What are we asking Sunday worship to do for us? This is the root question behind the “worship wars” of recent decades, although that argument typically takes place a few inches above this root. Many American churches have asked at least two inappropriate questions to evaluate our worship ethos. The first is “what music makes us feel like we’ve worshiped?” The second is “what songs and sounds will grow our church?”

These questions have forced out better ones and reveal our real agendas for Sunday liturgies. We have asked our worship practices to bear loads they are not meant to bear, and they have succeeded. Regrettably, their success in producing feelings and attracting Millennials has also resulted in much deeper failures, such as the failures of Sunday worship to bind and to catechize. These new functions also allowed industry practices and industry pressures to crowd out the old functions, and we are worse for it.

Corporate singing can accomplish many tasks, and church leaders should take great caution when they assign a telos to Sunday music. Singing binds together generations of Christians through common song. Singing catechizes. Singing is also, as Marva Dawn has reminded us, a necessary-and-extravagant “waste of time[1].” Singing can also be conscripted to attract certain groups and/or repel others, or it can produce heightened feelings in our congregations. Singing can dwarf the preached Word of God and relegate it to the status of a lecture, or singing can prepare the ears to hear it. Whether through invitation or through neglect, there is an ever-expanding worship music industry that will exert pressure on our liturgies and, by extension, the theology and practice of our congregations.

A Global Standard

First, it is increasingly apparent that the relationship between local Sunday worship and the global worship industry is moving toward a servant relationship. For many reasons, such as a local church’s lack of resources and a desire to provide a worship ethos that attracts and retains Millennials, local churches have received what is offered to them. The largest players in the worship industry, such as Hillsong in its variant forms, have set a global standard for what worship should feel like, and American liturgies have agreed. Unlike their “praise and worship” predecessors in the 80s and 90s, internet distribution and worldwide worship tours have combined to deliver both a sound and an approach to worship that can be replicated anywhere. Of the churches who resist, most have already made the decision to ignore contemporary instrumentation or they simply lack the musicians to appropriately mimic the Hillsong sound. Broadly speaking, it’s easy to see why churches would want to follow the lead of these industry leaders. To be on the “cutting edge” of congregational singing is more accessible than ever before, and it promises to deliver the difficult 20-something demographic[2].

But there is a cost. It may not be a high monetary cost, since licensing the songs of other songwriters is relatively inexpensive[3]. It is costly to receive the content of your worship from songwriters on the other side of the world, mediated by radio popularity, and filtered through industry practices. As long as something is being sold or licensed, it will change and adapt to that industry. In our case, worship songs are subject to the same influences as the rest of the music industry, and the same consumer demands are applying the same pressures. We prefer our singers young, slim, and pretty. We prefer our bands to wear fashionable clothing onstage, even if that means hats and scarves indoors. We prefer the dynamic lighting, projected images, and special effects we have come to expect from other concerts. And to the degree that we mimic these trends as the new standard, aren’t our churches serving industry?

We also prefer songs we have already heard on the radio. The top-played songs from our Christian radio stations are frequently the top-reported songs from CCLI, the world’s largest licensing service for worship songs. It appears that this relationship between radio play and congregational singing is only strengthening. Worship leaders themselves commonly refer to the musical events in the liturgy as their “setlist.” More often than not, worship albums are accompanied by lyrics and chord charts for easy reproduction on Sunday mornings. If American worship services feel like a production, it is because they often are a reproduction of a profitable and repeatable industry process.

Marketed Music

Second, the worship industry tends to commodify worship. Wherever commerce occurs, the product is changed, and a significant number of agents have influenced the result of a worship album. The songwriters, whether in the forefront of their minds or not, are aware that certain songwriting choices are better economic decisions. Recording engineers and studio time are expensive ventures, especially for the large-scale operations of Hillsong or Bethel Music. Album designers package the recordings in such a way that we are compelled to purchase them, and then the marketing efforts begin. If a certain project holds a “personal devotion” flair instead of a “congregational worship” flair, it is better for radio play. On the other hand, albums that lend themselves to congregational singing will find less resistance in churches[4]. Licensing songs for use in local churches is not difficult, and this avenue can be enormously profitable for the most popular songwriters. Selling the chord charts and making tutorial videos available online can also provide a revenue stream for songwriters. We often think of the practice of writing and producing worship music as insulated from the brand-building pressures of the broader pop music industry, but it takes the same steps. Even if every person involved in every step of a worship album holds unselfish, God-centric intentions for the project, it will still be significantly influenced by economic incentives. For every decision along the way, the answer will generally trend toward whatever the end-user of the album will prefer.

That pesky reality of the end-user is the fundamental problem of the modern production of worship music. Because modern worship-crafting is so tethered to economic processes, it tends to define the relationships between product and consumer. For as much as songwriters want to declare that God is the audience of worship, the sheer amount of commercial activity between a song idea and a licensed song suggests that He is not the only one. All of this has profound effects on how we understand corporate worship. Even our expectations for worship, for example, have been shaped by the influx of live worship recordings. An implicit promise has been made by the seller: that a vibrant evening of corporate worship can be recreated later for an individual, perhaps in his minivan. These expectations also flow the other way, unfortunately, as our local Sunday worship is often judged against the worship atmosphere of a festival attended by hundreds or even thousands of Millennials.

Encouraged Towards Similarity

Third, the worship industry’s influence tends to flatten the local. At both levels of worship agency – the songwriter and the congregation, care for the local is threatened. The advent of internet distribution and accessible royalty structures can lure songwriters to think of writing for their global congregation (whatever this means) instead of a local one. Simultaneously, local congregations are also not likely to value songs written by their own, even if these songs can be far more contextualized to their particular church. In addition, the mere existence of “performance tracks” raises the question of whether local musicians are even necessary anymore. These are essentially karaoke songs that allow you to add or subtract any desired or undesired instruments or vocals from a worship recording. If your local congregation only has one “good” singer, then the performance track will supply the rest. Alternatively, if you have a band but lack multiple synthesizers, then the performance track will produce them for you. Either way, the goal is a near-reproduction of the original recording. If the local misses the mark, the industry will make up for it – for a price, of course. Pastors are routinely disciplined for plagiarizing illustrations, because they are expected to draw universal principles out of Biblical texts and then apply them to their specific congregations. Worship leaders, on the other hand, are encouraged to match the new universal worship ethos.

Further, it would alarm our grandparents that we often do not know the confessional tradition of our songwriters, but it does not seem to bother us. These and other factors have combined to produce a generation that struggles to locate worship within any particular confession or tradition. The preaching may be Lutheran or Reformed or Baptist, but the music is Hillsong[5].

Someone may make the following objection: “But most of the 19th and 20th centuries featured hymnals as the only source material for corporate singing. Certainly a hymnal is the ultimate example of neglecting the local and the particular!” Indeed, hymnbooks unified congregations across countries and attempted to bring Sunday worship under a standard. But there are two reasons that our current situation is different. The first reason is that the publishing process is dramatically different. Historically, hymnal publishers approached hymnwriters after their songs were already in use by local congregations. Royalties were typically paid according to how many hymnbooks were printed, regardless of how widely any particular song was used. The incentive to write hymns centered on the local, not the promise of future royalties. The second reason is that hymnbooks still retained a confessional or denominational standard. A Lutheran hymnal contained Lutheran theology, and regardless of the popularity of a song, it would not be published in a Lutheran hymnbook if its content was contrary to Lutheran theology. Today, I doubt that many worship leaders could tell you what denomination or tradition Hillsong is without looking it up. Not only does an industry sound override a local sound, but local confessional content is overridden by other theologies, and in some cases we are not even sure of the source.

Song Audits

A church’s canon of songs exerts pressure on the people, and we ought to audit these pressures regularly. The first round of audits, it seems, should center around the creedal content of the songs. The second round should center on the size of the local church’s songbook and the range of theological influences. Whatever songs a mother is led to sing on Sunday morning will be featured in her bedtime liturgies with her infants. If that doesn’t inspire reform in worship leaders, I don’t know what will. Only after these first two audits, in my opinion, are we able to ask what sort of music we will play. The question of drums, synthesizers, and electric guitars are questions near the end of the worship leader’s flowchart, though we often begin there by mistake. Too often we plan our musical sound and “vibe” before we have asked the bigger questions. Beginning with instrumentation, unfortunately, tends to dictate our theological intentions for music.

We ought to hold an appropriate level of caution for liturgical sources outside our own congregations and confessions. We should remember that worship leading is catechesis, and since the practice of identity-formation through formal catechism has fallen out of favor, singing together is the nearest thing to it.

Finally, the songs we learn on Sundays must be able to sustain the church through persecution also. What we learn on Sunday with dynamic lighting and synthesizers may be a non sequitur on our deathbeds or a gathering in a burned-down church due to persecution. Just as exiled Israelites continued to sing after they laid down their harps by the waters of Babylon, are we prepared to sing after we have laid down our drum sets and amps?

Ryan is the Program Director for The Oread Center, a Christian study center at the University of Kansas, and also a college pastor at Grace EPC, where he leads worship. He and his wife Kristi have three girls. 

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[1] Marva Dawn’s most popular treatment of the purpose of worship is called “A Royal Waste of Time.”

[2] Or at least it promises to slow the Millennial exodus away from Protestant pews

[3] And possibly needless under U.S. copyright law.

[4] It is hard work to market one song to both audiences, though it is easier than it used to be. Christian radio stations are the gatekeepers to industry, and they are notoriously difficult to enter unless you are already popular. It is not uncommon for station directors to have planned out most of their playlists months in advance.

[5] It is astonishing that the most prominent fruit of efforts toward ecumenicism has come from the worship industry.