Thursday, January 03, 2008

Top Five Issues All Worship Musicians Should Consider

This is the first entry in my series of important issues for Christian artists in different mediums. Before you read this, I would strongly encourage you to read the two posts that precede it, Ten Issues All Christian Artists Should Consider #1-5 and #6-10, as they form the foundation of the series and address issues which are concerns to all mediums.

The quality of praise and worship music in the Church is a contentious subject, affected by denomination, upbringing, geography, and taste. There are those who do not allow instruments in the church, others only sing hymns, and still others only sing songs written by top song writers like Chris Tomlin and Matt Redman. While some of the differences in styles and types of worship music reflect our different ways of glorifying God, this does not excuse us as song writers, worship leaders, musicians, and congregational singers from seeking aesthetic excellence. This list, as with all the lists in this series, is not comprehensive or in any particular order, but is meant to serve as a starting point for the worship artist.

1. Don't Support CCLI

Christian Copyright Licensing International is an organization that takes an annual royalty from all churches with members from 1-200,000+.  Here's how CCLI explains their function:

When we sing songs in a worship service there is no “fee” or “charge” to perform works of a religious nature. But when we retype the lyric, whether it’s for an overhead projection, power point computer projection or photocopied lyrics in the bulletin, it is expected that we will compensate the owners of the lyrics for that usage. The licenses required and the royalties they produce involve Christian Copyright Licensing Incorporated (CCLI) .

Yes, you read that correctly. If you project or copy the lyrics of songs written to glorify God, you have to pay someone. Of course, if the lyrics come from a hymn or another song in Public Domain, then you are free to use them without paying a fee*. Churches must report to the CCLI what songs they sing, and the CCLI then pays the artist a royalty based on their reports. One of the major problems with this is that artists are encouraged to write songs which will be song a lot, not songs which honor God. Take a look at the language the CCLI uses to explain this arrangement:

CCLI income is very sizeable for major Christian Music publishing companies, oftentimes larger than their Performance income. There are many songwriters unknown to the general public or Christian consumers at large who are among the most well-paid composers in the Christian music genre based on their CCLI income.

If the CCLI was an organization which outlined how pastors or Christian counselors could be "among the most well-paid" in their industry, the organization would be almost universally condemned as anathema to the teachings of Christ and Paul. So why does this organization get away with seducing song writers into writing worship songs for profit?

I am not arguing that praise and worship artists should never be paid for their service, but I am saying that the CCLI system is horrifying and dangerous to the spiritual life of the Church. I would like to encourage praise and worship artists, worship leaders, musicians, and congregations to write new songs which aren't governed by CCLI and to sing songs which are in public domain.

For more information about the CLLI, read this compelling blog entry by Warren Smith entitled, God, Mammon, and the Worship Wars.

2. Remember what your job is

The task of leading worship or writing worship music is not to be taken lightly. You are aiding people in the act of worshiping the holy, mighty, loving God. The words you write and the songs you chose will shape the worship that the congregation will offer. With such a momentous duty, it is important for us to search the Scriptures for passages will describe what it means to worship in song. For example, while the Psalms are often quoted when people are sorting out what worship is, verses like Ephesians 5:19 are rarely dealt with: "speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making music to the Lord in your heart." It is imperative that we are not selective when we look at what the Word of God has to say about worship.

In addition, remembering what our job is requires that we are concerned with aiding others in worshiping God in Spirit and in Truth. As worship leaders there will be times when we would like to arrange a song in a particular way because we enjoy the way it sounds, but such an arrangement might not be conducive to worship. As song writers there will be times when we wish to write a song in a favorite genre--country, hard core, rap, ska...--but if the music does not lead others into a place where they can sincerely worship the Lord without distractions, then we shouldn't write the song. The wrong way to approach writing a worship song is to first decide on a genre or style and then write the lyrics.

One test we can use to identify our motivation for choosing particular songs or writing in particular styles is to take notice of how we envision performing the songs. When we imagine ourselves leading the church in worship, what to we see the congregation doing? If they are in shock of the song, in awe of our presence, impressed by our abilities, enamored by our hip-ness, or in any other way drawn to the music or musicians, then your motivation to worship or write is likely misplaced.

3. Worshiping God in Truth means being in reverent awe of Him

I believe as a consequence of worship artists who are paid to write songs which will be popular, not songs which are theologically and aesthetically excellent, most modern praise and worship songs deny or ignore the fact that we are commanded to fear the Lord.

Joyful songs of praise are important to our worship, however, they cannot be shallow, giddy, saccharine pop tunes which lack any spirit of reverence. There is a way to be joyful and still recognize God as almighty and awesome.

Where this issue of reverence has had the most negative affect is in songs which speak of Christ's work on the cross, the depth of our sin, or other serious issues. While we should be filled with joy for what Christ did on the cross, this joy must include an acknowledgement of the price Christ paid.  To fail to do so is to dishonor Christ's work and means that we are not worshiping in Truth. When we sing of Christ's hands being nailed to the cross for our sins, how can we use melodies and a style which sounds as if it was taken from a top-40 teenage love song?

Some popular worship songs sound like they were love songs written to a girl. In such songs we sing of love, beauty, passion, the desire for an intimate relationship, and the desire to see the person's face or to touch them, among other things. In some of these songs our love for God is disturbingly similar to a teenage infatuation. Where such songs go astray is that they present our love of God without acknowledging the righteous fear that we are called to have for Him. Instead of the kind of love we have for a father who is our judge and provider, someone who is not our peer, such songs reflect the kind of love a teenager has for a peer of the opposite sex. The lack of fear and reverence leads to shallow, theologically unsound music.

As artists and leaders of worship music we need to seek to understand what the Word says about how are are to fear the LORD. A good place to start is to notice the tone and language Paul uses when he talks about Christ and what He did for us.

4. Your model does not come from the radio or television

For the last 20+ years worship music has started to look more and more like a sub-genre of adult contemporary music. The way worship artists are marketed (we can thank the CLLI for teaching them that the job is profitable), the way worship leaders and musicians carry themselves and act on stage, and the style and content of modern praise and worship music all reflect an unhealthy lineage from secular, commercial, pop music.

The objectives of someone leading a congregation in worship and a musical artist who is striving to succeed in the pop music market are completely opposed.

A pop artist entertains his audience.

A worship leader assists others in worshiping God.

A pop artist writes songs that he believes will be pleasing to the largest audience possible. This usually means simple, trite, inoffensive  lyrics--lyrics which appeal to people's best impressions of themselves.

A worship artist writes songs which glorify God and aid others in worshiping Him. This means the lyrics are both symbolically rich and theologically profound; they identify the worst aspects of our character (our sin nature) and glorify the best in His.

A pop artist desires to make him/herself an icon, and idol, and image.  Image sells.

A worship leader/artist desires to vanish. Not to be filmed or photographed or lifted up as an icon of worship, but to shift every single bit of honor to God. No matter how much a worship artist says with their lips that they want all the glory to be given to God, if they are signing autographs and taking pictures with adoring fans they are giving lip service.

The bottom line is that worship music should not be entered into as an occupation, at least not in the same way that musicians and writers launch careers in the music industry as a whole. Worship bands are not just bands with songs that praise God. The very idea of writing songs and leading others to praise God is that our focus is not on ourselves and our glory, and it is not on pleasing or entertaining the audience. For any musician in the music industry, creating an image for ourselves and pleasing and entertaining the audience are foundational to any success.

Before we write or sing we must remember that what we are doing with music is fundamentally and profoundly opposed to what is done in the secular, commercial, music industry.

5. Strive to write lyrics and use language excellently

I have avoided making broad statements about the state of modern worship music, but here I must be blunt:

(Most) Modern Praise and Worship music lyrics are embarrassingly bad.

They are theologically unsound, poetically childish, and often they are linguistic nonsense--a pile of religious-sounding words thrown together without any order or purpose other than to evoke the feeling of the sacred which is a left over from the time when song writers used those same words in their proper context.

If you are going to write a worship song, a song to glorify our wonderful God, make it a work of excellence. Have something to sing about and express it in a varied and complex way. When a song has simplistic and repetitive music the listener and singer will drift into a dream-like state where they lose all understanding of the meaning of the words they are singing--all they know to do is sing. But we want the congregation to worship not only with their lips, but with their hearts and minds--in Spirit and in Truth.

Ask yourself when you write or choose a song for worship, will these words encourage the congregation to meditate and consider the meaning behind them, or are they just a collection of religious sounding words?

Read good poetry and prose and hymns. Consider men like William Cowper who wrote There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood. Cowper was a famous poet who published works of his own and translated Homer. This was a person who studied language and the way words relate and interact with each other. I'm not asking all worship artists to be published poets, but I would ask them to be students of language. The desire to glorify God through lyrics is good, but it is better to have such a desire and seek to fulfill it through artful work.

For a detailed discussion of how certain religious words (holy, wonderful, mighty, praise, glory, honor, etc...) have begun to lose their meaning in modern worship due to their senseless repetition, read my blog post entitled, Worship Music and Dead Language.

As always, I would love to hear all your responses to this, and if there are any points that should be added to this list, please let me know.




*Of course, if a modern artist takes a Public Domain song and adds a chorus, they own the rights to the "new" song. Both Chris Tomlin and Todd Agnew have taken Amazing Grace and added their own chorus, giving them rights to the song. Every time my church sings Amazing Grace with the five "new" lines from Chris Tomlin, he gets paid.


Stephanie P. said...

I completely agree with everything you just said. I think a lot of the worship leaders I've encountered lately think they're the star of the show, and frankly, I'm sick of going to the "worship show" every week. Plus, I'm really tired of worship just being a segment which needs to be filled in the itinerary, especially at our church, just thrown together at the last minute instead of being Spirit-led like it should be.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

I think one of the prime symptoms of this malaise is that most of the churches I've attended--even most of the methodologically deliberate and theologically sound churches I've attended--as a body applaud at the end of every worship song.

I'm not sure when this started, but I don't remember this happening during my childhood. It's profoundly disturbing. Clapping during a song I understand as part of making a joyful noise, but what does it mean when we're applauding the completion of the song by a skilled praise band? Did this ever happen with Southern Baptist choirs?

On the other side, though, I think the issue does become a bit complicated when we have legitimate and real Christian communities growing up knowing only bad praise music. Because I think intent, in worship, often trumps even really bad lyrics--they become nonesense in most people's heads, and then (because these people are coming together to praise God) the songs come to be seen as those sounds made in praise of God by people who get their (very good) theology from non-musical sources. It's not that I'm saying that contemporary praise music isn't highly problematic--just that one of the problems with reorenting praise music is the presence of people who associate bad music with their true worship.

noneuclidean said...

This post has been brought to my attention:
The author shows how a sacred hymn gets turned into a praise song. It's hilarious.

Jason C. Mauney said...


I think the post is spot-on. I've been drawn to a more liturgical form of worship after experiencing contemporary worship in one form or the other for most of my life. I do wish that those who seek to lead in worship would spend more time studying the Psalms. I mean we have 150 worship songs given to us by God! It saddens me that more people are not familiar with them, as it seems that God intended for them to be used in corporate worship (I'm not arguing for exclusive psalmody, btw). I think there is a lot we can learn from their structure, variety, and language. But I seem to be in the minority in the evangelical world.

P.S. - The Reformed Catholicism post was hilarious.

Anonymous said...


I found your entry “Top Five Issues All Worship Musicians Should Consider” to be thought provoking and agreed with your position on four of the five issues.

I don’t agree with you position on CCLI and went back and read all your blogs, in order, from the beginning in order to get a better feel on where you are coming from. I appreciated your insights on worship music and found your ideas on Hip Hop enlightening; I learned quite a bit about a genre I don’t pay any attention to. I also found your thoughts on Worship Music and Dead Language very interesting. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I don’t care for the lyrics of so many of the new worship songs. I chased down and read the article by Warren Smith included in Dan Burrell’s blog; I also read all the comments following it.

I agree with Warren Smith that a hymnal can be a great tool for discipleship, but that does not mean it will be used that way. I have yet to see that happen and I have yet to read a description of how to do it (I have read my fair share of books on worship over the last 30 years and Worship Leader magazine since the mid 90’s). The downside I see with the “way things were” are: no provisions for using new music, can’t buy new hymnals every few years, hymnals require separate books for chords, if they are available at all. When they are available, a custom arrangement is almost always required because the chords are normally unusable as written and usually require a key change to be guitar/vocal friendly. And of course there is the difficulty of attempting of leading a hymn from a guitar in the traditional verse format even if the chords and key were good!

After college (1979) I used to build my own song books from the songs I had obtained from various sources. Since they were for my personal use and I wasn’t selling them, I did not see any problems with it. To work within the copyright laws would have required getting permission and possibly having to pay for each song (what would a fair rate be?); this assumes you could even determine who the author or copyright holder was (this was before the internet!). I became aware of CCLI for the first time in the late 80’s through the Minister of Music at the Baptist Church I was attending. Since many of the songs I was using were not covered by CCLI; I ended up buying songbooks and learning new songs. A few years later I ended up getting a personal CCLI license to give the flexibility to use a wider variety of songs; I discontinued my license when the Base Chapel got one since I fell under their umbrella of ministry. The current community church I am at has a CCLI license.

I see CCLI as a very flexible and powerful resource. Is marketing and moneymaking the only focus in worship music and CCLI today? I would answer “no”, but it probably has more influence than what I understand or what is good. I do believe the people that write and arrange songs should get fair compensation for their work. Back when I used whatever songs I could get my hands, I had no concern about supporting those who create them, now I know through CCLI that artists of the songs I use get compensated. I like that. It would be easy for me to be critical of the big money flow in and out of CCLI but I don’t have any better ideas to making songs available and fairly compensating those who make them. I can’t see how going back to the formal denominational hymnal approach would be helpful.

I wrote an article on choosing songs. A more current listing of our songs Song Index – By Playlist Category and Title is here: We have a mix of new songs, hymns, and homegrown songs.

If you want to see how we plan songs check out some of the other links on the page which has leadsheets posted for the songs we sing every Sunday going back quite a ways. If you want to listen to our original material there are MP3’s of me singing and playing the guitar which I have made available for a lot of the songs we do so worship team members can use them for practice. The quality of the recordings varies but gives a good idea of how I play them.

Thanks for the insightful and thought provoking blog. I’ll check back in from time to time.

Singing His praises,

Doug Thorsvik
Medical Lake, WA

noneuclidean said...


Thanks so much for the comment and for reading so many of my older posts; I'm glad you enjoyed them and even gladder that you wrote!

It seems like the main point you're bringing up is that without the CCLI we would lack an efficient and fair way of compensating artists. This is a great point. Let me begin with this question:

If we had to choose between using worship songs which were written to appeal to as many worshipers as possible (potentially at the risk of firm doctrine) or songs which were written exclusively to give glory to God by being theologically sound, which should we choose?

I guess what I'm saying here is that under the current CCLI system, worship music has become an industry where the artists are paid to write songs which people will want to sing, not necessarily songs which are Biblical. This system seems to me to be antithetical to a Biblical conception of worshiping God.

But this still leaves us with the problem you raise: if we stop using the CCLI, how could we compensate the artists?

I don't have a very good solution to be honest, and I think it's something that needs to be thought about extensively. However, I still feel that the more important issue is the quality of modern worship songs and how we worship.

Here are a few thoughts I have on the compensation issue:

1. I would be less concerned about worship artists if they only made profits off of their CDs and live performances. Many worship artists would still be well compensated for their work if they sold their recordings of songs. They would no longer get paid for how many times churches sang their songs, while still being compensated for writing.

2. Perhaps local church bodies could offer to support the artists. Specifically, what if part of the role of worship leader involved writing new songs and helping others in the congregation write and arrange new worship songs? The artist would then be compensated, but not for how many times a particular song was played. Ultimately, I feel this is the best solution. It encourages creativity in the church, prevents commercialization, and compensates the artist.

3. Why should they be compensated? I know this sounds a bit harsh and drastic, but why should an artist be paid every time a church plays their song? It seems to me that this conception of copyright comes from the music industry and might not be in the best interest of the Body. Would we copyright a well-written prayer? I believe the artist should be acknowledged, but I'm not convinced that it is necessarily "fair" that the artists should be compensated every time their song is played.

In the end, the point you've made about compensation doesn't mean that we have to continue to support the CCLI, but rather it means that we need to spend some time thinking about alternatives. Once we recognize that the CCLI motives artists to make people-pleasing, ear-tickling songs in order to make a profit, it seems to me that we must seek out alternatives.

God Bless,

noneuclidean said...


I just had a chance to look through your church's website. The document you created on choosing worship songs is very helpful; I enjoyed reading it.

I also took a listen to quite of few of the mp3s you had posted. I was delighted to see so many original songs! Let me just encourage you to continue glorify God with a firm commitment to worshiping in both Spirit and Truth.

By the way, I had a friend who wrote a song to the lyrics of Man of Sorrows. It was very interesting hearing the version you have on the website since the words were all but identical while the music was so different! If I can find a copy of his version I'll email it to you; I think you'll enjoy it.


Anonymous said...


I appreciate the reply.

You asked: “If we had to choose between using worship songs which were written to appeal to as many worshipers as possible (potentially at the risk of firm doctrine) or songs which were written exclusively to give glory to God by being theologically sound, which should we choose?” I don’t see these groupings as mutually exclusive, but for me the second category is not negotiable. I have chosen not to sing some popular songs because they were theologically inaccurate or just plain fuzzy; my decision did not please some, but ultimately I am responsible for the songs I choose.

You said “I guess what I'm saying here is that under the current CCLI system, worship music has become an industry where the artists are paid to write songs which people will want to sing, not necessarily songs which are Biblical. This system seems to me to be antithetical to a Biblical conception of worshiping God.” Worship leaders under the oversight of pastors choose songs for worship, so if churches are singing songs that are popular but not biblical (theologically sound), I would say worship leaders and pastors are responsible for the situation we are in. If they refuse to sing songs that are weak or inaccurate theologically, we would not find them at the top of the charts. I agree it is hard to find high quality modern worship songs. I believe it is because the content of the song (lyrics) doesn’t carry the weight is should in the selection process worship leaders actually use. I believe all the other factors (musical appeal and interest, fun to play, fun to sing, …) essentially trump content.

You said “1. I would be less concerned about worship artists if they only made profits off of their CDs and live performances.” I became aware of through my page on Worship Leader’s SD Community when one of the artists emailed me and I checked out their website, reviewing the lyrics and then listening to the MP3’s available. I chose two songs “What kind of throne?” (we used it during Advent) and “Who is this?” which we will use in February. This group of artist to my knowledge are not putting out CD’s or are touring. Their songs are free to download, evaluate, and use. All are CCLI approved. Years ago I perused the web looking for songs for worship and gave up; I just couldn’t find anything I could use. It was not a good return on my investment. I am a volunteer worship leader who has a full time job teaching Microsoft Office for the Community Colleges of Spokane at Pine Lodge Corrections Center for Women.

Your second and third thoughts on the compensation issue are excellent. You said “Would we copyright a well-written prayer?” I wouldn’t, but pastors are turning sermons they write as part of their job into books they sell! It is apparent from the last two issues of worship leader magazine that worship leaders are doing pretty much the same thing with their music. No one appears to be concerned about it either. Note: the same logic does not apply at the Community Colleges of Spokane; the college owns anything you develop at work while you are being paid, you have to develop it outside of work, if you want to own it.

Compensation is a difficult issue. I am not a worship CD buyer or concert attender. I do get Worship Leader’s Song Discovery but I don’t use many songs from them anymore because they don’t have the content I am looking for. I originally subscribed because I didn’t want to buy a CD and then a separate songbook just to get a song or two. Song Discovery exposed me to a wide variety of songs in a ready to use format. I have found some excellent songs over the years, just not very many recently. Rearranging old hymns and writing original songs is a response to the difficulty in finding song with fresh and solid content.

Thanks for taking the time to read my article on choosing worship songs. It reflects my current approach which has changed over the years, shaped by experience, reading, and observation. It is my way of making operational books and articles that have caused me to think more deeply about choosing and using songs. Good well-developed songs in important content areas are hard to find. Most worship songs seem to be more about the worshipper and how the worshipper feels than I am now comfortable with. There is a place for that but not in almost all the songs. In short I want songs that present a clear biblical picture of God and songs that remind us what the bible tells us we are supposed to be doing with our lives. More about God and serving others, less about me.

Thanks for checking out some of our original stuff. My pastor wrote lyrics for two of our songs, I have written lyrics for a few. I don’t consider myself a song writer, but occasionally I get inspired to write one. Two sources I have found useful for lyrics are Hymns for the Russian Church and Hymns for the Early Church; here is the link: I these metered hymns interesting and varied. I have tweaked lyrics to update the language while maintain the same meaning where possible. Sometimes I add a chorus to break the song up (some of the guys on the worship team don’t like the strict verse, verse, verse form of hymns). Occasionally I will rewrite a verse, combine a couple verses, or create verses.

It’s interesting that you commented specifically on “Man of Sorrows”. By all means email your friend’s version; I would be glad to listen to it. I deliberately avoid changing popular/well know hymns where the words and melody work well. I can’t remember what event caused me to look at this hymn. When I did I observed the lyrics were so rich, but the melody just didn’t do anything for me, so I went to work on a version of the song I could use.

In closing, your comments on “Worship Music and Dead Language” provided outstanding insight to me. It explains why many songs don’t get my interest. They seem to be just an assemblage of popular/familiar/favorite religious terms that don’t really develop any clear compelling ideas but appear to be Christian and are not heretical. Do you have any examples of songs with “Live Language” to positively illustrate the idea you are talking about? Just curious.

Again thanks for the stimulating ideas?