computer? The very site you are reading this on would not exist. How we convey these ideas has little at all to do with the content of the writing, however, it does greatly affect how it is accessed. This is not an argument for discontinuing the use of the organ or other types of classical instruments, but rather, a suggestion that we should expect worship songs to continue to sound the same and continue to lack theological depth unless more churches are willing to encourage and financially support the efforts of songwriters to create music written from and for their congregations.