Why Chris Tomlin Still Dominates Both Christian Radio and Sunday Morning Worship

Chris Tomlin performing at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, Missouri during his “Burning Lights” tour.

Each week, most churches across America turn to a relatively narrow list of songs to give voice to the congregations’ corporate praise since in recent years that Sunday morning music has increasingly resembled Christian radio playlists.

Faithlife Music ranked the top worship songs, based on three years of data from 10,000 churches using its software to display lyrics. Some familiar names appear over and over on the list. Chris Tomlin, Hillsong, Bethel Music, and Matt Redman were collectively responsible for half of the the top 20 songs:

  1. “Build My Life” by Pat Barrett ft. Chris Tomlin
  2. “This is Amazing Grace” by Phil Wickham
  3. “How Great is Our God” by Chris Tomlin
  4. “Who You Say I Am” by Hillsong
  5. “10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord)” by Matt Redman
  6. “What A Beautiful Name” by Hillsong
  7. “Great Are You Lord” by All Sons & Daughters
  8. “Reckless Love” by Cory Asbury (Bethel Music)
  9. “How Great Thou Art”
  10. “Raise A Hallelujah” by Bethel Music
  11. “Living Hope” by Phil Wickham
  12. “Good Good Father” by Pat Barrett
  13. “Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)” by Chris Tomlin
  14. “Cornerstone” by Hillsong
  15. “Lord I Need You” by Matt Maher
  16. “In Christ Alone” by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend
  17. “The Lion and The Lamb” by Leeland Mooring, Brenton Brown and Brian Johnson (Bethel Music)
  18. “O Come to the Altar” by Elevation Worship
  19. “Blessed Be Your Name” by Matt Redman
  20. “Holy Spirit” by Bryan and Katie Torwalt

Faithlife Music’s trending songs resemble the latest rankings by Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI); 16 of them appear on both lists’ top 20.

But Faithlife’s data omits one segment of the evangelical world—worshippers who do not read words on a screen because they have a hymnal in their hands. A 2018 survey by LifeWay Research found that nearly 70 percent of Protestant churches use hymnals. For churches with less than 50 attendees, 85 percent use hymnals.

Hymnals reflect a domination of their own; Charles WesleyIsaac Watts, and Fanny Crosby wrote a disproportionate number of beloved Christian songs.

Wesley alone wrote over 8,900 hymns, almost as many as Crosby, who penned over 9,000 and is best known for “Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine.” Watts wrote considerably fewer, but with titles like, “Joy to the World” and “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” nearly every Protestant church has sung his lyrics.

Two of the songs on Faithlife’s top 20 were traditional hymns, “How Great Thou Art” and Chris Tomlin’s “Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone),” which has additional contemporary lyrics.

While Wesley is celebrated as the greatest hymn writer of all time for his output (and his role, along with his brother John, in the founding of Methodism), his contemporary counterpart Chris Tomlin was hailed by CNN as the most-sung artist in history, “with upwards of 30 million believers singing his songs each Sunday.”

But Tomlin, Redman, and the crews from Hillsong and Bethel Music have a much different context driving their compositions than their hymn-writing predecessors—especially as the constraints of radio play influence which songs dominate Sunday morning set lists.

“If a song is going up the charts, there’s pressure on the worship leader to play that song,” said John J. Thompson, who worked with Christian artists as creative director for Capitol CMG Publishing and now runs the website truetunes.com.

Because songs must be catchy, they focus on simplified melodic structures, fewer words, and limited emotional range, with the goal that the congregation can catch on to new songs by the second verse, said Thompson, now the associate dean of the Trevecca School of Music and Worship Arts and the author of Jesus, Bread, and Chocolate; Crafting a Hand Made Faith in a Mass Market World.

By singing radio chart-toppers, he fears, congregations miss out on theological heft. With Faithlife Music’s top songs, the themes of worship and reverence come up the most.

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Source: Christianity Today