My friend, Warren Smith, who is an influential journalist in the Carolinas occasionally publishes a guest article in this blog. I’m publishing this one which is actually an except from a book he is writing. I found his perspective on this eye-opening and thought-provoking and I thought some of my readers might as well.
God, Mammon, and the Worship Wars
by Warren Smith
COMMENTARY–If youve been to a church at any time in the past 30 years, you have no doubt been subjected to the worship wars. Contemporary vs. Traditional. Modern vs. Postmodern. The worship wars have been fought in virtually every evangelical church at some time during the past generation. Those on the traditional side say the conflict is ultimately a matter of theology. Those on the contemporary side say it is ultimately a matter of relevance.
Ive got my own opinions about this question, and just for the record let me say that Im a traditionalist when it comes to matters of worship. When I hear people talk about relevance, I want to ask: Relevant to whom? Any attempt at relevance is by definition an exclusionary activity. Attempts to be culturally relevant to a teenager are exclusionary for an elderly widow. The Body of Christ should be about bringing the teenager and the grandmother together, not driving them apart. The purpose of true biblical worship is not to change it to suit us or an arbitrarily defined target market. The purpose of biblical worship is to transform us. It should proclaim the glory of God, and be a means of grace by which we are transformed. Worship is a sacrifice, not an entertainment.
But that is not really the point I want to make here. The real point I want to make that in this arena as in many others of evangelical worship and culture today money is the real driving force, and most evangelicals dont even know it.
To understand this, consider that when a congregation sings Martin Luthers A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, no money changes hands. But when that same congregation sings God of Wonders, written by Steve Hindalong and Marc Byrd, both men and their music publishing company, get a small payday. Why is that? Because A Mighty Fortress is in the public domain, but God of Wonders is owned by Hindalong and Burd and both they and their publishers have an economic self interest in seeing that these songs are sung and played in churches around the country.
This phenomenon of Sunday morning worship becoming not a day of praise, but a day of pay, is a recent one. It can be traced to the birth of an organization called Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI). CCLI collects fees from churches and then pays the copyright holders keeping a percentage for itself, of course. The size of the copyright fee depends on the size of the church, but a 500-member church would pay about $300 per year. Currently, approximately 140,000 churches are CCLI license holders. That means that $40- to $50-million per year is collected and re-distributed to copyright owners.
And this large and growing number is just one part of the CCLI empire. CCLI also allows churches to pay additional fees to use movie clips as sermon illustrations.
Its probably no coincidence that the CCLIs founding in 1984 corresponds more or less with the beginning of explosive growth in the contemporary Christian music industry, and with the growth of worship music in particular. Now, a kind of unholy trinity exists that has turned the ministry of Christian music into the industry of Christian music. Christian radio promotes the songs, the churches use them in worship, and CCLI collects fees for the copyright holders. The big winners are the Christian record companies, many of them now owned by secular corporations, who sell records into the millions. The big loser is the church itself, which now pays to have itself marketed to every Sunday morning at 11 am.
Contrast this with the old method. Hymn books contain songs that are mostly in the public domain and have little or no licensing fees. They have historically been published by denominational publishers who make them available to congregations more or less at cost. They were not aggressively marketed or promoted because they are typically denominationally specific, reflecting the doctrine and liturgy of a particular church. But that is a key point: the hymnals are informed by and reinforce the theology of the church. Said plainly, hymnals are discipleship tools.
Contemporary worship songs, on the other hand, are a revenue stream for copyright holders and music publishers. They are aggressively promoted and now make up a significant share of the $4.5-billion Christian retail market.
Indeed, no matter which side you are on in these worship wars, both sides can agree on this simple observation: for the most part, the traditionalists have lost this fight, at least in the evangelical church. Virtually every one of the 100 largest and 100 fastest growing churches on Outreach magazines annual list of the largest and fastest growing churches in America is a church that has one or more so-called contemporary services. Indeed, most of these churches have no traditional services at all.
And that, my friends, is a tragedy another triumph of Mammon in the modern evangelical church.
Warren Smith is the publisher of The Charlotte World. This article is excerpted from his upcoming book A Lovers Quarrel With The Evangelical Church, due out later this year by Spence Publishing. You can email your reactions to this article at firstname.lastname@example.org