In 2003, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America began creating a new hymnal. As part of a process called “Renewing Worship,” a national committee of experts combed through thousands of new and uncollected hymns, from which they compiled and issued test songbooks. At local parishes, our job was to try out the new songs in worship and report back on whether they were useful and theologically sound. The Renewing Worship team used our feedback to create the current official hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, a collection of 743 old and new hymns published by Augsburg Fortress in 2006.
My favorite test song was called “A Place at the Table,” a text by Shirley Erena Murray set to a lilting, Celtic-like tune by Lori True. My congregation liked it too. As you might guess from its title, the song calls for the Church to be radically inclusive: “For everyone born, a place at the table,” begins the first verse, with subsequent verses demanding places at the table “for woman and man,” “for young and for old,” and “for just and unjust.” The lyric read like a challenge, but to us relative liberals in the ELCA, it felt like a pat on the back. The women in the choir got a special kick out of the line, “For woman and man, a place at the table/ Revising the roles, deciding the share.” Our denomination had ordained women for years; we were already revising the roles. Surely this hymn was a shoo-in for the new hymnal.
Nope; when the hymnals were issued, “A Place at the Table” was no place to be found, expunged from the record, as though it had never existed! What had happened to it?
Then one day at another ELCA parish I serve, a member told me she took offense at “A Place at the Table.” I was confused, especially since this parish is very welcoming: they have an official “Reconciling in Christ” status, meaning they “publicly welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender believers,” offering all people (wait for it…) a place at the table. She pointed to a lyric I always had considered powerful but, to my shame, had never really considered: “For just and unjust, a place at the table/ Abuser, abused, with need to forgive.” From a theological standpoint, the line is true: nobody’s sin, not even the abuser’s, places them beyond God’s reach. But putting these words into the mouths of worshiping people is a heavier matter. The hymn forces the members of a congregation, some of whom have probably suffered abuse, to sing words that could dredge up old traumas or, worse, convince them to keep silent about ongoing assault. At the very least, the song requires a preamble and a trigger warning from any worship leader forcing people to sing it.
Members of the Renewing Worship hymn selection committee are reluctant to say publicly why this or any other hymn didn’t make the cut. But since the selection process did take place in 2003, when the news was full of stories about clergy abusing children, endorsing this line might have seemed tone deaf at best. The song’s text remains controversial; with a different tune, it found its way into the latest Presbyterian hymnal, sparking discussion on the Presbyterian social justice website, with the headline, “Can Inclusion Go Too Far?” (Bairby). If you belong to a Mainline Protestant denomination, ask yourself how their official hymnal selection committee would answer that question. Their answer might determine whether you will ever sing “A Place at the Table” in worship; unless, oddly enough, your local parish sings contemporary praise and worship music.
In that case, you probably use the online service SongSelect, run by a company called Christian Copyright Licensing International, or CCLI. Although some Mainline parishes, including both of the ones I serve, subscribe, CCLI is more the domain of charismatic, evangelical, and nondenominational congregations. These less hierarchical church bodies have access to “A Place at the Table,” along with lots and lots of other songs; the CCLI website says over three hundred thousand, roughly one hundred times the number found in all of the ELCA’s officially sanctioned hymnals put together. God’s gift of song abounds! Nevertheless, to anyone following the popular music industry in recent decades, the causes of this particular abundance will look familiar and earthly: evolving technology and audience demand for more choices.
When I was a kid and my Lutheran congregation wanted to know which song to sing, we looked up. At the front of the sanctuary was a hymn board with sliding numbers; we figured out which three-digit number we were singing, found the hymn with the corresponding number in our hymnals, and sang. For a local parish, these hymnals were a sizable investment of at least a couple thousand dollars. They were purchased from the church body’s publishing house, usually a non-profit corporation like Augsburg Fortress, using either money from the general budget or targeted donations. A Mainline Christian denomination could reliably expect to sell a few million of these hymnals over several years, funding a large portion of the publishing house’s operations for the next two decades or so, until they created the next edition of the hymnal. With few exceptions, if a song wasn’t in the hymnal, we wouldn’t sing it in church.
The photocopier changed hymn selection practices just as the cassette tape changed music listeners’ buying and discovering habits, although since the change occurred in the church, it was slower and less drastic. After the advent of the affordable photocopier in the late 1970s, parishes could distribute the words and music for songs that weren’t in the hymnal as inserts in the weekly bulletins. If the pastor found a new song at a conference or the youth learned a song at a youth gathering, the song was fair game. Usually nobody sought permission from the song’s copyright holder when they did this; often nobody knew they were supposed to get permission. Soon enough, churches began hearing from concerned copyright holders, sometimes in the form of lawsuits, and helpful for-profit services began stepping in to make the process easier for everyone (Miller).
The biggest of these is CCLI. In 1985, company founder Howard Rachinski was working as the music director at the non-denominational Bible Temple in Portland, Oregon. (Now a mega-congregation of 7,000, it goes by the name City Bible Church.) When the people of Bible Temple wanted to know which song to sing, they also looked up, at a screen. Rachinski had been projecting song lyrics of dubious legality until he heard the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago had lost a copyright infringement lawsuit. Realizing that requesting individual copyright permissions could be a full-time job, he organized CCLI, which now sells annual licenses to local churches for anywhere from fifty-five dollars to thousands of dollars a year, based on the size of membership. A license lets a parish print or project any of the hundreds of thousands of songs in the CCLI database. CCLI surveys its client parishes throughout the year to determine which songs they use, like a Nielsen survey, and then apportions the money it collects, like performance rights organizations (ASCAP, BMI) and streaming services (Spotify, Apple) do with pop songs.
How much money? In 2012, reports CNN, CCLI paid out $40 million to copyright holders (Marrapodi). A chunk of that went to Chris Tomlin, the “How Great Is Our God” composer who regularly places several songs in CCLI’s top twenty-five. Rachinski told CNN, “Our best guess would be in the United States on any given Sunday, 20 to 30 million people would be singing Chris Tomlin’s songs.” The article goes on to compare Tomlin’s numbers to those of pop superstar Katy Perry. Not only does this praise music take its musical cues from pop; its primary purveyor, CCLI, has also adopted pop’s accounting and charting practices.
SongSelect’s top 100 listing does serve a practical function; after all, sorting through 300,000 songs is hard work. For every smash hit like “How Great Is Our God,” an anodyne song that nevertheless moves its singers to genuine worship, CCLI contains a long list of songs far more troubling than “A Place at the Table.” Sometimes these songs indulge in faulty musical theology: “Another Drink” misquotes Ephesians (“Lord make me drunk with your Holy Spirit”), and “The Lord Reigns” sets Psalm 97 to a peppy, fist-pumping melody, including the line, “A fire goes before him! And burns up all his enemies!” Sometimes the songs’ politics distract from the noble task of adoration. No matter where your congregation stands on the balanced budget amendment, if they try to sing “Return to Righteousness America,” they will need divine assistance to scan the line, “Stop spending the inheritance of your children/ And return to living your life within your means.” The song “Abortion is Wrong” demonstrates conclusively that there is no good theological use for the word “blob.”
Granted, worship leaders hardly ever use some of these songs. But I could! As long as my parish maintains its CCLI license, I can lead these songs in worship whenever I want. I might not keep my job for very long, but I could go down swinging. To reach worshipers, “Another Drink” faced no official church selection committees; its only hurdle was belonging to a copyright holder covered by CCLI.
Even in Mainline denominations, the top-down model of hymn selection is eroding along with our weekly attendance numbers. Perhaps the ELCA’s most recent hymnal will be our last, to be replaced by our own online database. (We already have one, but it includes little beyond our official hymnals.) Partly this comes down to money; more parishes have forgone the expense of new pew hymnals, opting instead for the smaller annual fees and larger repertoires offered by subscription services. In one sense, this parallels a recent shift in popular music consumption: listeners are replacing à la carte album purchases with monthly subscription fees to streaming services like Spotify, placing much of recorded history at our fingertips.
This analogy breaks down, though, when we consider the different ways consumers and worshipers track their money. For pop listeners, the streaming revolution has led to less visibility in artist pay, sometimes bolstering the expectation that music should be free, or at least very cheap. Many streaming customers, who might previously have saved their money for specific artists’ albums, now see a small monthly charge on their bank statement and gorge on whatever music they want. Local parishes have almost always ceded the task of securing copyright permissions to publishing houses, so databases like SongSelect have the opposite effect: they make local parishes more aware of where our money goes. Hymnals themselves have always cost money, but as far as most people in the parishes knew, the hymns themselves were free. CCLI licenses render the flow of copyright money transparent to anyone who votes for their annual church budget.
As with every worship tool since polyphonic singing, the licensing model requires the discernment of worship leaders working with specific congregations. For every advantage hymn databases offer over hymnals—more choices, easy transposition, quick access to new songs—challenges arise. By assigning the church’s song an explicit price, however small, do we leave it vulnerable to the parsimony of congregations facing budget shortfalls? Do CCLI’s popularity charts help create a “rock star” culture of hero worship among praise composers? Whether shaped by committees or commerce, text or technology, worship’s renewal continues apace; our job is to make sure the tool does not overshadow its task.
Josh Langhoff is a church musician living in the Chicago area.
Bairby, Ginna. “Can Inclusion Go Too Far?” Unbound: An Interactive Journal of Christian Social Justice. December 19, 2013. http://justiceunbound.org/carousel/can-inclusion-go-too-far.
Marrapodi, Eric, and Tom Foreman. “Chris Tomlin, king of the sing-along.” CNN Belief Blog. March 9, 2013. http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/03/09/the-most-sung-artist-on-the-planet.
Miller, Mike. “Paying to sing: Churches required to pay for copies of songs.” Journal Star (Peoria, IL). May 24, 2008. http://www.pjstar.com/article/20080524/NEWS/305249988.