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Consumerism and Congregational Song: Part II

Blogger David Bjorlin is a worship pastor at Resurrection Covenant Church (Chicago), a lecturer in worship at North Park Theological Seminary (Chicago), and a published hymnwriter.

In my previous blog post, I argued that, for most people in the United States, consumerism is one of the most prevalent forces that drives our national economy and heavily influences the seemingly “free” choices we make as individuals and communities. Indeed, because it is so immersive—because it is the very waters we swim in—it is difficult to step back and see how vast its influence actually is on every facet of our lives. Naturally, congregational song is not immune to these consumer forces. In the last post, I explored the CCLI Top 100 list and how the fact that two companies distribute the vast majority of the songs limits the ethnic and theological diversity of song for those churches that use the list as their main resource for selecting worship songs. In this post, I want to explore the concept of planned obsolescence and how it might influence the life cycle of congregational song and how congregations use these praise songs.

 

What Is Planned Obsolescence?

Planned obsolescence is a strategy where producers purposefully create products (planned) that will become obsolete (obsolescence) after a certain period of time, requiring the consumer to replace the product. While this concept may seem abstract, most of us probably can relate to something like the following story: the latest edition of the iPhone (or fill in your favorite phone brand of choice) comes out. While the price is a little bit of a stretch, you decide to spring for it. For the first few months, you’re thrilled with all the new features, not to mention the sleek design and shiny exterior. But about a year in, the new design comes out. Ten months later, another design comes out. Soon, when you try to purchase accessories for the phone (e.g., headphones), you have a hard time finding new products that will work with your “old” phone without a series of adapters. The year after, when you go to update your phone, you’re told that your version of the iPhone doesn’t support the new software. So, you bite the bullet and begin looking for a new iPhone. This is planned obsolescence.

Perhaps the downsides to planned obsolescence are obvious, but I think they are worth enumerating for the purpose of our discussion. First, the strategy can negatively influence the quality of the product sold. Why bother with the best materials or craftsmanship when the product will only have a shelf life of several years? Second, planned obsolescence can negatively influence the way we consume products. Rather than caring for a product as if we were going to hand it down to the next generation, we treat the product as disposable because it was made to be disposed of after a certain amount of time. The care and repair of goods is no longer seen as a valuable practice or trade, for why would anyone learn to darn socks or repair shoes when you can just toss them and buy cheap new ones? Finally, all of this leads to environmental degradation as obsolete products pile up first in closets and junk drawers and then in landfills around the world. 

 

Planned Obsolescence and Congregational Song

So, how does the economic strategy of planned obsolescence impact congregational song? I would argue in many of the same ways it influences our consumption of goods more generally. First, it changes the way we consume songs. Like disposable goods, congregational song becomes one more product to consume and discard. Again, perhaps many can relate to a process I’ve experienced dozens of times as a worship leader: A new praise and worship song comes to my attention that I think would be perfect for my congregation. So, I decide to introduce it to my congregation. The first week people seem to really enjoy it, struggling with the verses a bit but joining in wholeheartedly on the chorus. The next week I plan to do it again to help reinforce it, and I can tell something has clicked between this song and the congregation. The singing is strong, the flow is natural, and many people comment about how much they enjoyed the song after the service. By the third time we sing it, people unabashedly love it and begin requesting to hear more of it, which is only reinforced when the local Christian radio station begins playing it regularly too. Over the next year or two, I use it about twice a month, and the congregation almost always responds positively. 

But there comes a certain point a year or two down the road where I notice a change. People are still singing, but less enthusiastically. I catch the first moody teenager rolling her eyes when the opening riff starts, and perhaps overhear a snide comment after the service: “That song needs to be put out of its misery.” Just a few months later, the song has officially become persona non grata (cantica non grata?), with people on the worship team loudly protesting about how sick they are of playing it. Luckily, there’s a new song that just came out that seems perfect for the congregation… and the consumptive cycle continues.

I am not the only one to note this trend in praise and worship or its acceleration in the last decade. In his work on the history of contemporary praise, worship leader and songwriter Greg Scheer notes,

Whereas songs from previous eras—“Seek Ye First,” “As the Deer”—remained in the CCLI’s Top 20 songs for decades, new songs tended to rise and fall within a few years. These binge and purge cycles are typical of music that is marketed to the point of saturation and then dropped for the next shiny thing.*

While I might not characterize it as “the next shiny thing,” it seems clear that the way we consume songs continues to shorten the life cycle of the average praise and worship song.  And I can’t help but believe that this at least unconsciously changes the way writers of praise and worship songs approach their craft. If the song cycle of a song is only a couple years at best, why spend the extra time on the smaller details of song structure or rhyme scheme, or think through questions of gender-inclusive language for humanity and God (for example)? Why try to write a song that could stand the test of time across generations when the system is built to consume and discard what you have made? Again, I don’t think songwriters say to themselves, “I’m going to create something shoddy!”, but I believe that these economic forces often work on us whether we are aware of them or not. Being conscious of these forces is the way we can begin combatting them.


What Can We Do?

So, what are some possible strategies for worship leaders to help avoid planned obsolescence in congregational song? First, and most obviously, worship leaders can choose songs from across generations. We as the church are heirs to a rich storehouse of musical treasures from every era of the faith, and we honor that living tradition when we sing the songs that have been handed down to us—whether that is plainsong from the 1180s or a Scripture song from the 1980s. In rejecting the idea that new is better in congregational song, we not only honor our tradition, but help check some of our consumptive habits. Second, we can choose not to overuse new congregational songs. Yes, we should teach new songs well, which will include repetition over several months, but we should also resist the urge to completely consume the song. Like a gift of fine whiskey, we can portion the song out over time rather than binge on it so that it can be mindfully savored rather than thoughtlessly consumed. Finally, we can seek out songs that are thoughtfully and skillfully crafted within the paradigms of their particular genre, so they stand a chance of lasting beyond the life cycle of a Top 40 song. In these ways, we can play a small part in taking a countercultural stance against consumerism in the song of the church, and perhaps this will lead us to examine other ways we can choose conservation over consumption for the sake of the Gospel and the good of our world.

 

*Quote is from: Greg Scheer, “Contemporary Praise and Worship,” in Hymns and Hymnody: Historical and Theological  Introductions, vol. 3 (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2019), 287.

 

Blogger David Bjorlin is a worship pastor at Resurrection Covenant Church (Chicago), a lecturer in worship at North Park Theological Seminary (Chicago), and a published hymnwriter.

 

 

 

What Is Water?

In David Foster Wallace’s now famous commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005, he began, after the briefest of introductions, with what he termed a “didactic little parable-ish stor[y]”:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

The moral of the story isn’t anything we don’t already know: many of our most basic realities are so pervasive that it is nearly impossible for us to distance ourselves from them long enough to objectively evaluate them. Like the fish, these realities are the very waters we swim in, and we rarely notice how they fundamentally shape the environments we inhabit, the choices we make, and the lives that we live.

While there are countless realities that influence us, I would argue that perhaps the most all-encompassing and least-recognized force in our lives is consumerism. Here are a few gruesome statistics to illustrate my point: U.S. citizens make up 4% of the world’s population and consumes 25% of the world’s resources, waste almost 40% of the food we buy, and live in houses that are almost twice as large as they were in the 1950s—while 1 in 10 people still rent storage units for all the things they own.

Perhaps at this point you’re checking to see that you are indeed reading a blog dedicated to congregational song, but because these are the waters we swim in, I believe consumerism influences every aspect of our life—-including the church’s song. While there are surely countless ways consumerism impacts congregational song, I would like to explore just a couple of them over my next two blog posts. Today, I will examine the near-monopoly on the CCLI Top 100 list and how this too often leads to a homogenous song. My next post will look at the concept of planned obsolescence and how it relates to the life-cycle and production of the modern praise song.

 

Monopolies and the CCLI Top 100 

As many readers of this blog no doubt know, Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) is the largest copyright licensing company for (mostly) contemporary praise and worship music. This is how it works: churches buy licenses to use songs covered under CCLI and report the songs they have used over a six-month reporting period. Then, CCLI distributes royalties to the songs’ copyright holders based on the reporting percentages. One of the famous features of CCLI is the Top 100 list of the most-reported songs, serving as a gauge for the most popular CCLI songs sung by congregations who use the licensing service. Because it purports to be a repository of the most frequently sung songs at any given moment, the Top 100 list is often used by worship leaders to find new material for their congregation. In addition, many liturgical theologians have used the list as a starting point to study the sung theology of certain segments of the church.

I believe consumerism influences every aspect of our life—-including the church’s song.

Recently, I saw the list in a different light when a colleague told me that a huge percentage of songs on the CCLI Top 100 were administered* by two companies. Thinking that he was perhaps exaggerating, I decided to take a look at the numbers myself this past May. Of the 100 songs on the CCLI list, eighty-one are administered,* at least partially, by just two companies: Capitol Records (71) and/or Bethel (14).[1] Further, only ten songs are not administered by Capitol, Bethel, or Essential Music (a subsidiary of Sony). Obviously, my colleague was not exaggerating; there is something resembling a monopoly in contemporary praise and worship music.

 

Why Does This Matter?

Why does this matter? Surely, bigger companies can produce a high-quality product and streamline distribution in ways that help the average worship leader access and use resources. Yet, I believe there are a few implications on congregational song that should at least give worship leaders and planners pause in using the list uncritically. At the most basic level, monopolies are usually not in the interest of the general public because it eliminates competition and allows a company to set artificially high prices while also reducing the quality of the product. While larger than the scope of a blog post, it is worth asking whether price or quality of congregational song is impacted by this sort of monopoly.

However, to my mind the larger issue with this pseudo-monopoly is the fairly homogenous group of songs—ethnically and theologically—that end up comprising the list. Ethnically, much of the music that falls outside of white evangelical traditions is not covered by CCLI, and therefore not even eligible for the list. For example, besides the rare artist signed to major Christian record labels (e.g., Israel Houghton’s long-time relationship with Integrity), most black Gospel music is not covered by CCLI (which in turn has led to systemic inequities in distributing royalties, as many churches continue to use these gospel songs assuming they are covered by CCLI). This creates a fairly white list that perpetuates songwriting and marketing strategies that will continue to target white audiences, which is further exacerbated by a lack of competition created by a monopoly. Especially for those worship leaders seeking to better represent the diversity of the global church in their local contexts, the CCLI Top 100 is of limited value.

Ethnically, much of the music that falls outside of white evangelical traditions is not covered by CCLI, and therefore not even eligible for the list…This creates a fairly white list that perpetuates songwriting and marketing strategies that will continue to target white audiences.

Further, songs on the CCLI Top 100 are largely written by, and marketed to, (white) charismatic-leaning evangelical traditions with a more conservative theological worldview. Obviously, that isn’t to discount these songs completely. There is a place for many different expressions of style and even theology in our churches. Yet, for those congregations who wish to expand liturgical and theological mindsets beyond charismatic worship expressions, male God-language (e.g., King, Lord, Father) or substitutionary atonement theologies alone, the list again is of limited use. Further, for a monopoly, there is little incentive to widen the theological net, particularly if, like Bethel, you are tied to a specific conservative charismatic expression of faith.

 

Breaking Up The Monopoly

While this may come across as an attack on CCLI, this is not my intent. The church and school where I work are both CCLI copyright holders, and I do use the Top 100 list on occasion. However, as someone who is interested in the diversification of congregational song, I do not believe it is in the best interest of the vast majority of churches for two companies to hold so much sway over a particular segment of congregational song. As someone who does not even pretend to be business savvy, I do not have any advice on how the CCLI Top 100 monopoly can be broken up, but I do have a few suggestions for those who plan and lead congregational song:

  1. Do not assume CCLI covers all the songs you sing in worship! Know who holds copyright on the songs you sing, and make sure they are being paid fairly for the use of their song.
  2. Explore other music licensing companies. For example, One License covers larger swaths of Taizé, Iona, and other global musical offerings (in addition to traditional hymnody).
  3. Analyze the diversity—ethnic, national, theological, style—of your canon of song to see if it represents the diversity you espouse as a church.
  4. Look for local songwriters in your congregation (and beyond) who you can support and who can write songs contextualized for your community.

In this way, we can help assure that the songs we sing are not what a company or market forces make us sing, but are chosen to best represent the community we are and would like to be.

 

[1] Several songs were co-administered by Capitol and Bethel.

*The original post used the word “owned” instead of “administered,” which has since been corrected for accuracy.

 

Guest Blogger Ryan Flanigan is a liturgical folks artist and church music director at All Saints Church Dallas where this story of intergernational worship occurs. As an artist rooted in the Christian Story, Ryan works to create beautiful and believable sacred music for the sake of the world. He believes the church can be a credible witness of God’s beauty, truth and goodness to the whole world, not just Christians. Ryan lives in Dallas TX with his wife Melissa and their three kids Lily, Liam, and Noelle. He is the founder of Liturgical Folk and a core team member of United Adoration.

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” – Romans 12:1-2 (ESV)

 

The Coffee Shop

Coffee Shop WomanOne Friday in late July my wife Melissa and I, along with our three young kids, got in the minivan and, as we do every Friday summer morning, headed to the coffee shop. The coffee shop is the epicenter of our neighborhood life. Without compromising the aesthetic of craft coffee culture, the owner, who also has young kids, built his coffee shop with the whole neighborhood in mind, not only hipster Millennials. He did not necessarily design it to be family-friendly; he just built a very good and pleasant place to gather. Sure enough, people of all ages flock there. For a couple hours that Friday morning we engaged naturally in conversation after conversation with neighbors coming and going, babies being passed around, and kids circling us playfully. It is always a truly unmanufactured intergenerational experience.

From the coffee shop we headed to lunch at the home of an older couple, spiritual parents to Melissa and me and honorary grandparents to our kids. We shared in a delightful spread of fruit salad, chicken salad, quinoa salad, potato salad, every kind of salad except salad, and homemade cinnamon rolls. The kids ran around in the beautiful backyard garden and, when it got too hot, came inside for crafts with the moms, while the men exchanged philosophical thoughts. Then we sat and listened to endearing stories, some of them for the second or third time, of the last half century of our mentors’ life together. Another unforced intergenerational experience.

 

Worship Wars

The worship wars have been wreaking havoc on the modern church for decades. As a result intergenerational relationships have suffered. Attempts at accommodating differing worship preferences have only widened this relational gap. It is not uncommon for a church to offer separate worship services for kids, students, contemporary worshipers, and traditional worshipers, each with its own music style and spatial aesthetic. Even midweek groups are often segregated into common interests or life stages. Although these strategies appear to be helping churches by increasing Sunday attendance, they may actually be stunting the spiritual growth of churchgoers.

Every generation plays an important role in human formation and flourishing. Before we receive an individual identity, we inherit a familial identity. – Ryan Flanigan

The accommodation of preferences is rooted in the cultural values of consumerism and individualism. Of course the generations are divided; we all prefer different things. And despite the good intentions of leaders to attract worshipers by making them feel comfortable and undistracted, catering to their culturally-formed personal preferences is at cross-purposes with the gospel. The gospel calls us to lay down our own preferences and to prefer others instead (Mark 8-10). Christian worship is all about deference, not preference, modeled for us in our sacrificial Savior Jesus Christ himself (Philip. 2). Worship at its best is a rehearsal of the sacrificial life, and yet in many cases it has become another provider of goods and services. Nothing has contributed to generational division more than this.

 

Life and Liturgy

As I narrated in the story above, our everyday lives are intergenerational. Every generation plays an important role in human formation and flourishing. Before we receive an individual identity, we inherit a familial identity. Extended families are made up of three or four, sometimes five, living generations supporting one another and carrying on family traditions and stories. As Christians, we are extended families on mission with God. We need the active presence of all generations in order to be the family God has called us to be, to embody the Faith, and to carry on our Story in the world. Christian worship is the gathering, equipping, feeding, and sending of families to do life together on mission with God.

Ryan Flanigan Leading SongI am part of a liturgical church. Liturgy simply means “service of the people.” Paul uses it in Romans 12 to describe the spiritual “service” of offering our bodies as living sacrifices to God. Liturgical practices offer tangible means by which the generations are united in worship. One of my favorite moments of our liturgy is when my children run up to the communion rail to join me in receiving the body and blood of Christ. One Sunday my son knelt down, extended his hands to receive, and said, “Look dad, I’m making a manger.” The old woman to my left started chuckling, and I was inspired by the incarnation illustration my son had just unknowingly given us.

The liturgy brings out the physical nature of our worship, without which our worship can become a strictly cognitive or abstract exercise. Physical symbols and actions ensure that our bodies are engaged. Kneeling, praying, and singing in unison draws us into communion with one another and with God. This is especially important for children. Jesus was clear with his disciples to let the children come to him (Mark 10). When the children are left out, kingdom values go away. When kingdom values go away, cultural values take over. We begin to conform our worship to the things of the world, which is the antithesis of spiritual liturgy (Rom. 12). So Paul urges us, children included, to offer our bodies together in sacrificial life and liturgy.

 

Music Unites

Music is vital to Christian worship. It’s no wonder, then, that music is near the heart of the worship wars. The generations divide along fault lines of stylistic preference. When music is commodified to serve the people, it becomes entertainment. Music is supposed to be a service of the people, not a service to the people. This paradigm shift will help us defer our own musical tastes in worship and to consider what makes others sing. It will take a willingness for mutual appreciation, but in time our hearts will blend into one. A church may even discover its own unique musical expression!

Bell CurveLife is a bell curve of simplicity and complexity. The most unifying songs and rhythms noticeably engage the youngest and oldest among us. If we aim for the people in the middle, those whose lives are most cluttered and noisy, they may connect with the music, but it will be hard for everyone else to participate. Familiarity is the way to go with liturgical music. Familiar doesn’t mean that we need to dumb it down; it means we’re bringing it down to earth, making the music more accessible and the work of the people more doable.

What this looks like at All Saints Dallas is children, parents, empty nesters, singles, and students all singing alongside one another. We usually sing thirteen songs per service, including ancient hymns, contemporary choruses, folk spirituals, and new service music. Each song supports the liturgy in some way. Key signatures and melodic ranges are intentionally chosen to enable ease of congregational singing. Rhythms and arrangements are contextualized to what best engages our people, especially the old and young. And we have indeed discovered our own unique sound as a church.

 

Liturgical Folk

Liturgical Folk Album Ryan FlaniganOur music, which we call Liturgical Folk, is a truly intergenerational project. You can read all about it in the Dallas Morning News article, “Let us bow our heads in poetry,” and you can hear what it sounds like on our albums, Liturgical Folk, Vols. 1 & 2. Volume 1 is called Table settings, and consists of singable settings of historic prayers for churches and families. My wife and kids sing on it. Volume 2 is called Edenland and consists of new hymns written by a seventy-five year old in our church and myself. He wrote the words, and I wrote the tunes.

 

Conclusion

Robert Webber said that the greatest internal threat to Christian worship is cultural accommodation. When churches become providers of goods and services, generations divide and intergenerational relationships suffer. There is much more we could talk about, such as the dwindling percentage of churchgoing college students who grew up in age-segregated churches. I have chosen to highlight from my own experiences how liturgy and music can help bridge the generational divides. There really shouldn’t be a disconnect between our church life and our everyday life. What we do in worship should train us in our everyday lives, helping us carry on the Story of God in flourishing intergenerational relationships.

 

Read our other blogs!

 

Liturgical Folk Ryan Flanigan

Guest Blogger Ryan Flanigan