God, Mammon and the “Worship Wars”

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 warren.smith@thecharlotteworld.com

26 thoughts on “God, Mammon and the “Worship Wars”

  1. Joel Johns


    Big fan of your blog. I would challenge this in a different way. As a church planter here in central FL. I don’t know that the CCLI has ever cost us anything, (the anual fee is way cheaper than hymnals) so I am unclear on the grounds of his argument. However, I do see many hyms and hers who openly hold their giving hostage, because of choices in music.

  2. Bob Sweet

    My main thought is this. Why is it that we think people who write Christian Music should not be compensated fairly or even well if their music helps the body of Christ worship the one true God? “The Love of money is the root of all kinds of evil…” Years ago, churches paid pastors and Christian ministry workers less than living wages. Maybe they still do. Regardless, if a pastor spent his life stressing (walking by faith) about whether his families needs would be met, you knew that pastor had a good chance of not being trapped by the love of money. At least you knew he was not doing his job for the money. I have long felt like that was a reproach upon the body of Christ that we allow our servants to suffer like that when we had it in our power to provide them what they need to live. I praise God that young Christian Musicians can be fairly compensated for their creativity writing music which can direct the attention toward God. I praise God that someone had the forsight to figure out (CCLI) how young musicians and even older ones could actually afford to invest their God given talent for Jesus Christ in stead of perhaps a secular advertising agency. The sin of “Loving Money” is not exclusive to those writing Christian POP music. God will deal with that sin in his children.

  3. Rus Hardin

    Mr. Smith clearly states that this isn’t about the Style of music but more about CCLI and the industry, but I still don’t understand.

    We buy books, bible studies, sheet music, software, etc. for our churches. How is this different?

    IF these large churches are bringing large numbers of Christ-followers to the feet of the living God through contemporary worship, then the money really doesn’t matter does it?.

  4. Brent

    The current situation regarding music and money is harmless. To treat it like some sort of pyramid scheme conspiracy is ridiculous.

  5. Dan Burrell Post author

    I think many of you make valid points about appropriate compensation for those who serve the church. I think a broader question that Warren raises deals with the reality that there is an “Industry” that is arising out of the Church Growth Movement that targets the family of God for everything from movies to books to music to concerts, etc… and it is market driven and profit oriented. Go to a Lifeway store and look at the absolute drivel (and at times heresy) on the shelves being marketed to “Christians”. Look at the unholy alliance that exists between Rupert Murdock who owns Fox News and Zondervan Books as he constantly promotes Rick Warren on the Fox News Channel knowing that everytime Rick sells another book it fattens his (Murdock’s) wallet. Are there not dangers into this marketing of the Gospel and what should our response be to it? What is the impact of some of this drivel on immature and undiscerning readers who wander into a Christian bookstore or flip on Inspiration Network or TBN? When is “enough” enough? This is a new scenario and I believe it is worthy of discussion. No doubt there is fine music, great books and decent programming available and there’s a fee attached. But there is also in intrinsic danger when unsaved and carnal people look at the church as a marketing niche.

  6. Bob Sweet


    I think it is a baby and bathwater issue. I am 100% with you on the fact that there is mixture in the Christian message being marketed today and that it is being marketed by the millions. Bad theology in books and music and movies is….bad. However, I think that just increases the burden upon those of us who discern the error to get the truth out there. I have actually become aware of some bad influence in my own life from a book that is very populuar these days because of Bad theology in the book. However, I think that the burden for my error should fall upon my own lack of grounding in the scriptures at the time as well as upon the church I attended for not do its job in qualifying the material it used for men’s ministry in this case. I think the only solution is jump into the debate, master the marketing and communications tools available and make sure that the truth is out there at every point and turn. I think over the years that theologically fundamental Christians have not embraced the tools of their generation quickly enough to counteract the enemy. We end up shooting at them from years behind. We are to be in the world but not of it. Seems like jumping into the deep end…but jump we must.

  7. Brent

    We spent years complaining about the lack of family friendly movies, music, books, etc. Now that they’re here, we complain that someone else is making money on it. I agree that we can be guilty of ‘pimping’ (as Dan put it not too long ago) for Hollywood, Nashville, and Madison Avenue; but, in my opinion, CCLI is the wrong fight to pick.

  8. Dan Burrell Post author

    I’m enjoying the varied comments and perspectives on Warren’s book chapter. I’m glad that it is stimulating thought and discussion which is what a good editorial should accomplish.

    I received this email privately from someone whose identify will remain anonymous, but I felt some of his criticisms/comments were thought provoking so I’m including them here.

    From an “elder statesman/pastor”….

    Warren Smith’s article is interesting, but there may be some things he doesn’t know or isn’t willing to recognize.

    1. The Bible says that the workman is worthy of his hire. The writers of these songs, etc., deserve to be compensated for them. Will Smith simply give his book away when it is published? If he is worthy of compensation, so are those who write Christian music. I publish books of sermon outlines in an effort to leave a legacy, but I don’t mind at all being paid for doing so (and what I do with the money is my business).

    2. Bob Jones University and some of its minions (Garlock, Fisher and Hamilton, etc.) are the driving force behind the traditional music only movement in fundamentalism. BJU has carved out a niche source for students through this means and Garlock, Fisher and Hamilton have become relatively wealthy as a result of the need for new “traditional” music that has the approval of BJU. Both sides are at least somewhat motivated by money.

    3. There surely is a place for “public domain” music, etc., but then that can be driven by a refusal to pay for music, which in itself can be a form of materialism.

    4. I flatly refuse to accept the “fact” that my tastes in music are determined or driven by those with profit motives. I know what I like and want – that which expreses my concept of worship and the things that I believe are important.

    I just think he really does not have a good argument is this instance.

  9. Bob Sweet

    I was brought up in the “Garlock school for discerning Godly music” and for many years, I was thoroughly convinced of his teachings. The song, Rejoice in the Lord by Ron Hamilton can still move me to tears. I greatly ejoyed singing in Dr. Fisher’s Vespers Choir during my one year at BJU. I have many Patch the Pirate CD’s that my children listen to night after night when they go to sleep. Growing up, my family sang many of the songs out of Garlock/Hamilton’s first Praises book and we still love many of the songs. I personally love those songs.They still move me deeply as do many of the old hymns. Sadly, as I have recently heard it said, a lot of this traditional music has become the gregorian chant of this generation. It can be related to by the fundamentalist monks who have retreated to the safety of their baptist cathedrals. It is a foreign language to a large majority of todays generations and especially to the ones who Jesus love most. One can choose to mourn the fact that todays people do not thrill to the precious old hymns or even the new traditional music Or they can be about their fathers business and figure out how to get the ear of this generation. We can decry the decline of our culture or we can jump in where people are, get our hands dirty and show them how much Jesus loves them. One of the scriptures that has been burning into my heart in recent years is Romans 10:17 “So faith comes from hearing, that is, hearing the Good News about Christ. ” NLT The link between Faith and the Good News about Christ is Hearing. If they can not hear because of a language or other communication barrier, then we must tear down the barrier. This works for the written word. Why not for music? Reaching lost people, typicallly, requires that the Bible be translated into their native tongue. Though people debate the accuracy of and validity of various translations, no one debates the need for them. I see this as the role of todays Christian Music. The bottom line in my view is that this new music explosion, being driven by people putting their treasure where their heart is, puts “Hearing” in between “Faith” and the “Good news of Jesus Christ” for millions.

  10. Simple Believer

    I enjoy reading your blog, Pastor Dan (may I call you that? I’ve never attended your church, however, I have listened to your messages via the web). So much insight, so many thought provoking comments. I am not a person gifted with words, as so many of the commentors seem to be. From a simple person, here goes: Worship Wars: The real question is: Is GOD included in our worship time, or is He merely “put on a shelf” and “tapped into” when it supports the message? Is it God’s message or Man’s that is being given. The sad thing that myself and many of my friends in Christ are experiencing in churches is the watered down word…..as a friend put it: “There isn’t even any protein in it!”…What happened to preachers known as “Men of God” seeking God’s face for the Sunday Sermon? So many churches seem to be following the “series” format based on the item of the day–whether a popular movie, book or television show. Yes, God can take something Satan means for bad and use it for good; but the question remains: If God’s word isn’t included in the message, accurately and completely–how can it be used and not return void? So many of these series are paraphrased in whatever version of the “Bible” that will “best” support the series theme….and then the entire series is based on one “scripture” or a part of it. It used to be you would actually bring your bible to church and “divide” the word of truth by searching many supporting verses as directed by the preacher, therefore reinforcing the message (that lasted an hour….leaving you wanting more!) But now, after all the stuff and fluff between clever demonstrations and the music…..we’re lucky to get a mere 10 minutes of so-called “preaching” (which is an inch deep and a mile wide). Yes, our churches are growing, but are they producing and growing Christians? It seems that the “numbers” game is alive and well…What happened to preaching the word and the gospel? Shouldn’t people leave church convicted? We are all sinners, afterall. I understand the comment about wanting to “leave a legacy” by publishing sermon outlines…..But, isn’t it up to God what should be preached from the pulpit? Aren’t our Pastors supposed to be SEEKING GOD, and STUDYING instead of MEMORIZING an outline?
    Compensation? I do believe Pastors should be compensated slightly above the average church member…… some are, in my opinion, paid way too much…living in extravagant homes, driving extravagant cars, and living a lifestyle out of touch of most of the church members…..and being “protected” from them by making them unreachable. As a friend once said, “A pastor who is a “teacher only”, should be paid a teachers wages–not the wages of a superstar”.
    The music? While the hymns are wonderful and convicting….many of the newer songs are also just as wonderful. The songs chosen for worship are a great tool for bringing the “teenager and grandmother” together during worship–a combination of both types of songs would aid in accomplishing that. Our senior saints have much to offer our teens, and it is good for the teens to learn to respect them…..not exclude them…which we seems to be reinforced in our churches by having “separate” worship services simultaneously for our middle schoolers and high schoolers.
    Our society needs to re-evaluate this numbers game in our churches, and get back to the basics of preaching the HIS word and spreading HIS gospel and allow God to do HIS work…..enough of the “stuff”! (By the way…I love watching your messages because they accomplish just what I’m talking about here……THANK YOU for caring enough for your flock and for taking your accountability to God seriously ….Many are blessed beyond your local congregation because of it!!)

  11. Jeff Swan

    It seems clear to me that the main point of the article is not so much that some people are making a lot of money on contemporary Christian music, but that churches don’t make much of an effort to use songs or hymns to teach theology or to encourage Christian discipline anymore. Have you ever wondered why some songs are in the Methodist Hymnal, but not in the Baptist or Presbyterian hymnal, for instance? There is a reason: because the hymns present a certain theology, and the songs reinforce it in the singers.

    My wife, who grew up in a United Methodist Church, never even heard the song, “What Can Wash Away My Sins? Nothing But The Blood of Jesus!” until this year, because while it is included in the United Methodist Hymnal, they hardly, if ever, sang it at her church, while at my evangelical/fundamentalist church led by graduates of Dallas Theological Seminary, we seemed to sing that song once a month.

  12. Bob Sweet

    Quoting Warren Smith regarding Hymnals; “…they are typically denominationally specific, reflecting the doctrine and liturgy of a particular church” . This point is not even debatable. What I think is debatable is the Biblical basis for a book of music that reinforces denominational division with in the body of Christ. This division has been a reality for centuries but is it Biblical? My perception is that most contemporary Christian lyrics are not only Biblical but they unite true believers/Christ followers together like never before in history. When believers come together to honor and worship God with every part of their being…that is a good thing. That honors God. There is a new paradigm going on today. Rather than resist what God is doing, the elders in the body need to keep teaching the Word of God without apology. Keep preaching it undiluted. They need to make sure they are preaching the the scriptures and they need to find the humily to let go of unbiblical or non essential denominational distinctives. Make sure the young musicians are grounded in the word of God. Teach Faith and Obediance to the young Christians and do not push them away because of an inability to change style or accept other peoples taste or preference.

  13. nathan

    Completely off. flawed logic.

    You should stop using hymn books because they are printed on paper. you should project lyrics because they save trees. because you should project lyrics, you should project modern songs.

    flawed logic. completely off.

  14. Pingback: Church Voices

  15. Pingback: Worship Wars « Chet Swearingen’s Blog

  16. David Paul Regier

    Do you know the difference between a songwriter and a pepperoni pizza?

    A pepperoni pizza can feed a family of four.

    That’s where most of us are. And I really don’t carry any resentment about it, because I’m in the service of my Lord in His church. Christian industry is not the church, but whatever the motive, God will use it for His purposes, and judge the rest.

  17. Tara Lilly

    “Worship Wars” : Another way that Satan has us bound up as we argue with each other. SAD. Go worship God with your LIFE, every day, and as you get closer to Him you will see that this all does not matter.

  18. Matt

    Has any one noticed the new banner hanging in front of Northside Baptist Church? “Ford- The official sponsor of Dan Burrell” I am kidding but it has happening in many ministries as well as the Christian music industry. Third Day is sponsered by Chevrolet, Kutlus by Suzuki and Smokie Norful has MacDonalds on board. So is there a problem with this? You bet it is….it is contrary to the Word and Paul spoke against peddling the Gospel….and then he gives this firm word about unholy alliances…2 Corinthians 6:14-17 “Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: ‘I will dwell in them And walk among them. I will be their God, And they shall be My people. Therefore ‘Come out from among them And be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, And I will receive you.”
    Paul also mentioned that in the last days there would come troubling times….people would be lovers of themselves and lovers OF MONEY… Thanks Don for the great site…

  19. Rebecca Carpenter

    I don’t have a problem with CCLI. The workers are worth their wages.

    But, the line between commerce and church is so blurred that we need to be careful not to erase it altogether.

    Church is meant to grow us in our relationship with God through fellowship, learning, and worship. ItGÇÖs not meant for business, even business with spiritual overtones. Most people understand that itGÇÖs a little uncouth to work your small groups for Amway:) But, I understand that everyone has a different definition of business. So, here is mine: Business includes the exchange of services for money, even if that exchange is in the future (ministry and donations excluded.)

    There are at least 5 good reasons for leaving business out of church.
    1. It interferes with worship. Honestly, if we are in church in order to scope out business contacts, our minds wonGÇÖt be focused on God. It will also interfere with other people who are simply there to worship.
    2. It goes against scripture. The temple was never meant to be a place of commerce.
    3. It interferes with the Sabbath for both you and the persons you are involving.
    4. If you insist on conducting business in church, chances are you wonGÇÖt get the reaction you want:)

  20. Mike

    The problem is SELF. When SELF becomes the motvating factor – what does it do for me? what can I get out of it? do i like it? etc. then it dosen’t matter whether money is involved or not. “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30) Until that happens there will allways be worship wars.

  21. James Bobik

    I wanted to start this response off simply and kindly by saying I really enjoy your writings and your blog. We need a forum like this. It is a great topic and one of great importance.

    I think though however that we have so often fallen on how we feel about things and this is where the fault lies. On both sides of the argument the issue of FEEL is the problem. Contemporaries will lean to it feels good and Traditionalist will also lean to the it feels good. As much as both deny it. Both genres undeniably fall under the issue of flesh.

    So lets shed a little light on the situation.

    I do not want this discussion to go far out there so I will limit this topic and you can seek this is a more defined matter later. But let me start with these simple scriptures about worship. And offer the issue of inclusion instead of Seclusion.

    Psalm 40: 3
    And He has put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many shall see and fear (revere and worship) and put their trust and confident reliance in the Lord.

    1 Chronicles 16: 9
    Sing to Him, sing praises to Him; meditate on and talk of all His wondrous works and devoutly praise them!

    Psalm 144: 9
    I will sing a new song to You, O God; upon a harp, an instrument of ten strings, will I offer praises to You.

    Psalm 145: 10
    All Your works shall praise You, O Lord, and Your loving ones shall bless You [affectionately and gratefully shall Your saints confess and praise You]!

    It is clear God wants something new. Search on your own the holy scriptures. He wants us to Sing, Play Music, dance. Can you dance like David danced?

    John 4: 24
    God is a Spirit (a spiritual Being) and those who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.

    In due respect the contemporary is shut off from the GLory of the Hymnal. It is an awesome blessing and growing up in a Baptist church as well as today I respect and love the Hymnal. The problem is that we shut our selfs off and live by our preferences and thereby loose the Glory of what God is doing in his people and through worship. Both Contemporaries and Traditionalists are doing this. It would not come as a shock that the Enemy is using music the seperate the Church (since he was the praise leader in church after all.) But what really puzzles me as that the church cannot see it. The contemporary worship team that will not even consider great Hymnals like. I Exalt Thee, Be Thou My Vision (Be THou my vision oh Lord of my heart…., Old Rugged Cross.On a hill Far a way stood an old rugged cross. But I must say that the Traditionalist looses our on SOngs like.Indescribable – From the Highest of Highest to the Depths of the Sea…Creation Revealing his Majesty. Indescribable, Incomparable, you placed the starts in the sky and you know them by name….. All speak of the glory and love of God. Or songs like. Blessed be your name. If you cannot get God or scripture out of these songs I would say that perhaps you are being short sided. In scripture we are warned of division. I see no division.

    The Traditionalist argues the the music is targeted to a group. Might I implore that so are Hymnals as well. When was the last time you used Thou..Thee…Art Thou listening? The Contemporary shuffles around the beauty of the Hymnal calling them dated or irrelevant when they hold relevance because if they did not the bible would have no relevance and to think that is well…not relevant to Christianity.

    I come from a church which for the most part includes both Hymnals and Contemporary. It is quite a combo. For the word of God says what the Old and the new is used for. The Old are to Teach and the Young are to Inspire the Old once again. This is indeed what happens. You can ask anyone in the church if they feel their needs are being met in the church and they will reply that is not what we are about this is why we implore both. Having no needs gives you the desire to to be unto “service” unto God. I do not think God is concerned with our worship type as we think he is far more concerned with the condition of our hearts during worship.

    To imply that Worship should not be pleasurable or enjoyable and that is is solely unto God and is complete sacrifice. Is not rational and not biblical.

    The word humble means = obediant
    the word bow is an act of humble but without the first there is no true bowing.
    We must be obediant to Scripture not to denomination or even to what we have been taught. We need to seek scripture and define what our worship will be though that not what we see or what we think should be seen.

    Let me state the greatest sacrafice is the sacrifice of love. To love one another as Christ loves the church. Unconditionally.
    Without fault and without division. If we find in our worship that we are doing this in anyway we should pray and let God show us we should seek the scriptures for where the spirit of the Lord is (There is Freedom).

    - I have been through this reply inspired to write about this topic so if you want a more thought out and studied version of the topic please check my site within a few days.


  22. Kathi Peddicord

    It has long been on my heart to blog about the relevance of the Hymns of the Church and attempt to help reconcile the differences between contemporary and traditional. This article by Warren Smith articulates my thoughts brilliantly. Thanks for sharing it.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>