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Like That New Church Worship Song? Chances Are, It Will Be Gone Soon.

By Bob Smietana
A new study found that the lifespan of a hit worship song has declined dramatically in recent years. (Photo by Rachel Coyne/Unsplash/Creative Commons)

The most popular worship song in churches these days is “Build My Life,” from Bethel Music, the megachurch-based worship music hit machine based in Northern California.

Sitting at number one on the top 100 worship song chart from Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI), which licenses worship music, “Build My Life,” first released in 2016, is an outlier in worship music, where hit songs are here today and gone tomorrow.

A new study entitled “Worship at the Speed of Sound,” from Southern Wesleyan University professor Mike Tapper and colleagues, found that the lifespan of a hit worship song has declined dramatically in recent years.

In the mid-1990s, a popular song like “Refiner’s Fire,” or “In the Secret” had a lifespan of about a dozen years, rising for 4-5 years before hitting a slow decline. Two decades later, that lifespan has dropped down to 3-4 years, with songs like “Even So Come” or “Here as in Heaven” rising rapidly, then disappearing, according to the study, based on 32 years of CCLI data.  

In an interview Tapper said he and his colleagues, including Marc Jolicoeur, a worship pastor from New Brunswick, Canada, had been seeing the increased pace and churn rate of new music and wanted to quantify it. Tapper, chair of the religion division at Southwestern Wesleyan, had already been studying the lyrics of worship songs when he got ahold of the CCLI data.

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Tapper said the pace of new music, driven by technology, which allows new songs to be distributed far and wide quickly, has played a role in the declining lifespan of songs. So has the high quality of songs being produced, he said, which gives church leaders an overwhelming number of options.  

“It is hard to say no to great songs,” he said.

tapper ccli worship
Mike Tapper (Courtesy Photo)

Tapper and his team are trying to walk a fine line. They’re glad people are writing worship songs and are eager to sing God’s praises. But they worry about the unintended consequences of turning worship music into a disposable commodity­ — something Tapper says reflects the influence of the broader culture on churches.

While some songs buck the trend — like “In Christ Alone,” which turns 20 this year, or “10,000 Reasons,” which is still going strong after a decade — many songs disappear. 

“It really does seem that we are on a rampage in terms of the quest for novelty kind of in our broader culture,” he said. “And evangelical churches are keen on reflecting that culture.”

Chris Walker, pastor of worship and arts at Covenant Life Church in Grand Haven, Michigan, also suspects the churn of worship music reflects the way Americans consume media in general, where “everything is immediate and has a short shelf life.”

chris walker ccli worship
Chris Walker (Courtesy Photo)

“They feed the algorithm because they are part of the cycle,” he said. “I could see that in churches that are always singing new songs and seeing what sticks. That’s not a bad thing.”

Walker’s church, which is part of the Christian Reformed Church, uses mostly contemporary songs during worship, but they mix it up with some hymns. They take what he called a “slower church” approach to worship and are not in a rush to use the newest songs.

A few times a year, Walker will put together a playlist of songs and send them to the team that helps plan worship at Covenant Life. That list will include brand-new songs but could also feature older songs people want to bring back. So it might take six months or more for a new song to make its way into worship, he said.

Recently, the church brought back two older songs for Palm Sunday. Both were popularized by Chris Tomlin, one of the nation’s most influential worship leaders, two decades ago: “You Are My King” and “We Fall Down.” And both really connected with the congregation. The song choices bucked church music trends, said Walker.

“In a lot of churches, a song has to be either 300 years old — or it has to be three days old,” he said. “The middle ground is purgatory.”

Will Bishop, a former church worship leader and now assistant professor of worship leadership at Mississippi College, said his students often feel anxious and worried they are missing out on the next big thing in worship music. They essentially have “FOMO” — the fear of missing out — when it comes to worships songs, he said.

Bishop said he tries to remind aspiring worship leaders not to overwhelm the people in their churches with new music.

“We want to move on to the next shiny thing, but our people can only absorb new songs so fast,” he said.

When Bishop began leading worship, he had access to a hymnal and then to lists of new worship songs from publishers. Now he has endless options, with more coming each day.

“Spotify is the new hymnal,” he said.

steven guthrie worship ccli
Steven Guthrie (Photo courtesy Belmont University)

Steven Guthrie, a former church musician turned theology professor at Belmont University in Nashville, wonders if the decline of hymnals plays a role in the pace of new worship music.

In the past, he said, church musicians had hymnals filled with hundreds of songs for every occasion in a church’s life at their fingertips. Now, as many churches have abandoned hymnals, musicians are trying to fill that void.

While new songs are important, said Guthrie, there are some downsides. Songs can create community, he said, something that takes time and is hard to do when songs disappear so quickly. Songs are also no longer passed down from parents and grandparents to younger generations — and there isn’t time for a song to work its way into people’s hearts, he said.

When his mother was dying, said Guthrie, he and his sisters stood for hours at her bedside, singing one hymn after another that they had memorized — all songs their mom knew.

“Sometimes I think, what are my kids going to sing by my bedside?” he mused. 

Bob SmietanaBob Smietana is a national reporter for Religion News Service.



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33 Responses

  1. This trend has been true of the American church scene since the 19th century. After the Civil War, hundreds of books of popular-style Gospel songs were published, with songs being promoted by traveling evangelists and their musicians. There are entire books of songs by names familiar to hymn-lovers (Robert Lowry, Fanny Crosby, Ira D. Sankey) that hardly anyone would recognize today. Perhaps the turnover is faster now due to electronic means of distribution, but the general drift is the same.

    And don’t forget the very early “Praise” books from the 1970s-80s by Maranatha. Every new edition (which came out every 2-3 years) dropped many songs from the previous version and had a load of new material. Integrity/Hosanna issued substantial new books of entirely new material multiple times per year.

    1. I was thinking the same thing. Only a tiny fraction of the songs that were written in the 19th century survived to be printed in the hymnal we used at my church growing up. Maybe “In Christ Alone” is my generation’s “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” Of course the pace is faster now because of technological changes. But it’s the same process, and bemoaning it has a bit of a “kids these days” ring. That said, I do see the argument for keeping good songs around as a way of building community and continuity with the past. I can hear a hymn or worship song I led with my mom back in the day, and two decades later it still takes me back. Maybe this is just part of the job now as a worship leader- carefully stewarding your repertoire to balance tried and true with new and fresh. Anyway, God is honored (or not) by people’s hearts, not the words or the beat, so I think it’s OK if we choose whatever music is meaningful to the people singing it.

      1. I miss the hymns that needed nothing more than an organ, but if the new rock and roll and rap draws in the young. then that’s ok with me. I just sit outside till the message is ready to be shared.

        1. Gary, I can whole heartedly I agree with your first sentence and your last sentences. The middle sentence not so much. I think a lot of young people can’t take the raucous noise any more than I can. Songs that can’t rhyme and seem to repeat verses endlessly, probably are not much more pleasant to young people who’ve had music training, some education, and most importantly, are Christian can’t really tolerate either!

      2. “Anyway, God is honored (or not) by people’s hearts, not the words or the beat, so I think it’s OK if we choose whatever music is meaningful to the people singing it.”
        I think there’s some truth to this… but I believe form matters too… (evangelicalism seems to think it doesn’t…but they rarely actually live that belief out…nobody waits till everyone’s heart is on the right page before setting up all kinds of habitual forms…like church services, ‘worship’ times, etc) I see it as a both/and, particularly when looking at Scripture. Did God wait till every Israelite heart was right before He set up the form of the tabernacle and its worship? Based on that and many other Biblical patterns, I’d argue God sets up a form first and then invites humans to participate (or not if they so choose) So form does matter and it may often be intended to come first… that in turn implies that some “forms” may not be coming from a good place or motivation or the fruit they bare is rotten… so maybe they should be avoided, regardless of what people’s “hearts (ever inclined to wickedness) want or feel… Form matters, even though many modern christians talk as if it doesn’t.

        1. Hmm. I’m not sure what “form” you think I’m saying doesn’t matter. Whatever songs we sing in a service, they are embedded in some sort of “form”. Being flexible about the specific music we use and considering what will resonate with a particular congregation isn’t the same as throwing structure out the window. Also, I’m not sure what the giving of the Law has to do with what worship music we sing.

  2. Has it ever occurred to worship leaders that people might appreciate some traditional hymns if they ever had the chance to hear them? Maybe many of them became classics for a reason.
    Why do they assume that only the top 100 hits are worth singing?

    1. I certainly do agree with you…the old gospel hymns have a wonderful message for any age.

  3. Having been in Christian radio for years I have noticed the transformation from 4 songs from the hymnal to a 25 minute concert from the worship team. I remember one Sunday turning to my wife and saying “we’re singing the station’s playlist!”.

      1. sad. Remember congregational singing when you could hear the folk around you. Now you can’t hear anything over the pounding of the speakers.
        Especially noticeable after the Christian entities sold out to secular interests 15-20 years ago. It’s all about moving product and selling merch.

  4. It’s for the best, really. The music being used in many of the Big Box Religious Outlet Stores is so devoid of content and actual Christian theology as to be useless for meaningful worship anyway.

  5. I hav been a worship leader for over 30 years. Don’t do it much these days but IMO there needs to be a revival in the area of wha we call “Worship”. In Ruth very little worship of God takes place. Most songs are feel good songs, that express our love for Christ, ask something of him, or encourage each of us in our walk. There is a place for these tunes in a worship set but now they seem to dominate the “worship” set. Psalm 29 says to “Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name’ The best model of a worship song is in Revelation 4 where “Holy Holy Holy Lord God almighty who was and is and is to come”.No mention of the word “I” or me. For what it’s worth the sooner the songs of today make their way thru the church the better.

    1. A lot of “I” and “me,” not to mention requests and raw (and frequently ugly) emotion, in the Psalms though. Just sayin.

      1. Fine point, Carolynn. However, I think I’m going to make an application that you aren’t implying.

        I understand that not all within Christendom are going to adopt exclusive psalmody, but the church can only benefit by singing the very words and prayers found in Holy Scripture.

        Psalters (translations of the Psalms set to music) make fine hymn books (or projected lyrics).

        1. “the church can only benefit by singing the very words and prayers found in Holy Scripture”

          You’re right that that is not the application I intended at all. I only meant that the psalms include examples of highly personal prayers. As far as I have heard, in their original context these were used in collective worship right alongside the grander, “glorify the Lord” type. I would say the Psalms model a range of ways we can collectively and individually address God. I am not sure on what basis one could argue that only direct quotes from scripture should be used in worship. Aside from anything else, this would render void many old, fruitful and beautiful musical and prayer traditions, not just the modern praise and worship everyone loves to hate.

    2. Agreed. I’ve been a Christian for decades and have noticed a shift in worship songs as well. The songs we sing now are perfectly fine for personal worship (where the focus is me and how I feel about God) but not for corporate worship where the focus is on God. Also, men don’t connect with romantic love language in the songs. Someone said if they didn’t mention God or Jesus, these songs could pass off as love songs on the radio, and they’re not wrong. Lastly, can we please have singable songs?? Many of these songs are radio-type songs meant to be sung by a lead singer, not a congregation of worshippers. I’m tired of the loud concert atmosphere with a darkened room and the fog machine. Why do we even need a fog machine?!

      1. Check out Eastern Orthodox Christian churches where very little has changed for almost 2000 years including the music. As a former evangelical I don’t miss the praise band one bit.

    3. Churches need to start writing their own music and songs aligned to proper theology. But you will have to go without the tracks unless can make them yourself.

  6. It saddens me to see we chose worship songs from Bethel Elevation and Hillsong…
    3 churches that are part of the NAR and have so much wrong theology at their pulpits.. but we see nothing wrong with singing their music on our churches!!!

  7. We listened to a Belmont choir sing John 1 last Christmas and it was so moving! We do appreciate when voice and the Word are clearly heard above any other “noise” – perhaps acapella we prefer.

  8. “Sometimes I think, what are my kids going to sing by my bedside?” he mused.

    This is not a bad question to ponder. In the old days, if you paid attention and tried to sing in church from a hymnal of 500 songs, I would bet one could have a pretty good recall of about 300 songs. Now we learn 300 songs in a year! And by learn, I mean that we heard them slide by our ears.

    I helped plan music for several funerals of family members. Hymns buried deep in the soul make that work easier to accommodate.

    The Stanley Brothers “Who Will Sing One Song for Me” is a great song that ponders the researcher’s question.

  9. In the church I grew up they were singing hymnals from the 1700s with lyrics taken directly from the King James Version.

    So to me, change is a good thing.

  10. god gave us a library of worship songs — the psalms. this is what more churches should be using.

  11. Having led worship for teens and adults for 30 years I have a particular response to all who lament not being able to have the exact songs they want in church…you got a walkman or an ipod? You got a car or home stereo? You got Amazon music? There is absolutely no excuse for you to go a single day without worshipping God to any song you want for as long and loud or quiet as you want.
    I can worship God when anything called worship music is presented because I dont care about style or arrangement. I care about the one to whom it is directed.
    The great Psalmist of Israel wrote, “I will sing to the Lord a new song” New songs are not written a hundred or 50 or 10 years ago. They are written recently.
    Gods Spirit is still anointing psalmists to write prophetically for the hour in which we live and the challenges we face. I am so encouraged by the beauty, edification and the sound theology I see in many new songs coming forth. I celebrate the fact that unbeleivers or prodigal children can walk into a church for the first time and be touched by a musical message that says “God knows where you are coming from, hear his heart for you being incarnated into your human culture by the Spirit who is drawing you.”
    Finally I would encourage all seasoned saints to beware of the subtle poison of resentment towards divine innovation. When we go to church and start scoring things as too this or not enough that, we may very well be turning our heads as the Savior walks by.
    Just enter in and see what God can do in you with something new!

    1. Well said. Of course listening to your own preferred music in your car or on earbuds isnt the same as singing in a group. And I do think we need to be considerate of the fact that the music that will be compelling to one group of people (younger or not churchgoers) does not resonate with others. Folks with fond memories of the old hymnals should hear music that speaks to them too. But I love your point about the psalms being “new songs” at one time . And “divine innovation” is a great phrase. Is that yours or did someone else coin that?

  12. It’s more of a practical issue than most people want to admit. Practically speaking, for a very long time, the only option for worship songs was buying a set of printed hymnals, which was relatively expensive, so they had to stick with those hymnals for decades, like it or not. Anyone writing hymns after than hymnal was printed or that didn’t get their song into the hymnal was out of luck getting it to people to sing corporately. Who knows how many outstanding pieces of music we lost in that time because the entry barrier to church music was so high.

    Now songwriters (I’m not a songwriter and don’t aspire to be one) can get their music out there more easily without having to get it into a hymnal and waiting for churches to buy new hymnals. So there’s just a higher volume of new music because screens are available to show it to a congregation without investing in printed songbooks.

    So, it’s much ado about nothing, really. It’s just characteristic of the times and tools available to people. Each one has its pros and cons, neither is better or worse.

    What’s worse is churches who stick with either contemporary or traditional music and don’t mix both into services. That’s failure of American Christianity. Both have high quality contributions to make to worship and this either or mindset that plagues us is foolishness. I did attend a church that did 2 hymns and 2 contemporary songs you would hear on Christian radio every week that were on the same theme as the sermon. They got it right, but they’re the rare exception.

  13. In the late 80’s I tried getting into the Vineyard new music they were cranking out and I just could not do it. I realized then that something was very wrong and it took me time to figure it out. The commercialization and mammonization of “Worship Music,” I have become convinced, is a simple abomination to God. It is not about how old or new the songs are, or the style. The only worship that God accepts is that which is done in Spirit and Truth. There is little truth in much of the garbage this industry turns out, and the spirit? It is too often about the narcissism of the writers and performers and the money and popularity of “churches” like Bethel and Hillsong which are both really cults that have little in common with 1st century Christians. I do not listen to this stuff, and a few years I finally decided I was not going to sing along with any of it. Worship is a personal thing. It is not a fun rock concert sing along song. This has become, not about God and his goodness and greatness, but about our own pleasure and trying to please ourselves. There is no worship in any of that.

  14. Back in the 1980s we used to sing “choruses,” which were simply scripture verses (often from the Psalms) put to music. They were only a few sentences long, with simple melodies that were easy to memorize. Now, when my heart is aching, or when I am overwhelmed with love for my Savior, it is those choruses from long ago that come to my mind. How nourishing is it to our spirits to sing the Word of God! Today’s songs are often theologically weak, or even misleading. They reach the emotions, but not the mind. Bring back the simple scripture chorus so the next generation can hide the Word deep in their hearts.

  15. During the Jesus movement in the seventies I helped lead worship in a few non-denominational, Spirit-filled fellowships. Most of the songs came out of Maranatha scripture-based material, were well loved, and held on for years, and, in fact are still sung to this day by many of my long-held Christian friends. I’m not one to spend much time with learning the newest stuff that’s coming out mostly because I’ve read that so much of the material is written about, and focuses on, the person, rather than the attributes and character traits of our Lord. I’ve read that too many of them are about the believer rather than our Father.

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