Exploring the Christian worship music industry.
There is no denying that worship music has become an industry. The controversy surrounding the issue is based on the implications “industry” has on the act of worshiping God through music. When I originally approached this topic, I vehemently rejected the worship music industry. After speaking with a few local pastors and ministers of worship, I began to see that the issue isn’t as black and white as I had wanted to imagine.
Churches across the globe are worshiping God through the songs of artists like Chris Tomlin and Matt Redman. These artists sing some of the most well-known worship songs and are the biggest names in the industry. The nature of the industry, however, is problematic. Chris Tomlin, The David Crowder Band, and Matt Redman are or have been signed to sixstepsrecords, a label whose motto is to “produce music that draws people to Jesus.” The songs written by these artists are copyrighted; in order to play these songs during a church service, churches have to pay through Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI), which profits both the artist and the record label. The point here is that churches are paying to worship God while artists and labels are bringing in profit. Many find the idea of a Christian industry contradictory.
Another issue that arises is that of quality and theological correctness. Once artists and bands enter into an industry, their music becomes a commodity that must be produced at a certain rate to meet demand. Releasing their first album under sixstepsrecords in 2002, The David Crowder Band put out six full length albums ranging from 10 to 34 songs each, one live album, five eps, and multiple collaborations in the span of 10 years. Chris Tomlin released his first album under sixstepsrecords in 2001, releasing six more full length albums, an “essential songs” collection, a Christmas album, and has been incorporated in 16 Passion event albums. In the secular music scene, big name bands release far fewer full-length albums in the same span of years. Coldplay has released 4 albums since their debut album Parachutes in 2000; Muse has released six albums since 1999; in 37 years of being a band, U2 has released only half as many more full length albums than The David Crowder Band released in 10 years.
While these numbers don’t directly correlate with the quality of music being released, it is an indication that mainstream worship music is produced in large quantities over a shorter than average period of time. Is it possible that the integrity, personally for the artist and in terms of theological correctness, of this music is being compromised by the nature of its production? Worship music plays a large and important role in today’s evangelical community – it is fair, even right to ask these questions.
Where do we go from here? My original reaction was to reject worship music produced within the industry. After speaking with a few local pastors, I’ve begun to take a more balanced stance. Pastor at Reality Church, Kristian Martens says, “It’s easy to be cynical about [the worship music industry] and that people are going to make what can sell but I like to see the redemption... Just because it’s being made with money doesn’t mean there is no truth in it.” While Reality plays more hymns (which are public domain) than industry worship and encourages the musical members of its community by worshipping God with music written by church members, the mainstream worship music plays an important role. Based in Vancouver, Reality reaches out to people who have never heard the Gospel or have no context for Christianity. Mainstream worship music can provide the needed context. The questions we really need to be asking are, is the song theologically correct?
Ben Gadd, Deacon of Worship Arts at Westside Church, says, “There are good things and bad things about it – I play a lot of songs by Chris Tomlin and Mat Redman who are distributed by a company... But worship is a state of our heart – there are people who take that and manipulate it– it’s up to the people who use them. I could sing a song written by someone who didn’t love Jesus but sing it with in my heart and [it would be true for me].”
At one point in the interview, Pastor Martens told me, “You’re a university student – this is the most cynical time of your life. It’s important to go through that. But we shouldn’t throw guys who are on our team under the bus”. This sums up a lot of what is being said: industry worship is an important issue to discuss; as a responsible Christian it’s vital to question social and cultural structures that impact our faith. On the other hand, we need to be careful in our criticisms and take into account that we’re on the same team as the artists in the industry. Let’s continue to challenge social structures that compromise the legitimacy of our worship while keeping in mind the hearts of those who wrote it.