Political Economy Commodification of Worship Music: Value and Meaning

In response to recent discussion in our Political Economy lectures particularly looking at value and meaning, I have enjoyed researching into the commodification of worship music.

When preparing a set to lead at church we’ll have an idea of a journey we want to take people on when we sing. Starting with praise & declaration of who God is which then leads to a time of response or songs holding a value of introspection; how we’re feeling; where we’re at in life. Even then, as people in charge of where the music goes, we have to be careful to get the line right between leading people on a journey but not distracting them from the true meaning of what we’re doing.
As a contemporary charismatic large church with creative musicians, we want to see new things in the worship. We want to keep up with the times. We want to express our creativity and love for music into the songs we write just like in a secular band. We are inspired by so many exciting new worship albums from bands like Hillsong; Leeland; Elevation Worship and they all embrace experimental sounds, atmospheric soundscapes and synthesisers.

We do, however, have to be careful what are intentions are & what larger Christian band’s intentions are; what the meaning is behind our songs, I think even more than in a secular context. As we’re singing about God & the bible, there’s a responsibility for the songs to be theologically correct. ‘In spite of being a church and a worship band, Hillsong has arguably become a pop culture icon. (David Roark 2016, CAPC Magazine). A pop culture icon being a commercial product or culture aimed at/for the masses. Hillsong is a prime example of commodification of worship music. ‘Although advertising the Gospel is nothing new, referring to it specifically as “branding” has until recently been avoided (Einstein 2008, 61). ‘Hillsong may have started in Australia, but is now a multi-million dollar global brand with a massive following, in major cities around the world including London, Kiev, Moscow, Cape Town, New York, Paris, Stockholm, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Barcelona, Los Angeles to mention but a few.’ (Aguma, 2015). As soon as you talk about Hillsong in a church, it tends to divide opinion. The millennials tend to back them up talking about the latest album or conference that attracted thousands and how they’re doing a great job making church accessible for the masses. The others, however, question the whole ideology of Hillsong as a church.

Has the rapid growth of Hillsong and it’s mass interest seen the loss of value in their songs? Are their worship songs written out of a vulnerable place & an intimate song to God or are they now just written to become a number one hit and distract our attention or stimulate a certain appetite? Are they written with the intent to win ‘worship album of the year’ or are they written to equip churches internationally with intimate worship songs to sing? Is it wrong to want to do both?

Take ‘Good Good Father’ (Patt Barrett & Tony Brown) for example. Has its commodification, being released by one after the other of ‘celebrity worship leader’s’ meant its global success has dwarfed its original intent of being an intimate, worship song sang to get closer to God? In an interview behind the creation of the song (Worship Together with Patt Barrett & Anthony Brown), Tony shares how he’s only ever been able to call God his Father because he grew up without a dad. Pat shares how he cherishes the intimacy of the song and sings it with his daughter before she goes to bed each night. Having just won ‘song of the year’ at the Dove Awards (2016) does Good Good Father represent this intimacy that Patt and Tony intended, or has its success stolen this sentimental value and meaning whilst it’s sung again and again & paraded at Christian conference after Christian conference? Has it’s multiplication in fact created a superficial barrier between the songs original intent and it’s current meaning?

Looking at the current spectrum of worship songs, there is evidence that ‘experience’ & relevance may have taken over from the original value & intimacy of the songs. However, I believe ‘experience’ and relevance are becoming increasingly important. We live in an age where people are becoming more and more impatient so things need to be relevant.

I believe if the church and worship music wants to stay appealing and ‘with the times’, this is all important. Providing experience through conferences, concerts etc, and staying relevant. People may argue that this devalues the whole idea of the church. Takes God out of the equation. But if the origins of these songs and worship are rooted in the church, theology & experience of Christians then God will always be holding the value and meaning of the song together. They’ll be authentic. They’ll be written with meaning, intent and value.

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