Two data specialists, a West Coast songwriter, a Wesleyan worship pastor and a Southern Wesleyan University (SWU) professor embark together on a study to answer a probing question. In the past three decades, how have the lifespans of our church songs changed? Evidently, based on CCLI Top 100 song-lists, dating back to 1988, the answer is … a lot!
From conception to arrival, songs charge into our church services four times faster now than in the 90s. Popular new songs are rising and declining three times as fast in our churches as well. “Christianity Today” published an article on their study in November 2021. “Worship Leader Magazine” is circulating the same study in their winter 2022 edition.
Those intrigued by these research findings quickly shift to the “why” and “so what” questions. The research group contends answers to the trends can be found in three main “explanation buckets:” technology, industry and culture.
Advances in technology have replaced hymnals with a digital hymnbook for an internet age. This enables songs to arrive at breakneck speed in our churches.
Furthermore, the songs we sing are part of a multimillion-dollar industry in which Christian worship music production and distribution is serious business for record labels, publishing companies and resource sites. These songs emerge within a larger “here today, gone tomorrow” culture that cannot be ignored. Altogether, these striking realities form the most prevalent reasons for the songs’ shrinking lifespans.
Is this bad? Moncton Wesleyan Church pastor, Marc Jolicoeur, is slow to throw stones. “In a real sense,” Rev. Jolicoeur says, “the quick arrival of these songs allows more people in more of our churches to be globally engaged in ways we could never have imagined in the past.”
Positively, he cites how “The Blessing,” a song released at the onset of the pandemic, served as an international anthem for many people in a very difficult time. On the other hand, though, Rev. Jolicoeur wonders if the “turn-style” nature of our current songs will keep us from holding onto these songs when we really need them the most in the future.
Southern Wesleyan University Professor Mike Tapper also speculates about how the short life cycle of these songs could affect our future spiritual development and depth. “In an Evangelical context with dwindling Biblical literacy and shrinking neuro-memory recall, songs are a primary source of our theologies,” Dr. Tapper argues. “If these songs are more quickly moving in and out of our consciousness, what does this say about who we will be and what we are becoming?”
Yet, Rev. Jolicoeur and Dr. Tapper remain hopeful. Apart from this study, there is evidence The Wesleyan Church wants to be a redemptive part of the complex answer.
Among our tribe, a network of gifted and passionate leaders is emerging. For example, the Wesleyan Worship Project, under the leadership of pastors Josh Lavender, Elisa Teller, Taylor Wilding and Jordan Rife, alongside other gifted songwriters, continues to offer gatherings that encourage Wesleyan songwriters who are compelled to consider current song trends and write rich songs that will stick.
Other Wesleyan academics, like Josh McNall (Oklahoma Wesleyan University), Emily Vermilya (Indiana Wesleyan University), Aaron Perry and Joel Hunt (Wesley Seminary) are also providing platforms for important questions to be asked about the songs we are singing and worship formation. These conversations are promising. New and robust songs are being written. Evangelicals beyond our tribe also seem to be taking notice.
But “How,” one asks, “might all this translate to our Wesleyan worship leaders?”
For starters, they ought to be encouraged that what they lead is truly important. The congregational music we share together, when we gather for worship, is neither a type of bait to draw people into our services nor mere fuel to “hype” the crowd before the sermon. It is among the stickiest elements of all — potentially one of the most formative elements.
What we sing matters. We become what we sing.
As such, worship leaders everywhere should find themselves thankful for the opportunity to lead in an era with so much resourcing at their disposal! Gone are the days of needing to scrounge for the right song to sing. Songs are much easier to find. In some ways, today is a type of “golden day” for worship leaders.
The challenge worship leaders now face is the one we all face, namely a type of “information abundance.” In the wake of so many options, worship leaders, pastors, congregations and denominational leaders need to keep their eye on the goal of worship, communion with God.
Emily Hoyt is a graduate of Southern Wesleyan University with a degree in religion and native of New Brunswick, Canada.
*To learn more about the Wesleyan Worship Project, read “The whys behind the write” in the upcoming Wesleyan Life spring 2022 magazine, wesleyan.life.