A new study suggests they’re sung today and gone tomorrow. Plus: Three Canadian worship leaders and musicians reflect on what it all means.
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Have you noticed the songs we sing on Sunday mornings are not what they used to be? It’s not that they’re not as good as they used to be (most of them are well crafted) or that their evolution in style is off-putting (a lot of folks are just fine with the guitars/synth/drum combo). Some studies have even suggested their theology is relatively comparable to songs of old. But what about the rate of change in our church songbooks?
We had a hunch that songs are coming and going in popularity faster than ever in recent decades, but there’s not been a study to test that hunch until now. That is what motivated us (a group of researchers and analysts) to embark on a project using the most reputable source at our disposal, Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI). If you’ve attended church long enough, you’ve probably noticed the CCLI logo at the bottom of song lyrics. CCLI is an organization that helps the Church correctly follow copyright laws and enables the proper use of creative content. For us, they were a valuable and fascinating trove of information about what songs we sing and why.
Behind the process
CCLI has collected song data from licensed churches since itsinception in 1988. Today, the number of churches who tap into CCLI-licensed songs has grown to approximately 10,000 (with well over 100,000 churchlicence holders worldwide). In this study we retrieved 64 biannual Top 100 CCLI lists of worship songs dating back to CCLI’s beginning. We decided to organize the Top 100 songs in five-year increments to make it easier to identify important trends, like how often a particular song was sung and by how many church congregations.
With timeframes decided, we identified each song that possessed an identifiable four-fold life curve with a start date (point of entry onto the chart), a rise (its trajectory up the chart), an identifiable peak (length of plateau on top) and its subsequent fall (trajectory down the chart). We isolated 199 such worship songs.
When we began to look at the big picture, a clear pattern quickly materialized. The life curves of the songs increasingly shorten over time (three times shorter between 1995–99 and 2015–2019, in fact). Collectively, newer songs consist of comparably steeper rises, diminished peaks and more rapid falls than older songs.
We are living in an era with a digital hymnbook whose page numberings are remarkably fluid and flexible.
While some songs in each five-year-time span defy this pattern – the start-rise-peak-fall pattern of its aggregated curve – many songs in the same span reinforce what we were seeing. A few indicative sample songs from each period are:
Between 1995 and 1999 we saw a five-year rise and a six-year fall of songs like "In the Secret" (11 yrs, +4,-7); "Refiner’s Fire" (10 yrs, +4,-6); "Knowing You" (10 yrs, +6,-4) and "Take My Life" (12 yrs, +4,-8).
Between 2000 and 2004, we saw a four-year rise and a five-year fall of songs such as "Every Move I Make" (9 yrs, +5,-4); "The Potter’s Hand" (9 yrs, +5,-4); "Hallelujah" (10 yrs, +4,-6) and "Give Us Clean Hands" (10 yrs, +5,-5).
In the 2005 to 2009 curve, the rise of a song shortened to three years, and its fall from popularity took five. Typical songs in this period were "All Because of Jesus" (8 yrs, +3,-5); "Glory to God Forever" (8 yrs, +3,-5); "Marvelous Light" (8 yrs, +4,-4) and "I Am Free" (9 yrs, +4,-5).
Between 2010 and 2014 the rise was typically two years and the fall was three with songs such as "Desert Song" (5 yrs, +2,-3); "Set a Fire" (5 yrs, +2,-3); "Alive" (5 yrs, +1,-4) and "You Make Me Brave" (4 yrs, +2,-2).
In the 2015 to 2019 song curve we have a two-year rise followed by a two-year fall of songs like "Even So Come" (4 yrs, +2,-2); "Here As in Heaven" (4 yrs, +2,-2); "Overcome" (3 yrs, +2,-1) and "Fierce" (3 yrs, +2,-1).
Statistics like this often raise more questions than answers. For example, what impact has the mode of music distribution had on these curves? In recent years, the content and trends of Christian music in general have largely moved back to overlap with worship music, such that the average Christian radio station and the average church service playlist would be (in many cases) difficult to distinguish. So, if you turn on your radio or listen on Spotify, you might hear the same song you sing at church on Sunday morning.
But why is that? How have technological advances contributed to these song lifespans? Are there sociological or cultural conditions at play that might explain what we see? We took a closer look and found some answers.
Rise trends (Top 100 songs from 1995–2019)
As we more thoroughly examined the rise of the songs, some clear patterns appeared. The rise rate of change has steadily increased over the past 25 years. In other words, music comes and goes more quickly than ever.
Songs emerging in 2000–2004 rose 22 per cent faster than those that emerged in churches between 1995–1999. The rate increase for songs entering lists between 2005–2009 was more moderate (15 per cent change in rise increase). A significantly larger rise rate was seen though in songs emerging in 2009–2014 (36 per cent change in rise increase over the previous period). This rise rate continued to accelerate in 2015–2019 (with an additional 23 per cent change in rise increase over the previous period).
Might there be some kind of informational snowball effect at play to explain this reality? Do publishers and record labels, radio and other media, churches and song-reporting gatekeepers all work together, intentionally and otherwise, in a sort of feedback loop?
If this rings true, we might ask if such a trend could indefinitely continue or if it would hit a boiling point. There is an argument to be made that we are living in an era with a digital hymnbook, albeit a hymnbook whose page numberings are remarkably fluid and flexible.
Decline trends (Top 100 songs emerging from 1995–2019)
In direct correlation to rise trends, we discovered songs are declining three times more quickly today than they did 25 years ago.
Songs emerging in 2000–2004 fell 23 per cent more steadily than those in 1995–1999. Fall rates held steady between 2005–2009 (actually expanding slightly by 4 per cent over the previous period) before experiencing a drastic change among songs emerging in the 2010–2014 timespan (43 per cent increase in decline rate over the previous period). This decline trend continued in songs listed between 2015–2019 (28 per cent increase in decline rate from the preceding period).
Are songs falling and disappearing from the lists faster to make room for new songs (a displacement theory)? Or because they oversaturate the culture (a dissatisfaction theory)? Could it be neither? Could it be both?
If so, might there be unforeseen consequences, be they positive or negative, to such a narrowing? Are there themes within the songs that come and go, that tell us something about our theology or worship practices?
If more and more churches are singing the same songs, what does that mean? If they’re singing those songs for shorter and shorter seasons, is that a good trend?
As with all things this side of eternity, the trends we’ve just reviewed are a mixed bag, bringing to mind Christ’s parable of the wheat and the tares where the weeds existed alongside the wheat. While there are downsides to shortening lifespans for some songs, there is an upside perhaps to the fact that more of our churches are singing the same songs at the same time.
The Church will always need to wrestle with the tension of wanting to join the psalmist in singing new songs, even while aiming for those songs to be as firm, grounded and familiar as the Psalter itself.
Marc Jolicoeur is a pastor, Moncton Wesleyan Church, N.B.; Mike Tapper is a religion chair, Southern Wesleyan University, S.C.; Charldon Dennis is a mathematician, D.W. Daniel High School, S.C.; Lisa Corbin is a research director, Southern Wesleyan University, S.C.; and Andrea Hunter is a songwriter/editor, Worship Leader Magazine, Calif. Page-top photo: Shutterstock.com
Worship music reflections
Faith Today asked three Canadian worship leaders and musicians to interact with the worship music research and share their reflections.
"You don’t know this one?!" my friend asked. Apparently, I was unfamiliar with one of the most popular worship songs of the day and that was unimaginable.
Music has always reflected our culture and our shifting attitudes about life, so naturally we want our worship music to do the same. Our fast-paced world tells us that staying on the cutting edge is what makes life exciting, but is excitement the goal of our gathering?
We need to remember worship is not what we make it. Our primary pursuit in serving our congregation should be to select songs that are used to authentically speak to and hear from God, regardless of when the songs were written. As a worship leader and artist, I love discovering new songs, but my pursuit of revelancy becomes irrelevant when it reflects the culture around me more than the Christ within me (as A. W. Tozer suggests in A Disruptive Faith: Expect God to Interrupt Your Life, Bethany House Publishers, 2011).
This fear and pressure to be relevant among worship leaders today can be dispelled if we return to our Source. When God chooses our song list, it will be timeless – more relevant than anything we create, since God knows the heart of each person He created and can speak to those hearts through the songs He inspires. So, before we search for what’s new in worship, we first need to consult the One our worship is for.
Melissa Davis is director of the music and worship arts department at Tyndale University in Toronto.
I’ve lived through every part of these curves, I even experienced a CCLI #1, and its inevitable fall off the charts. Part of that is just the way things are – even songs follow the pattern of seasons like the rest of life. However, the acceleration of these curves and the media culture we live in do give me pause.
Instead of a healthy pace of change, our disposable song culture is in danger of becoming deformative. We need to choose our songs with thoughtfulness and care, because the songs we sing repeatedly will either form us or deform us.
When the songs tell the story of love, service and wonder, they form us into good and beautiful humans who care for the earth, love God, neighbour and self. If our song selection censors out honesty and the sound of lament and only declares the story of power, strength and greatness (even the greatness of God!), these songs become unbalanced and deformative, priming us for a characterless Christianity. Pace of change and content matter because both are formative.
Brian Doerksen is a Canadian songwriter, recording artist, speaker and songwriting instructor. His latest release is Hymns for Life.
Anneli Loepp Thiessen
This fascinating and important study highlights the influence of one of the most important developments in the history of contemporary worship music – the rise of a contemporary worship music industry.
Over the past 30 years we have seen a significant shift in how songs were written and distributed. Before the 1990s it was common for songwriters to write songs during their devotionals, share the songs with their churches, and then witness the slow spread of a song. Today, however, it is most common for songs to be written by collaborations of leading songwriters at a publisher, quickly recorded through a record label, and then promoted to congregations through worship concerts, album releases and social media.
The industry thrives when new songs emerge and are adopted at a fast pace. There are benefits to this model, such as the possibility of learning songs that were written to speak to a specific time and place, and listeners that remain engaged because of consistent new releases. There are also drawbacks, with some congregants unable to keep up with a steady stream of new music, and worship leaders needing to constantly vet new material. It will be interesting to see how song timelines continue to change to reflect a rapidly growing contemporary worship music industry.
Anneli Loepp Thiessen is an interdisciplinary musicologist and a PhD candidate in interdisciplinary music research at the University of Ottawa.
We think our cover stories would be great to discuss with your small group or Bible study. Point members to www.FaithToday.ca/WorshipMusic.
- Here’s an easy one (or maybe it will be tough). What is your favourite contemporary worship song, and why?
- The worship leaders we asked to interact with this research raise some concerns. Which concerns, if any, do you share?
- This issue of Faith Today includes an interview with the director of Imago, who speaks about how churches can encourage artists. How can you encourage the musicians and worship leaders of your church?