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Consumerism and Congregational Song

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 Tanya Riches has published a number of well-known songs through Hillsong Music Australia, including ‘Jesus What A Beautiful Name,’ which reached #6 on Australia’s CCLI worship charts. Along with a team, she administrated one of the most successful worship bands in history, Hillsong United, for its first six years under Reuben Morgan’s leadership. Her song ‘Hear Our Prayer’ was on their second album, Everyday. She is now not only now a respected academic working in Pentecostal Studies and Missiology, but one of the world’s most respected scholars regarding the phenomenon of Hillsong Church. Her PhD research (Fuller Theological Seminary) is an attempt further reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, by bringing attention to the work of Indigenous Christian leaders in some of Australia’s major cities (The Gold Coast, Perth and Cairns). Her deep desire is for justice.

 

Picking Out Great Songs

I can still remember the very first time I heard the song “Oceans.” It was a blurry video performance posted on Instagram and recorded on an iPhone camera. Taya Smith sang it, with a single guitar backing her. Both the camera and her voice shook slightly, yet you could still tell it was an incredible song.

I’ve done a bit of informal research, and lots of songwriters, worship leaders, and publishers agree: it’s possible to pick out a truly great song well before any marketer gets involved. For example, you might remember the moment when “Revelation Song” was released onto video with a teenage Kari Jobe singing in her pink coat. There are so many Chris Tomlin or Michael W. Smith worship songs that became “hits” just by word of mouth after a worship service … it’s fascinating, isn’t it?!

 

Sharing Songs

There are many reasons as to why Christians share songs: they can be incredibly useful for teaching biblical and doctrinal content, they unify congregations in glorifying God, they can give prophetic words to particular moments, and they can allow us to grasp a sense of the church universal as we sing together words written by a fellow Christian. This is perhaps why the Christian music publisher Hillsong has largely abandoned the word “products” in favour of “resources” for their music.

Apparently, according to Amy Stillman from the University of Hawaii, the phenomena of song-sharing was even happening well back into the 1890s in Oceania. Well before the mass hysteria over The Beatles’ single releases, Christian songs were being passed from village to village around the lagoons in Papua New Guinea. Songs like “Onward Christian soldiers” developed a certain appeal in parts of the Pacific, and were sung until the missionaries couldn’t bear them any longer (and maybe even a little past that point).

 

Tensions

Most worship leaders will understand the tensions that these missionaries must have faced. We tend to harness this kind of enthusiasm for sung worship. We know what is truly catchy, and what will assist the congregation in singing. This means that sometimes we use songs that we would prefer personally not to sing in order to encourage the congregation to magnify and glorify Jesus, the author and the finisher of our faith. But it’s the age-old question for a worship leader: what happens if you don’t like the lyrics of a song, especially if it is just one line of an incredibly popular song?

There are so many instances of this, and many of the discussions seem to be about the use of contextual language. For example, it’s become clear to me, as an Australian, that some North American Christians just can’t bear singing the line “the darling of heaven crucified” or, for that matter, the word “hell” used in the vernacular sense in a worship song. For Australian Christians, however, the word “darling” and “beloved” are almost interchangeable. Similarly, our (over?) use the word “hell” is troubling for some and has even confounded Oxford Dictionary experts (https://www.betootaadvocate.com/uncategorized/oxford-dictionary-send-experts-to-terrigal-to-study-the-use-of-hell-as-an-adjective/). Even if you understand the meaning of the term in the Australian context, however, it may not be appropriate to use in your own congregational setting.

In addition, there are also various theological issues. One famous example is the Stuart Townend and Keith Getty song line “the wrath of God was satisfied” which, some congregations have claimed, paints a particular picture of the relationship between God and Jesus which betrays the Trinity’s inter-mutuality and love (https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/on-the-cross-when-jesus-died-was-the-wrath-of-god-satisfied/ ). The authors, however, disagreed that this was the correct interpretation of their work. So what can you do if you deem one line of a song theologically incorrect?

We tend to harness this kind of enthusiasm for sung worship. We know what is truly catchy, and what will assist the congregation in singing.

In order to sing contemporary worship songs, it seems, some global cultures are expected to learn to adapt more than others. Yet the context of some worship songs seem not to be a problem for people in the southern hemisphere who regularly sing about snow at Christmas time, sometimes even while packing their swimming costumes and preparing to head to the beach after church. Some of us can surely only imagine how incredibly hard it is to understand the line “his eye is on the sparrow” when you’ve never seen a bird that fits that name. It’s an exercise in trust to believe that not only does such a bird exist, but that God watches it with dedication. Yet such popular songs are regularly sung in Australia.

 

What To Do?

So what is a worship leader to do with these song texts outside of their original contexts? There are a number of ways to answer this question. Copyright law insists that the song is the work of the writer. That means that even if you love the tune, it would be inappropriate for a song leader to change the lyric “sloppy wet kiss,” for example, unless given expressed permission from the publisher. And yet, in this case, for example, David Crowder decided that there was enough outcry to allow for a new version of the song.

Still, despite the legalities in most countries and the publisher’s clear explanations that the author must be contacted, some worship pastors are under the impression that CCLI allows them leeway to change lyrics. Newsflash: it doesn’t, see: http://support.ccli.com/can-i-change-the-song-lyrics/

Often, the church learns new worship songs through the radio, or online. So do you include a tune in the worship service at the recommendation of a congregation member who loves it? And do you omit the troublesome lines because you can’t stand to think that the believers would be led into theological error? The tension for the worship pastor is real! The worship leader can often get caught between the pastor’s teaching, the congregation’s expression, and the songwriter’s legal protections.

So what is the answer? On this the law is clear. You can omit lyrics. But you can’t change lyrics without the express permission of the author.

Therefore, rather than expecting songs to be able to do this work, perhaps worship leaders should see ourselves as missionaries to our own cultures.

But what is ideal in this instance? Well, perhaps we need to stop believing that we can and should all be singing the same repertoire globally? Although it is a beautiful thing for churches to share their resources, the agency to make decisions about what is included in worship still remains with (and has always been) with the local pastors to prayerfully consider song texts and decide whether they should be incorporated into the worship service. The best scenario is when the worship pastor or leader is given the right to negotiate with the various parties and set the right songlist for their context.

 

Different Ways of Speaking

The truth is, language is not universal. We recognize that we have differences in the way we speak, but we also have differences in the meaning of our speech. And so, unless we have verbatim quotes of the biblical text, we cannot expect that all songs will translate across all cultures —and even then we know that biblical translations carry various theological emphases. The Gospel, in contrast, is renowned for its translatability. This message can be told and retold in many different languages, and with a consistency that allows its essence to remain.

Therefore, rather than expecting songs to be able to do this work, perhaps worship leaders should see ourselves as missionaries to our own cultures. If we hold to the goal that the Gospel be understood by the people we serve, and that the scriptures would transform us as we gather in worship together as the people of God, then we can evaluate the usefulness of songs on this basis. This type of ministry, immersion into local culture, is based upon the model of the incarnation of Christ.

But we can certainly acknowledge that it is incredible that some songs do seem to manage to cross the language divides in order to unify believers of various nations. That’s enough to make you praise Christ, who promises “I will build the church” (Matthew 16:18).