Guest blogger Anneli Loepp Thiessen is an active song leader, researcher, classical musician, and music educator. She is set to begin her PhD in Interdisciplinary Music Research at the University of Ottawa in September, 2020, where she received her Masters of Music in Piano Performance.
The Rise of “Way Maker”
On February 17, 2020, the massively popular megachurch and conference Passion released a YouTube video of their worship leaders singing the song “Way Maker.” In this video, white worship leaders move around a large stage, energetically leading thousands of worshippers in an impactful anthem. In their description of the video, Passion wrote: “Official Live video for “Way Maker” by Passion ft. Kristian Stanfill, Kari Jobe, & Cody Carnes.” If the 3 million people who’ve watched that video don’t know better they would likely assume it was written by the leaders of Passion. They might be surprised when they find out who really wrote it.
Over the past few months, “Way Maker” has become an anthem for white, North American evangelicals. In that time, the song has received many accolades: it reached #3 on Billboard’s Hot Christian Songs chart, it appeared twice in the top 10 of the Christian Airplay chart for two different recordings (one by the band Leeland and one by Michael W. Smith featuring Vanessa Campagna and Madelyn Berry, which has ranked at #1), and it peaked at #2 on Praise Charts list of songs most downloaded since COVID-19. The song is sung in contemporary worship services across the continent, with covers routinely emerging from mega-churches. In many ways, its success is comparable to other hit anthems that have taken the church by storm. And yet this one is different.
If you, like me, have paid even a small amount of attention to who is writing the evangelical church’s song, you will have noticed that it is mostly white men. My recent study of Christian Copyright Licensing International’s Top 25 charts from the past 30 years revealed that the majority of songs sung by the American evangelical church today are written by collaborations among men. Big names produce top songs, which are marketed by publishing companies to make a large impact. The Billboard Top Christian Songwriter charts reflect this: names of white men routinely make the list, with a small number of women and people of colour appearing alongside them. In a blog post for the Center for Congregational song, David Bjorlin argues that consumerism has marked congregational song: only two companies, Capitol and Bethel, are responsible for administering the majority of the CCLI Top 100 lists. Congregational song is curated to promote only certain voices.
Here’s where “Way Maker” stands out: rather than being composed by a group of white Americans, “Way Maker” was written by Nigerian female songwriter Osinachi Okoro, stage name Sinach. She is an award winning songwriter and vocalist, has recorded 9 albums, and serves as an international worship leader at her home church, Christ Embassy (Loveworld). She lives in Lagos, Nigeria, with her husband and child. In addition to “Way Maker,” she has written many other hit worship songs that are sung around the world.
Rather than rising to popularity through sponsored advertisements, “Way Maker” emerged in the most grassroots way a song can these days: a YouTube video. Sinach’s original YouTube video of “Way Maker” (video above) has over 150 million views, and in May 2020 she made history as the first African to top Billboard’s Christian Songwriter chart. It is also important to note that while white evangelicals are just adopting the song now, it has been loved by black churches for several years, as evidenced in a 2017 video of Benita Jones (Washington) leading it (video below). Sinach’s ministry was meaningful long before the white North American church sang her songs, and her music is powerful with or without its affirmation.
The reception of “Way Maker” by American evangelicals is an outlier on all accounts. For a church that has thrived on predictably produced music, it is surprising that the song speaking to us the most during a global crisis is not from our most familiar sources, but from a Nigerian songwriter in a moving music video. In an interview with Medina Pullings on May 22, 2020, Sinach addressed her rise to the top of Billboard’s Christian Songwriter chart. She said: “I didn’t lobby for it, I didn’t promote it to be like that. It was the Lord that put it there. So He wants to make a statement, and let him make it.”
I draw your attention to the story of “Way Maker” because I believe it represents a significant moment in evangelical church history. For hundreds of years Europeans and Euro-Americans have been at work colonizing other parts of the world. We have forced or cajoled the world to adopt our religion, infrastructure, cultural traditions, and practices. Our way of relating to others has been informed by the idea that we have all of the answers, and it is our job to share them with the world.
Our worship has not been immune to this practice. North American worship language has been globally adopted: top worship hits from Euro-American songwriters have been translated into countless languages and are sung all over the world. We are so comfortable with our own voice that our worship rarely brings in music from other cultures. But now, we need language that is not our own. We need the voice of a woman in Nigeria who is able to talk about a miracle-working God in a way that we will not. The tables have turned: instead of offering our voice to the world, we are gratefully receiving.
A Beautiful Moment
We are witnessing a beautiful moment: the American evangelical church has received a song that it desperately needs, but I’m afraid the way we have received it has caused harm. I fear that most of our pastors, worship leaders and congregants assume that “Way Maker” was written by Euro-Americans. The vigour with which the song has been covered by big name artists like Passion has meant that the identity of the song’s original writer has been lost in translation.
By removing Sinach’s name and story from the song, we are claiming it as our own without crediting the vibrant context it comes from. Unfortunately, this is a common theme throughout history: white artists have long been covering songs written by black artists without giving them credit. This is a systemic problem that is much larger than just the worship music industry, although it is clearly evident here. This occurrence is not only a missed opportunity to embrace our global church, but it overlooks and disrespects the few, brave intercultural voices that have found their way into our worship. When we sing Sinach’s song without crediting her properly, we are bypassing the opportunity for our worship to dismantle oppression, and are perpetuating racism by erasing a black voice.
In light of the global dialogue around anti-racism that has developed since the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minnesota police, many churches are engaging conversations on racial justice in a new way. Megachurches like Passion preached on the topic and posted for #blackouttuesday. But worship and justice are deeply intertwined, and good intentions are lost if our worship continues to drown out black voices. In the first week of June, a video emerged of black protesters singing “Way Maker” as they marched. Rather than ignoring the origins of this song, can we use it to amplify black voices? Can we hold it as an anthem for racial justice?
Embrace the Global Church
By experiencing “Way Maker” as a song written by a woman from Nigeria, we embrace the global church to which we belong. We acknowledge that we need voices that are not our own, and we celebrate that all are invited into the church’s song.
The widespread adoption of a worship anthem from another culture represents a rare moment for the evangelical church, and we have the opportunity to acknowledge it in the right way. This song is not ours to own, we are receiving it as a gift. So say thank-you. Subscribe to Sinach’s YouTube channel. Follow her on social media. Tell your church the story behind this song. Credit her as the songwriter in your covers. Watch her original music video – the one with 150 million views – I can assure you it’s worth it. Sinach’s song has brought Christians from around the world together, we must credit her with leading the way and sharing her gift.