Church music has made an astonishing transformation over the past fifty years. This revolution can find its roots stretching back to the hippie days of the ’60s and early ’70s, when after becoming Christ-followers, these counter-culture castaways began attending churches like Calvary Chapel, Costa Mesa in California, writing their own praise songs, and forming bands to spread the Gospel. Maranatha! Music then became the unofficial record company of the Jesus Movement on the west coast of the United States, and Chuck Smith from Calvary Chapel, along with a handful of others, became the de facto pastors of the movement.
Over the years, this phenomenon surged into a worship music tidal wave that eventually flooded the entire country. By the ’80s, the deluge led to the creation of an out-of-the-mainstream, independent record company, Integrity Music in Mobile, Alabama. They began their ascent by distributing tapes of new worship songs every six weeks to subscribers. In the decades since, worshipers have seen thousands of these new songs transform people worldwide through their pop music-stylings, singable melodies and conversational lyrics.
The history of congregational singing goes back even further to the days of the early church, when liturgical texts were chanted. The Greek cultural influences of the time were borrowed and incorporated into songs of praise. Before the Reformation, congregational singing was not allowed by Catholic laypersons, but instead was performed in Latin by the clergy.
The invention of the printing press led to a proliferation of hymnals, out of which percolated some 250 ubiquitous hymns that would eventually bare an ecclesiastical “thumbs up,” deeming the selections proper for the flock. Congregations sang these songs in churches everywhere, and everyone knew these hymns by heart. Then, as if slamming on a huge air brake, with the use of desktop computers in worship, and with advancements in projection, American churches all but ditched the hymnal, in trade for praise songs displayed on a pull-down screen.
When thousands of pastors from various denominations began attending Promise Keeper rallies in the 90s, many who were skeptical about the new worship choruses were eventually won-over by the power of experiencing heart-felt worship first-hand. As a result of this life-changing experience, many pastors began allowing guitars, drums and rock music styles into their services, in hopes of capturing the same emotional and spiritual results they witnessed at the rallies. In time, they either augmented the ever-present choir, or began to dismiss the large vocal ensemble altogether.
As a cumulative result, there has been a significant decline in the market of printed music for church choirs. On the other hand, though, as a result of this bourgeoning new music genre, mainline recording companies–known for promoting Christian performance artists–began promoting worship songs, sung by “worship artists,” who then helped propel this new music in a steady upward trajectory.
Probably the most significant shift in worship music popularity happened when Michael W. Smith made his debut in “praise and worship” with his CD “Worship.” It was fatefully released on September 11, 2001, and included such classics as “Open the Eyes of My Heart,” “Forever,” and “The Heart of Worship.” Soon after, and probably due in part to a spiritual reaction to the 9/11 attacks, praise and worship started to become a popular radio format. Church attenders were hearing songs on the radio, as were the worship leaders and music directors, and this led to a barrage of more worship songs being introduced to the church through radio. As a result, new songs continued to find their way into the church.
Since its launch in October of 1988, the copyright licensing organization, CCLI, has grown to represent 200,000 churches with its stated mission (from the website): “a ministry of the Church and a service to the Church, to educate the Church about copyright laws, to protect the Church from the consequences of copyright infringements and to encourage greater utilization of copyrights in Church services.” Through the services of CCLI, ”The Church Copyright License is a contractual agreement with songwriters and publishers from around the world. For an annual license fee, a church receives legal authorization to copy from over 200,000 songs for congregational use.” A popular CCLI song has the potential to generate handsome revenues for all involved. For song writers like myself, CCLI provides a major portion of my income.
According to an article entitled “A Brief History Of Congregational Song” (Liturgies, Sonreign Media, Inc.), “Since 1950, there has been more music published for congregational singing than at any other time in the history of the church. Nearly every major denominational body, as well as many independent congregations and publishing companies, have produced official and supplementary hymnals and related collections of songs.
In an interesting blog post called, “Why Men Have Stopped Singing In Church,” David Morrow observes that the overwhelming amount of worship songs we feed our congregations may have a negative effect, and that our congregations are over-saturated by way too much. He wryly adds, “In short order we went from 250 songs everyone knows to 250,000+ songs nobody knows.”
In response to this dilemma, Morrow states that men “…are doers, and singing was one of the things we used to do together in church. It was a chance to participate. Now, with congregational singing going away, and communion no longer a weekly ordinance, there’s only one avenue left for men to participate in the service – the offering. Is this really the message we want to send to men? Sit there, be quiet, and enjoy the show. And don’t forget to give us money.”
Morrow goes on to suggest that if we are going to teach new songs to our congregation, we must be sensitive and allow time for the songs to permeate into the soul, for the worshiper to become emotionally connected with the material.
“Years ago, worship leaders used to prepare their flocks when introducing a new song. ‘We’re going to do a new song for you now. We’ll go through it twice, and then we invite you to join in’…There’s nothing wrong with professionalism and quality in church music.The problem isn’t the rock band, or the lights, or the smoke machine. The key here is familiarity. When that super-hip band performed a hymn, the crowd responded. People sang. Even the men.”
As the praise and worship phenomenon continues to be a generally positive move forward in congregational singing, we must continually check our motives and methods to assure that Christ is the true focus of our singing, and that our congregations are given the opportunity to make that connection.