Pay to worship?

Young worship leader and faithful reader Cam from Auckland, New Zealand sent in a very thought provoking question:


“Do you think it is ethically right to pay for worship?

I’m not talking about paying the musicians or the speaker, which are issues in themselves, but I’m talking about copyright. Obviously you dont need to play copyrighted music to create effective worship, but for practical purposes this is often the case. My problem is, as an outsider, I see CCLI as charging my church, and almost every other, to worship.

Shouldn’t bands creating popular worship music take out a creative commons licence, meaning we can play their songs in our church free of charge?

It just doesnt seem fair, the way it is right now. My background, uh, I’m 19, a new worship leader at a small church called hillside in Auckland, New Zealand.

Any opinions, information, details, ANYTHING is appreciated, I just want to know more about what I’m talking about.

Keen to hear from you,



Cam – thanks for the question!

At first, the answer seemed easy: It is important to pay if you use someone else’s intellectual property.

But then, as Eddie, Michael and I began to discuss it yesterday, some deeper points arose.

What, essentially, does copyright do? Yeah, there’s a ton of legal mumbo jumbo associated with that term, but I think it exists so that someone cannot earn money from someone else’s work. That’s stealing.

That’s why one pays to buy CD’s or downloads from iTunes. That’s why one obtains and secures mechanical licenses to rerecord a song to put on their own project. That’s why one obtains and secures a synch license to put the song on a video (yep, even a worship tune under a youth camp highlight video…).

I only took Copyright 101 in University, and that was more than a decade ago (and forgot most of it) but I do know that one of the primary issues for the existence of copyright is to protect the creator (or copyright owner) of the intellectual property.

Intellectual property is a funny thing. It’s something someone has created, but is not tangible. You wouldn’t steal a loaf of bread from the store, or even a created work like a piece of art. You also wouldn’t steal a CD from the store, nor should you share files (MP3’s, etc.) that are covered by copyright protection.

But what about the heart of your question – playing the song yourself (not the original recording) in a church setting, leading a congregation in worship. Why do you have to pay for that?

This brings up some strong questions:

“Doesn’t the writer want us to lead others in worship with their songs? Don’t they have a heart for the Kingdom? Why are they so greedy? I don’t feel right about paying TO worship…”

There are some deeper issues that will hopefully resolve these questions for you…

After being involved in the Christian music industry for the last decade, I believe with all my heart that paying for what we use, especially worship music, is integral for the health of the Christian creative community.

99% of the people that create the content we rely on for the health and furthering of our churches are not rich or greedy. They’re just trying to survive in this crazy world, yet still being faithful to the creative passions they have been entrusted with by God. They have kids, mortgages, bills, and life to deal with. Many of them rely on live gigs and bookings for their day-to-day livelihood, and pray for residual income to help carry them through the rest of life.

CCLI exists to help make sure that happens. So that churches can perform songs in a live environment, while still honoring the individuals who have used their long-developed skills and abilities to assist us in facilitating great worship through their songs.

Without their songs, the church as we know it would be up a creek without a paddle.

Truth is, CCLI is a brilliant, easy and effective way to distribute royalties to the copyright owners. CCLI charges fees based on the size of a church and global region, collects reports from all churches, and distributes those fees – now royalties – based on a song’s activity. The more popular a song, the higher a percentage of the collected fees it earns. Pretty simple. I’d really advise everyone to spend some time at . They’ve got a TON of great info there.

In conclusion, Cam, it’s not wrong for you to question this topic (or any, for that matter). You really make a great argument for “Why do we have to pay to worship”.

My answer is that it ultimately honors God by honoring those that created it, allowing them a realistic livelihood, and the furthering of creativity in the Christian community for the future.

But that’s just my first instinct – what do the rest of you think?

(PS – I just read this to Michael, and he dug it. He mentioned that what we need to do is get a few of us in a room and record our discussions on these type of topics. That’d be cool. Well, there’s always the future….)


25 thoughts on “Pay to worship?

  1. This is a great topic; something I have questioned myself. Two verses came to mind when I read this:

    1 Timothy 5:18b (NIV) …”The worker deserves his wages.”
    Romans 13:7 (AMP) Render to all men their dues. [Pay] taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, and honor to whom honor is due.

    Just as a pastor deserves to get paid to preach the Word to us, an anointed songwriter who brings us all closer to God deserves to be compensated, perhaps even double (1 Timothy 5:17).

  2. Man, I absolutely could not agree more with what Reid and Malachi said. That’s right on.

    However, as a pro musician myself, I began to think as I sat here writing this about the concept of reaping what we sew. I mean, if you ask me, I want to get paid for everything that I play for, lead worship for, write, ect. I have bills to pay just like everyone! But, how much am I willing to give away? God calls us to give 10% of our resources. Does that stop at our bank account, or does it apply to our time, and even our talent? Even then, a tenth is just a starting point. It doesn’t become an offering until it’s over and beyond that. So when do we offer our songs for free, and when do we charge? I’ve often heard pastors preach sermons on worship, and have said that worship doesn’t happen without sacrifice. I’m no theologian, and I, no expert, but it does make me question, to a degree my philosophies… Hmmm…..

    (Trust me, I want, and NEED to get paid for my services in order to make a living, but this poses some real tough questions.)

    Reid, what do you think about this?

  3. To echo everyone else, thanks for bringing this discussion to life.

    I’ve never really questioned whether or not the writer “deserves” to be compensated for the use of his/her work to benefit the church. I have, however, wondered how I can personally honor that arrangement. I lead at several different churches and I totally take advantage of the best new songs out there. I even tell myself that I’m doing these writers a favor by sharing their songs with a new and wider audience than they are reaching on their own.

    Am I sinning by receiving a wage that was earned at the expense of another’s creativity? I use a ton of songs from all the North Point guys (Todd, Eddie, Steve, Kristian) and even some that the church itself rarely or never plays. Is there a right way for me to compensate them, or is it the responsibility of the church or ministry for which I am leading?

    Again, very good question and I appreciate everyone’s perspectives on the topic.

  4. I can’t help but feel that, as Christians, we should have a different approach. We can not deny that restrictive copyright licenses are limiting the reach of these “annoited” works. We now have a medium (digital media over the internet) to share the gospel and inspire the entire world, and yet we do not because that would break our buisness model. We spend all this effort locking it down to try to keep it all under our control for maximum profits. Even as the secular world slowly begins to adapt to this new digital age (Magnatune, Jamendo, etc), most of Christian media lags behind instead of being an example to the world.

    I think churches and other organizations have done a poor job addressing the issue. On Sunday the donation buckets are passed around, while other ministries depend on sales, fees, and restrictions. Why the discrepancy?

  5. What about posting Christian worship videos to YouTube and the like – as an outreach mechanism. To spark interest in the unchurched by showing quality productions? I struggle with the strong leading (I think by God) to do so and yet wonder about legalities/ethics side of the issue.

  6. I have some thoughts about this issue-

    This is something that I feel, as a college freshman and as a music business major, needs to be streamlined. God has shown me that this is something that I need to focus my life on.

    In high school, I focused heavily on the production aspect of my local FCA. Every week, the band played 2-3 songs with CG on the projector behind them. Now, honestly, how is a public high school ministry going to secure CCLI rights when the budget is nearly $0?

    My plan is to learn the ways of the music industry and, from a legal standpoint, make it reasonable for a small organization/congregation to have a production that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg produce. There is a tremendous need for further study in this, and hopefully, some young blood like myself, can help in this.

  7. No one should make money for worshipping God or helping others worship God. Go ahead and write a Christian rock album and make money for it, that’s great. But when you write a song with the intent of people singing it as a worship song, you should not get paid for that.
    Another problem with paying people for writing worship songs is that — I believe — it has led to a bland uniformity among worship music. The songs that founded modern praise and worship — Awesome God, Lord I Lift Your Name on High, Shout to the Lord — these songs have served as a blueprint for all other worship songs because of their popularity. Now every Christian band has found that praise and worship music is where the money is in the industry, so they all try to fit the mold of popular praise songs to get some of the action.
    I help lead worship at a church where we only use old hymns and original songs specifically so we won’t have to pay to worship God, so I’m a little biased.

  8. Zach, in my opinion, you sound like you may be a little jaded, or might not fully understand the ramifications of artists not being compensated for their works. The pastor of your church has a passion. He wants to see God’s kingdom grow, and equip others to help him spread the gospel. But he can’t do it for free. Money isn’t his motivator, but it does provide a way for him to provide for your family. With your logic, anyone could say that a percentage of the tithe is going to pay church worker’s salaries, so as you tithe, (a form of worship) You are paying to worship. Think about what you are saying.

    As far as uniformity in music, music has always came in trends. Even classical music. 5 or 10 songs in any given decade will sound similar. I don’t think it is the heart of most worship leaders to just make a buck. Do you think God would honor that? Dude, I’m not trying to be rude, but I think you need to come to an understanding that people in ministry are allowed to make a decent living too.

  9. First and foremost, I will say that I believe we should pay what is needed due to copyrights, because it’s there. I’m not quite sure on the particular issue, but I think the problem all flows back to the stereotypical Christian musician being spoiled. You have young musicians who build their own PA’s, to play basement shows with all of their heart into their music. You then have Christian “superstars”, who play with that same passion, but complain that they only have one monitor. Punk rockers are running donation-based record labels, but you argue that those who are playing at mega-churches and big show halls, selling out of merchandise, and have lighting designers and sound techs need to “make a decent living too.”

    Being a musician is not necessarily a glamourous job; why does it have to be for Christians?

  10. Cory,

    First, thanks for the comment!

    I would, however, encourage you not to judge those who you call “superstars” too quickly. After all, in all of current Christian music, how many can you name? Maybe a half dozen? 10?

    Now think of all the families that are being fed by those “superstar”‘s careers. The truth is that it is a bunch. Dozens even… They are really only the tip of iceberg. All those musicians, record labels, support staff, and even the merchandise and lighting guys all feed their families as a by-product of one artist’s career. There are LOTS of hands in the pot, and the pie is divided into many, many tiny slices.

    And if you want even more, brutally honest truth, most of those “superstars” are only that because others have liked their music and supported their careers through bookings and record sales. To be angry at that is really one thing: jealousy. Please be VERY careful not to let a deep subconscious jealousy ferment into an unrealistic poor opinion towards, well, anyone!

    I’m guessing by some of your comments on monitors and such that you had a bad experience with a “superstar”. Maybe they were being a bit whiney about an issue that you didn’t think warranted it.

    Let’s address that for a minute. I’ll give you my personal take on the issue, because this is close to my heart.

    For anyone functioning on a full-time professional level in ANY profession, there is a desire, and really a NEED to use the best tools available for the job. Can you imagine a professional carpenter forced to use a child’s hammer? Or a surgeon having only a steak knife and a few band aids?

    Of course not, that’s silly. The same scenario applies for a professional, touring musician that is concerned about fidelity, the quality and accuracy of the music they are trying to play, and the long-term safety and protection of their ears and hearing.

    I know that my playing level drops significantly when I encounter a less-than-satisfactory monitoring situation, and that causes my demeanor to plummet quickly! So have have complete sympathy for someone whining about monitors – ’cause I’d be right there with them!

    Plus, on a safety issue, playing night after night or even week after week for years on end with a harmful monitoring situation is incredibly damaging to your hearing, and ultimately the quality of your playing.

    Anyway Cory, I can assure you that 99.9 percent of those involved with full-time Christian music still have a tough time putting food on the table. I know that sounds hard to believe considering the “glamor” placed on them by others, but I know these people. I am one of these people. And I know the trials we all go through.

    While I am extremely blessed to have a full time job at a church with a regular paycheck, that is certainly not the case for most of the folks you’re talking about. Gigs are sometimes few and far between – and that means they’re not working.

    I would encourage you to keep playing the type of music that you love, and to be thankful for the opportunity to do so. But, at the same time, don’t carry a grudge towards those whose music has caught the public’s ear.

    And don’t worry – with the fickle music industry, they won’ be superstars for long. A new voice with new songs will come along, and many of those popular artists will be left without a career.

    Here’s a prime example: Remember Petra and Whiteheart? They were the two biggest bands in Christian music in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. Absolute superstars. But now, 18 years later, the lead singers of BOTH bands are real estate agents. So much for glamor… šŸ˜‰

    Anyhoo – I hope that helps give you a new and different perspective.


  11. It’s obvious this is a topic many are passionate about! For me, it’s simple. I believe people deserve to be paid for their work, and a musician’s work is his song. Musicians are not making a tangible object (like a candy bar) that is being sold. But that doesn’t make it any less a commodity.

    Intellectual property is property too. Just because it’s “Christian” doesn’t mean it’s not intellectual property that’s worth something. Now, if the artist so chooses, he can offer it for free (Creative Commons, etc.). But many artists rely on their works for a substantial portion of their income.

    They’ve worked hard on it. We benefit from it. They should be paid for it. Organizations like CCLI have made licenses for most churches’ common uses of material so easily attained and affordable that there’s no excuse not to do the right thing.

    Now, as for the spoiled Christian artist comment — I’m a concert promoter, and all the folks I’ve met have been very down-to-earth. In fact, after spending time with them, artist-to-artist, I feel like most people have a very skewed view of what their lives are really like. Especially in today’s market, most Christian musicians barely get by. There are very few exceptions to that rule (Michael W. Smith, Newsboys, etc.).

    And I don’t think it’s being spoiled to ask for a good monitor mix and a quality sound system. They are entitled the tools required to do their job well. I will admit that I’m very lucky to play at the church I attend, and one reason I don’t hit the road more often is the sad state of other church’s sound systems. I don’t want my presentation to suffer from something that’s beyond my control. It’s my “brand” that’s on the line, and if I sound bad because of some church’s audio setup, that can impact my livelihood negatively. So I definitely see their point.

    It’s another topic for another day, but I think it’s sad more churches don’t prioritize sound quality. “Good enough for God” seems to be their motto. But to the contrary, how much more excellence should we aim for, knowing that we’re serving the One who deserves the very best we can offer? The same applies to the artists themselves. Artists who aim for the very best should not be ashamed of that.

  12. I express my sincere apologies for coming off as rude and hostile… because I think I did, and that was not my intention.

    From further contemplattment of my post, and reading what you have said, it is also clear a part of my post was highly inaccurate; I have no idea what the lives of mainstream Christian worship artists are like. I would however, be curious to see what the net income (and how it affects one’s life) of a mainstream worship artist is, without royalties, because I do think it’d be great if we could simply credit those who wrote the songs that are covered for a worship experience.

    I understand your point about how having quality audio is a plus, and I agree (I’m a musician, too). I just feel there’s a duality there, that a musician should not only have what they find satisfactory, but that they should also have a certain level of being able to “go with the flow”. There definitely has to be a level of working with your situation to create the best possible listening experience for those who are doing so; knowing that you can’t always have it “your way”. You adapt to your surroundings, and continue to send the quality output that you need to have honed (technique, knowing how to work with your own gear, etc.), because the responsibility of sounding good does not only apply to the sound guy.

    Reid, you pinned part of me right. I have had some less-than-pleasant experiences with musicians in the modern Christian “scene” before, so I apologize for globalizing those to belong to all. I look forward to meeting for down-to-earth people in the future, for I know they exist, because I have worked with them also.

    Bill – I understand your “Artists who aim for the very best should not be ashamed of that” point, but again, that’s a duality. Of course, we want a good playing environment, but at the end of the day, we still have to recognize that the Spirit can move in environments with a poor audio set-up.

  13. Cory – definitely. Going with the flow should be a part of any artist’s skill set. And the Spirit can and does move in all different types of settings. Good thoughts.

    However, just because the Spirit can move in any setting, does that mean we give a full band just one monitor mix and hope for the best? Or use the cheapest mics possible? Or ignore the laws of acoustics God Himself created?

    I’ve been involved in churches that have done just that, and it’s hindered the musicians (actually, driven them crazy). It’d be a miracle if those churches’ bands sounded good. Fortunately, God’s still in the miracle business. And lucky for them, worship is about a lot more than good music.

    We always have to balance our desire for technical excellence with a passionate devotion to following the heart of God. The best churches have both.

  14. Well, that is assuming that when you say “balance” you’re referring to holding each at the importance it deserves. I totally agree that we need to strive for technical excellence with a passionate devotion to following the heart of God.

    If by “balance” you mean put equal effort into each… well, that’s not right. Love the Lord your God with all your heart… after that, I’m all for putting in all the effort we can into technical excellence.

    And my apologies for posting three times in a row -_-

  15. Here’s an interesting thought, though… What if you are the tech dude? What if you’re the guy behind the audio board. What would “loving the Lord your God with everything” look like? I think it would look like striving to do your job the best you possibly can.

    So the singer can glorify God by playing and singing well. The tech team can glorify God by mixing well, etc. Thoughts?


    It’s not illegal to sing any song publicly. If it were, you’d have to send in a check every time you sang “Happy Birthday.” Singing and playing music isn’t the legal issue. (Welcome to cover bands). This shouldn’t even really be a discussion based on musician’s wages (based on the original topic). The discussion should be about worship and the tools used to worship.

    The legal issue is displaying words or selling material. Neither one is necessary for nor synonymous with “worship.” Displaying words is a tool used to help people worship just like the guitar that you play to help lead—or the speakers. None are necessary, but all help.

    Be careful not to mix biblical issues (such as worship) with non-biblical issues, such as copyright.

    You COULD have everyone memorize the lyrics and you’d be in the clear. This isn’t convenient, but it’s free and legal–and is the norm in other parts of the world.

    That being said–I think that there is some interesting ground to cover on the business/profitability of “worship.” –Including the “net worth” etc of the “superstar” worship leaders. I think that we who purchase materials or buy into whatever is pushed on to us are accountable for our motives–and the worship leader who is out to build a brand and sell merch catered to “worshipers” is accountable for his actions. God knows and judges the heart. It’s dangerous territory if you ask me, and I’m thankful I’m not the one to judge. Each one should test his actions against the Bible to gain the most accurate picture of what is right, rather than what seems justifiable.

  17. Actually, “Happy Birthday” is copyrighted, and the restriction on its public performance is actively enforced by Time Warner. That’s why when you go to the Outback or Bob Evans, they don’t sing “Happy Birthday” to you, but instead, their own little tune. Singing copyrighted songs in public is actually copyright infringement under Title 17 of U.S. law, BUT there is a “religious services exemption.”

    Anyway, is copyright really a non-biblical issue? Good question… Well, in Mark 12:17, Jesus says to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s (in other words, obey the law). And even more clearly, Paul says in Rom 13:1to obey the governing authorities because there is no authority except what God has established. All this to say: obeying the law is biblical. (And paying other people for the use of their property seems like doing unto others as you’d have them do unto you.)

    However, I do agree with Stephen that it is terrible to see how worship music has been turned into a profit-driven business. Many record labels and artists have hopped on the worship bandwagon because they know those albums will sell. (Actually, who am I to judge the heart… But that’s what it seems like.) And, as a consequence, we have a flood of worship songs on the market today that are of sub-par quality.

    On thing I really like about NPCC is the quality of the writing that goes on there. Eddie writes with the theological depth of a classic hymnist, and Todd always brings original ideas to the table. And these are just two of the many other great artists producing great works there!

  18. Bill – great insight!

    And yeah, I agree with everyone to see how the Christian record labels, and many Christian artists have skewed their songs and products towards corporate worship music simply to make a buck.

    I’m sure we all remember when it started back in the late 90’s… But let’s save that for another day.

    Bill – I also agree with the “who am I to judge the heart…”. That’s not an easy topic. I can think of lots of folks on both sides of that coin – some who truly walk it, and others who just talk it…

  19. Steven is almost correct. In New Zealand, you don’t have to pay to _use_ material in worship, because the religious worship exemption is applied in NZ law. Though you do have to pay to perform it in other public places. You cannot (legally) sing a copyrighted “Happy birthday” in a restaurant, but you can legally sing it in your home because that is a private place.

    The following is a post that I made to a mailing list a while back. It explains some of the issues involved, and what you’re paying for. (Note that it doesn’t address the issues for worship services that are recorded and distributed via CD etc or streamed to the internet. These have totally different licencing issues, because the performance is being taken outside of the house-of-worship).

    I must say that I find the original question a little naive: does your church pay for the electricity to heat (or cool) and light your church building? Do you pay rent or a mortgage for it, or building maintenance and insurance costs if you own it? Do you pay for light bulbs, toilet paper and rubbish disposal? Or do you expect the electricity company, bank, landlord, supermarket and city council to provide you with these things (all of which are needed for a group of people to worship together in public place) for free, just because you are “worshipping”, which TBH is something that you could be doing at home for free?

    ****** My background posting re licencing etc:

    There is an international convention, implemented in many country’s copyright laws, that allows any piece of music to be _performed_ within a worship service without any copyright considerations or [performance] licenceing needed. (1)

    However this only applies within the service: if music is performed (either live or canned) before or after the service, or piped into the foyer, or played at the wedding reception in the hall (etc etc) then the VENUE needs an appropriate performance licence. These performance licences are one of the things APRA sells. In 2004 (when I last researched it), returns about actual music played were not required for non-commercial use, so payments to artists and production companies cannot have been based on actual pieces played.

    Commercial use (eg performing pieces at a public concert for which tickets are sold) requires yet another type of performance licence. This cannot be arranged “in bulk” by the venue, it must be sorted out for each performance, but is (I think) also handled by APRA.

    Churches have an extra twist: as well as “performing” songs, they like to have their audience/congregation join in. If everyone knows the lyrics and tune, then it’s just a big “performance”. But typically they don’t, so the church needs to show the words, and maybe the notation. Previously they purchased hymn books, and the publishers sorted out copyright and the fee was included in the price. But when technology provided cheapish photocopying, overhead projectors and then data-projectors, churches started showing words and sometimes notation, without having a book for each person. Initially, they were breaking the law, so publishers complained and perhaps even sued. Church-copyright-licencing companies set up to fix the problem. They negotiate with copyright owners for the right to represent them in selling licences to display words(*). The best marketed such company is, CCLI is a privately owned company founded in the US in 1988, which focusses on the needs of the evangelical/pentecostal/praise-and-worship type churches. But there are others, eg Word of Life in Australisia, which focus on the needs of the more liturgical/traditional churches. Churches buy licences from these companies, and typically one of the conditions is an annual return saying which song-words etc were displayed, how often and/or how many people were there.

    (*) as technology has moved on, these licences have extended to cover other things like displaying notation, photocopying sheet music, showing videos etc.

    (1) I am not a lawyer. This is not legal advice. Please consult a lawyer to find out if this convention applies in your country, or whether your event is a “worship service”. Yes, it’s sad that I need to add this disclaimer. But that’s the way of the world …

  20. I think it is very important that these musicians, singers, writers, and copywriter holders are paid properly for their gifts. It is so easy for churches, and church goers to liken CCM and Gospel artist to their secular counterparts and criticize them for charging for their services or the use of their work. The reality is that many of use heard about, were enticed, visited and subsequently joined based on good singing and engaging lyric content. Taking nothing away from the Pastor, the beautiful facilities, and the accommodation ushers (lol), music is a very important and integral piece of the worship experience. As a career musician, I would want to know that i am being paid as well as credited for the exposition of my work. It’s only right. The alternative would be to hire these awesome artist and writers on at your church, OR retain their services to commission original material for your church.

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