Singing songs from churches mired in abuse scandals or grappling with failures in leadership is financially supporting something that Christians should be opposed to, says Tom Read. We need to rely less on a fast-food diet of imported worship if the Church wants to be truly healthy
For several years I’ve been concerned with the lack of diversity in the songs sung in our churches. The world has woken up to the need for better inclusion and representation across all spheres yet, when it comes to worship music, the lack of variety is particularly troubling.
This is why I was intrigued to read the recent Worship Leader Survey Report 2022. The survey was done in America, but observation suggests the trends are reflected throughout the Western church. The research shows that most of the worship songs we sing come from the ‘Big 4’ churches - Bethel, Elevation, Hillsong and Passion.
While these megachurches are undoubtedly skilled and experienced in songwriting, two out of four have had their reputations mired either by moral and leadership failure or theological and political controversy. But, interestingly, the majority of the 400+ worship leaders surveyed said they are still willing to sing their songs.
Picture offering a plate of steamed veg to a child who has only ever eaten fast food. It’s hard to compete with that
The findings present two questions that I think we should grapple with. Firstly, is it healthy for us to be sourcing our songs from such a small pool? And secondly, should we be singing songs that come from unhealthy environments?
In considering this, food is a helpful analogy. Collectively, we are increasingly aware of the intertwined ethical, environmental and health issues around what we eat. Some people ignore these issues; some make small adjustments. For others, they become a hill to die on. What is clear is that this increased awareness has resulted in change. Locally sourced ingredients, organic labelling and farm-to-fork menus abound.
So what about the ethics of worship music? As a worship leader, I’ve been on my own journey with how I choose the songs we sing at church. In the past, I’ve tended to focus solely on the musical quality of the songs and the theology contained within them. While these remain important factors, I can no longer turn a blind eye to a song’s origins. This feels especially pertinent in light of the recent scandals rocking the Christian world.
How can we collectively decry acts of abuse in an organisation while continuing to fund it by consuming its products? The inconvenient reality is that by choosing to sing a song, we are also choosing to financially support the people behind it. It’s how the industry works. But I’ve realised that, as someone in charge of selecting songs for my church to sing, I have an opportunity to help change the patterns that have led to where we are today.
The church looks to the ‘Big 4’ because their songs are good. They have perfected the art of platform building and the formula for feel-good tunes that hit just the right spots. It’s like food science.
Congregations both big and small seem to be conditioned for a certain on-brand experience from a musical worship set. But this does not bode well for local songwriters. The odds of even their own church wanting to sing their songs are discouragingly low. Picture offering a plate of steamed organic vegetables to a child who has only ever eaten a diet of fast food. It’s hard to compete with that.
How can we decry acts of abuse in an organisation while continuing to fund it by consuming its products?
I believe it’s time to adjust the balance so that the Church can re-learn the benefits of a good, home-cooked meal. If we agree that market domination by just a few megachurch corporations is not healthy, why would we be comfortable with the same thing happening in our churches?
Diversity in worship requires us to be willing to embrace music that sounds different, and is perhaps not always penned by a name, or brand, we know. These songs might not give us the instant goosebumps or hands-in-the-air emotional highs we’ve grown used to - and the change might not seem immediately tasty.
But I believe that, over time, our palettes will adjust as we embrace a healthier worship diet, while encouraging new songs and creativity to spring up in churches all around the world.
I look forward to the day when I can walk into any local church and hear some homegrown worship songs being sung alongside those ‘Big 4’ numbers.