top of page

Who Owns Your Christmas Carols?

No, Kim Hill didn't write 'O Holy Night.' But she holds a copyright for it.

You can "Go Tell It on the Mountain" 149 different ways this Christmas season.

The go-to website for evangelical church worship music boasts over 200 copyrighted versions of the medieval hymn "O Come O Come Emmanuel." Christian Copyright Licensing, Inc. (CCLI) also lists 122 licensed versions of "O Holy Night" and 202 versions of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing." Most have the same tune as the public domain versions, but feature new bridges or arrangements.

Your church is likely to be singing a licensed Christmas carol this December, thanks to a cycle of convenience, CCM influence, musical skills, and church identity. Today's worship world has a distinct push for new, cheap songs written for a lead singer plus a praise band, rather than the old, free songs written for keyboard instruments and a congregation.

Most worship songs from the past 100 years are under copyright. Churches can legally use them by buying hymnals, which denominations sell nearly at cost at about $10 per copy. Or, music directors can contact and pay copyright holders directly. Since the late 1980s, churches have also been able to buy subscriptions to licenses through companies such as CCLI, OneLicense, and LicenSingOnline.

CCLI charges an annual fee of $50 to $4,500, based on attendance. Since 84 percent of churches have fewer than 500 congregants, buying an annual CCLI subscription (under $230) has been an economical choice for many congregations.

Online licensing sites are economical for churches and can provide lyrics, music scores, and accompaniment tracks all at the same time—something not available for Christmas carols in most hymnals. Because of the convenience of online music services, Ben Lynerd, director of music at Chicago's Holy Trinity Church, says his average-sized church of 250 worshippers has never been tempted to buy hymnals.

When church music directors want to find a new worship song, 28.8 percent will look for something they've already heard on the radio, 28.48 percent will find a new song on the Internet, and 6 percent will track down a song they heard at a music conference, according to survey data CCLI collects.

This is a change from the past, says Greg Scheer, minister of worship at Church of the Servant in Grand Rapids, Mich., and author of a forthcoming book on CCLI and congregational music. He pegs the tipping point to 1990, when CCLI solidified its influence as more churches signed up and its Top 25 song list narrowed what music was played in member churches. This produced a "self-referential world" of CCM, CCLI, and churches.

"All of this stuff is not neutral," said Scheer. "There's a very significant promotional mechanism."

The system can tempt songwriters to write songs (or tweak old ones) to appear on CCM billboard charts and then the CCLI website, thus becoming the versions churches pay royalties on.

"There are those who are going, 'Wow, this can be a great [source of] revenue'—and it has been a tremendous blessing. It could induce people to write songs to make the CCLI list," said CCLI president Howard Rachinski. "We are able to be impartial."

A shift in musical capabilities has also caused churches to turn to licensed music. Now that most churches have praise bands and not pianos as lead instruments, their musical choices are limited, says Barry Liesch, coordinator of the Music in Worship Program at Biola University.

"We have 55 students who are worship majors. We're having trouble finding pianists [but] we've got guitarists," said Liesch. "We need students who can both read music and improvise."

Hymnal music is often written in keys and time signatures not conducive to guitar. Even when it is, hymns led by praise bands can sound "tacky," says Scheer. Rather than embarrass themselves, many praise bands opt for licensed, guitar-friendly songs.

Praise bands rose along with another trend Scheer and Rachinski find alarming and anti-Reformational: the "lead worshipper" singing in "presentation or entertainment mode." This is partly in imitation of the radio-centric music incorporated by churches. "The reality is if you're going to do a CD or perform, you have to have songs that make your voice sound good," said Scheer. "No one's going to tour with 'Seek Ye First.'"

Not all new worship music passes through the CCM industry or emphasizes performance of soloists. Lynerd and other members of Holy Trinity occasionally write music to fill in gaps or adjust the tone of a song. For example, Lynerd wrote a new melody for "He Who Would Valiant Be," which had been set to a dated, mid-century "boppy waltz."

Aside from church music's corporate influences through radio and the Internet, another factor shapes church musical tastes: As churches shift away from identifying themselves by denomination toward identifying themselves by style, churches communicate their theological identity through their music, says Scheer. Musical style and theological identity hang together, he says, so a church's musical repertoire is becoming more and more important.

Rachinski hopes that the predominant style of worship music may be moving away from the entertainment format, pointing to the popularity of "Mighty to Save." "It's not that our worship needs to be culturally relevant. It's that our congregational culture needs to be worship-relevant," he said. "That's exactly what happened in the Reformation. It was a platform thing [that] became a people thing."

Even if worship style turns in a different direction, the content of hymnody may still be lost. Unless the hymns written over the last millennium are reinterpreted for guitars and praise bands, they may exit the repertoire of evangelical congregations altogether. But detailed information about how churches use public domain tunes and lyrics isn't available. "I'm not aware of any good social scientific research being done on this," said Lynerd. "There's a minefield of information out there [waiting to be explored]."

This article was originally published in Christianity Today and can be found online.

Search By Tags
Recent Posts
bottom of page