We may not recognize it often, but the local Worship Leader might be a music industry powerhouse. You see, long before a chord rings out each and every Sunday, he or she chooses a humble set of songs—an offering if you will. But this “simple” choice extends beyond the church walls with a surprising impact on an industry worth hundreds of millions of dollars. In this article, we examine Worship Leader attitudes toward several key methods of new song discovery and the correlation between these local church setlists and the music industry at large.
Our initial research showed that the “Big 4” church-affiliated music brands (Bethel, Elevation, Hillsong, and Passion) were linked to almost all of the 25 most popular new songs released between 2010 and 2020. Building on this research, we surveyed 412 Worship Leaders in 2022 to better understand their attitudes toward various facets of the worship music industry. This included the brands most closely associated with these new songs and the vehicles through which they find new music. Our most recent October 2023 article, revealed that while Worship Leaders expressed a general indifference toward the idea of a brand’s association with a song, sentiments shifted when they encountered specific names. This suggests that brand longevity and social proof may have a more significant impact than Worship Leaders tend to recognize. Beyond branding, though, what industry machinations give these particular churches the upper hand?
In this article, we will present survey results from Question 6 of our survey, which pertained to Worship Leaders’ attitudes toward the various ways they might first discover new music. It will further explore how evolving technology has subsequently changed the Sunday service’s role in the music industry, for better or worse.
How Worship Leaders View New Song Sources
In our survey, we asked Worship Leaders how they perceived new songs for congregational use when first discovered through various popular methods. We asked them, “How likely are you to consider a new song for congregational use when you first encounter it through Live Events, ” Three distinct categories or groupings arise from their responses.
The first grouping, which includes live events, church leader requests, and streaming playlists, may be characterized by a visceral first-hand experience. When a new song is experienced in the context of a live event, it is likely to elicit heightened emotional responses. Hearing a streamed playlist song for the first time on a jog or in a car, for example, can evoke an emotional state. Lastly, given the power dynamics that exist in many church environments, a request from an authority figure, such as a lead pastor, can be received as having a unique emotional charge for Worship Leaders. As one surveyed Worship Leader commented, “Requests from Church Leaders…do we even have a choice?”
The middle grouping is, characteristically, social in nature and includes song recommendations from social media (peers), congregational requests, social media (non-peers), YouTube, and online discussion boards. These platforms for introducing new songs have built-in social proof—the concept that people tend to perceive the choices and behaviours of a larger group as correct— in common.
The final cluster contains the CCLI charts, Planning Center charts, Christian radio, and advertising. Each of these represents different facets of the commercial infrastructure around the music industry. The fact these are all among the lowest may suggest that Worship Leaders place more trust in vehicles perceived as more organic ones they can control. These survey results suggest Worship Leaders are at least mildly suspicious of openly commercial efforts as a source for new music.
An Unexpected Industry Gatekeeper
Why does any of this matter? What does this mean? Despite the sheer size of the Christian music industry, the attitudes of Worship Leaders toward new song-discovery methods matter more than we may realize. Although a local Worship Leader may presume their influence ends at their church’s front door, collectively, their song selections have implications far beyond familiar royalty platforms like CCLI. While one may presume that label staff, radio and playlist programmers, industry professionals, or even the artists themselves function as gatekeepers within the world of Christian music, it is the case that local Worship Leaders are often unexpected industry gatekeepers themselves.
To illustrate this, let’s compare the public influence of Christian radio with that of local Protestant congregations. According to the Radio Advertising Bureau, around 20 million Americans listen to Christian or religious radio broadcasting, including talk and music radio. On the other hand, Pew Research reports that about 59 million Americans weekly attend Protestant religious services, while an additional 16 million attend services about once a month. This suggests approximately 63 million Americans attend their local Protestant church each Sunday.
Now, exact comparisons can be challenging. There’s no unanimous method for tracking, but according to industry insiders, a substantial number of those 20 million Christian radio listeners don’t regularly attend church. It is also true that many Protestant churches don’t adopt contemporary worship, though the number of those attending churches which incorporate some contemporary worship music has been growing exponentially for decades. Still, it remains clear that many more people attend Protestant churches without tuning into Christian radio than those who do. This suggests that the choices made by Worship Leaders in their song selections resonate with a broader audience and have a more profound impact on the Christian music landscape than previously recognized.
Although there are numerous nuances in how these datasets interact, including the style and format of those churches, it is clear that for many churchgoers, the Sunday service may be the primary way they learn of and grow to love new Christian music.
In a separate study, WLR team member Shannan Baker surveyed church congregants about their favorite worship songs. She found that over a third (37.25%) first encountered these songs during immersive live events, such as camps, conferences, concerts, or retreats. Notably, nearly 30% were introduced to these songs within the walls of their local church. In comparison, only 12.75% credited radio as their initial point of contact with their favorite worship music. This data underscores the pivotal role that local church services play in introducing and disseminating worship music, reflecting a significant shift away from traditional media platforms. Even if unintentional, this places Worship Leaders in a crucial role, connecting churchgoers to the broader Christian music industry. This is more true today than ever before.
First Exposure and the “Cold Start Problem”
Church attendees not well-versed in Christian music might find that a song played during worship is their gateway into a vast musical landscape. In a previous article, we showed that a change in how songs are distributed—namely, digital singles instead of albums—has dramatically impacted which songs become popular in the church setting.
Yet, with AI and machine learning’s expanding role in streaming services like Spotify, a person’s initial song choices within a genre can significantly affect the music later suggested to them. This stems from what tech experts call the “Cold Start Problem,” where an algorithm can’t offer relevant suggestions without enough data on a user’s tastes. So, when a worship song from a Sunday service is streamed on Spotify, it sets the stage for future music recommendations. Like a social media feed, Spotify’s algorithm inevitably relies on a popular technique known as “collaborative filtering,” which predicts what other songs might resonate based on what listeners within the genre have enjoyed.
Consider a churchgoer who hears a moving worship song but doesn’t usually listen to Christian radio. If they stream this new song on Spotify, the platform acts like a personalized DJ. While other factors are at play, the listening behavior of other users provides a valuable shortcut for the technology to personalize suggestions.
This fact brings us to what might be a trope for those familiar with the Christian music industry: the inescapable influence of a marketing persona known as “Becky.”
Becky’s Ripple Effect
Marketing personas are data-driven representations of a target audience that companies and industries use to better understand their buyers’ or listeners’ practical and emotional needs. “Becky” is an example of a persona commonly used by Christian radio stations nationwide. While “Becky” represents only 6% of the data we collected in our survey, her influence on Christian Music and worship music can’t be overstated.
Chris Hauser, a veteran music promoter, has played a crucial role in popularizing worship music on Christian radio. In an interview with one of our team members, Hauser explained that many Christian radio stations rely on Troy Research, a national research chart that collates information from a range of bigger stations. “Fifteen years ago,” says Hauser, “Becky was a 34-year-old mom with two kids in her minivan. Nowadays, it seems that 35-44-year-old females are buying Christian concert tickets, while 45-54-year-old females are keeping the lights on at non-profit stations. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, every Friday was like Christmas morning for me and other radio promoters, with stations adding 8-10 songs weekly. But the most played song on a radio station was heard for only twelve weeks before it was gone. The staff thought, ‘If we’re tired of it, everybody else probably is, too.’”
But subsequent research into Becky’s preferences changed all that.