When it comes to sharing a new worship song with the world, it takes a village. When it comes to the Top 25 songs sung in local churches, that village has, in recent years, had four central “megachurch” leaders: Bethel Music, Hillsong, Passion, and Elevation Worship.
In our team’s first article, we identified that, between 2010 and 2020, only 38 newly-released titles appeared on both the CCLI and PraiseCharts Top 25 lists. Of those 38, 33 titles were directly connected to the “Big 4,” whether by known associations or by collaborations. Known associations are the most obvious form of connection and examples of these include Chris Tomlin with Passion and Leeland with Bethel Music.
Collaborations account for another slightly less obvious way Top 25 songs are connected to the “Big 4.” Consider Phil Wickham’s song, “This Is Amazing Grace.” Though Wickham’s version might now be more widely known, in this video, Wickham highlighted the central role that Redding’s Bethel Church played in the song’s development and eventual popularity. The same was true of Wickham’s song “Living Hope,” where Bethel’s Brian Johnson was listed as a co-writer. Of course, this doesn’t mean Bethel was single-handedly responsible for the success of either song. Phil is a talented worship leader and songwriter. But, as researchers examining the interface between local worship leaders and the worship music industry, we can’t ignore that connections like these were nearly universal in the 38 Top 25 CCLI and PraiseCharts songs under review.
After accounting for these more obvious collaboration relationships, five titles remained: “King of My Heart” by John Mark and Sarah McMillan,“Tremble” by Mosaic MSC, “Great Are You Lord” by All Sons and Daughters, “Good Good Father” by Housefires, and “Way Maker” by Sinach. We explored each song’s “Performance History” to establish how each of these five related to the “Big 4.” In every case, one of the “Big 4” publicly released a version of the song prior to its ascension to Top 25 status.
So, what do we mean by “Performance History”?
The industry around worship songs has traditionally focused on publishing rather than recordings. CCLI, for example, pays royalties to songwriters—not necessarily performing musicians or singers. As a result, interpretation by worship teams and live performance play a huge role in helping a song reach new listeners, and so it goes that large churches, with large audiences, can be a uniquely potent way of reaching new listeners.
One major benefit of living in a digital age is our access to data—some easily available, and some carefully collected over time. Many large churches publish their services on YouTube. As a result, it is easier than ever to track a series of events to understand what might have bolstered a song on its long and winding road to popularity.
We found that each of the five songs named above intersected with one of the “Big 4” megachurches in a meaningful way before it appeared on the CCLI and PraiseCharts Top 25 lists.
“King of My Heart” by John Mark and Sarah McMillan
Initially released in October 2015 by John Mark and Sarah McMillan, “King of My Heart” was covered multiple times by a number of leaders in Bethel’s livestream services before appearing on the CCLI chart in April 2016. As the song continued to grow in popularity, Bethel released a recorded version on their 2017 album “Starlight,” cementing the song’s place in the Top 100 through the end of the decade. The prominence of Bethel’s version is clearly demonstrated in its popularity on PraiseCharts, while the original version slowly declined over time.
“Tremble” by Mosaic MSC
Mia Fieldes, a well-known worship leader and songwriter at Hillsong until 2010, was listed as a co-writer on “Tremble,” which was first released in October 2016 by Mosaic MSC. A cover version of the song, shared to YouTube by Upperroom, appeared shortly after this release. The song quickly appeared in the Top 100, but it wasn’t until early 2018, when multiple new versions (including repeated weeks in Bethel services) preceded the song’s appearance in the Top 25 charts on both CCLI and PraiseCharts. While many associate Fieldes with Hillsong, Bethel played a significant role in popularizing the song as evidenced by the timing of its covers and its repeated use in Bethel services prior to the song’s appearance on the Top 25.,
“Great Are You Lord” by All Sons & Daughters
First released in April of 2013 by All Sons & Daughters, “Great are You Lord” quickly appeared on the CCLI charts, hitting #100 by October. Before long, the song was covered by Amanda Cook and other Bethel leaders. The song was nominated for two distinct Dove Awards two years apart, eventually peaked at #2 on CCLI in October 2017, and remained in the Top 10 through the remainder of the decade. It is noteworthy that, while the song quickly appeared in the CCLI Top 100 and moved almost 45 spots to #55 by April 2014, it took a full three years for the song to rise from #30 to #2. The Bethel covers were a meaningful contributor to “Great are You Lord”’s initial success. Passion later covered the song on their Whole Heart album, propelling the song through the end of the decade.
“Good Good Father” by Housefires
First released in August of 2014 by Housefires, “Good Good Father” soon appeared in the middle of the CCLI Top 100. In February 2015, Bethel Church performed the song in their Sunday service, sharing it to YouTube. In 2015, “Good Good Father” launched straight to the #1 spot on the CCLI charts, nearly coinciding with Chris Tomlin’s release as a single in advance of his album. A representative from Capitol Christian Music stated, “The original by Housefires is very similar to Tomlin’s. [Housefires] was already getting attention from worship leaders and consumers, but one of the writers, Barrett, endorsed Tomlin’s version… Barrett [also] debuted the song with Tomlin at the main radio convention for this format, Momentum, in September in front of 600-plus radio stations, which was huge.” At the end of 2015, it became clear that while the Housefires version was popular, Chris Tomlin’s version held its place in the public consciousness in the #1 spot. Chris Tomlin’s version remains in the PraiseCharts and CCLI Top 100 through the end of the decade. Additionally, Tomlin’s version was nominated for many awards and won “Song of the Year” at the Dove Awards in 2016. “Good Good Father” was also later included on Passion’s studio album, Salvation’s Tide is Rising (2017).
“Way Maker” by Sinach
Way Maker’s story is fascinating. Originally written by popular Nigerian artist, Sinach, “Way Maker” was first released to YouTube in December 2015, without the now popular bridge section. “Way Maker” was growing in popularity around the world, when the song was covered by both Harvest Music Live and Pentecostals of Alexandria with the added bridge section in 2017 and 2018. Despite its growing popularity, it wasn’t until Leeland (previously affiliated with Bethel) recorded and released his cover of this song in August 2019, quickly followed by a version from Bethel’s Paul McClure, that “Way Maker” appeared on the CCLI and PraiseCharts top lists in the United States, debuting on the CCLI charts at #4 in October 2019. Passion also covered the song two months before it reached #1 on April 1st, 2020. With various artists covering the song before the pandemic, the song’s popularity in the US has many connections to our primary contributors.
Our team is made up of researchers, pastors, as well as songwriters and recording artists. Some of the songwriters of the songs above are known personally by members of our team. By suggesting that the “Big 4” played a key role in lifting these songs, we don’t intend to diminish the original artist’s contribution in the slightest. We aren’t suggesting that these churches are singly responsible for the success of these songs, but rather that they appear to play a unique role in a song’s widespread use in the church, and we intend to explore that for the benefit of all.
While we cannot solely attribute the success of a song to a specific cover, it is important to acknowledge the ways in which these larger artists may influence a song’s rise in popularity within the Church. As David Leonard, of All Sons & Daughters, said: “‘Great Are You Lord’ came from the day-to-day of our life at Journey, our church. But the first time I remember hearing someone else play the song was when Amanda Cook sang it on a Sunday night at Bethel. People started to hear other people singing it, and after that, it became the Church’s song. As a person who writes church songs, to see the broader Church make a song its own is probably the most amazing feeling ever. It’s a huge honor.”
It is encouraging to know that many of the songwriters, who are known personally by our team, are grateful to see their songs extending beyond the walls of their church.
As a collaborative team of researchers, professionals, and practitioners, we each believe that worship is a crucial component to faithful living. In that spirit, we aim to better understand the forces which shape Sunday mornings, whatever they may be. Simply put: some members of our team lead these very songs on a regular basis! We hope that the fruit of our research is a thoughtful & healthy dialogue about how we can all be faithful followers of Jesus in the way we lead, the way we sing, and the way we live.