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Brian Hehn on an Ecumenical CCLI Top Songs List

CCLI (Christian Copyright Licensing, Inc.) hugely influences what many congregations sing, so the United Methodist Church began vetting CCLI Top 100 songs in 2015. Since then, song leader Brian Hehn has been encouraging other denominations to vet these popular contemporary worship songs so he can eventually create an ecumenically approved list of CCLI Top 100 songs.

Brian Hehn is director of The Center for Congregation Song, the outreach arm of The Hymn Society in the U.S. and Canada. Comfortable leading congregational singing in any style, he is also director of adult discipleship and liturgical worship at St. John’s Lutheran Church of Sweet Air in metro Baltimore, Maryland. In this edited conversation, Hehn discusses a project to distill the wisdom of CCLI vetting teams from various Christian traditions.

How do you describe the difference between the work of The Hymn Society and The Center for Congregational Song?

They have the same board, and my boss is the executive director of The Hymn Society (THS). THS is more inwardly focused on taking care of its members and gathering them for annual conferences and other events. THS emphasizes classic hymnody. The Center for Congregational Song’s job is to be more forward looking and outward leaning. We create programs and resources, including A Cappella Sunday and blogs, podcasts, and album reviews. When we see good work, such as the United Methodist Church’s project to vet CCLI Top 100 songs, we recognize it and spur it onward.

How many Christian denominations or traditions have done a project to vet CCLI Top 100 songs?

The United Methodist Church (2015/2017, 2021, and 2024) did this first. On behalf of The Center for Congregational Song's work, I spurred some other denominational groups to take up similar projects. Since then, the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians published a list in their journal CrossAccent (Fall/Winter 2023), and the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA) published in early 2024. The Reformed list vetting team included people working in worshiping communities of the CRCNA, the Anglican Church in North America, and the Presbyterian Church in America.

Now, music scholars Sarah Kathleen Johnson, Emily Ralph Servant, and Anneli Loepp Thiessen are leading an Anabaptist/Mennonite team to vet CCLI Top 100 songs. They will probably publish their list in late 2024 or early 2025. Johnson was the worship resources editor for the Mennonite hymnal Voices Together (2020), which includes contemporary worship music licensed by CCLI.

Do Roman Catholics ever use CCLI songs in worship?

They do. CCLI SongSelect’s Liturgy Planning section recommends contemporary worship (CW) music, and you can find CW music along with hymns and chants for every Sunday in the three-year liturgical cycle. They’ve recently added songs for eucharistic adoration. I am going to do the Roman Catholic version of CCLI Top 100 songs myself.

Why will you do the Catholic list rather than asking Catholic music experts to gather a team?

Most Protestant denominations have formed groups of knowledgeable people in music or other topics. The Roman Catholic Church experts I consulted didn’t think that made sense because of the way that Catholic hierarchy and music work. Song approval is done at the bishop level. Everything that OCP (Oregon Catholic Press) publishes has to get permission from the bishop of Oregon. Anything GIA publishes for Catholic churches has to pass through a number of figures. Yet there’s no consistent music approval process from the United States Council of Catholic Bishops.

There are a ton of approved resources from various dioceses in the U.S. and Canada. Most lists have CCLI-approved songs. There’s also the WorshipNOW hymnal with two hundred CW songs. Although some Catholic parishes sing CCLI songs in Mass settings, they’re more often used for eucharistic adoration and youth gatherings that don’t include Mass. The Catholic musicians I consulted recommended that I pull and cross-reference instances of CCLI songs most common to officially approved hymnals and resources. The list likely won’t include the newest CCLI hits because there’s a lag between approval and use.

What will you do with all the vetted lists?

After I publish the Catholic list, hopefully in 2024, and after the Anabaptist/Mennonite list is finished, then I hope to create an ecumenical list of vetted CCLI Top 100 songs in 2025. The early UMC and Reformed lists used color coding, such as green for songs recommended with little or no reservations, yellow for recommendations with caution, and yellow with italics for songs requiring additional caution. My goal with an ecumenical list is to get a list of songs greenlit by everyone. I have no idea how many that will be—five? Eight? Lots more?

The Center for Congregational Song’s message will be: These are good CCLI songs; please sing them. Whether we continually update the ecumenical list will depend on feedback and whether new hymnal committees reference it.

What makes a song good?

Whether it’s a classic hymn like “Holy, Holy, Holy” or something on the CCLI Top 100, so much depends on how it is performed, sung, or heard by people. When and where the song is sung—and people’s loves, pain, sin, and memories—affect how people perceive the song. My choir is singing a setting of “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” which I had always thought was cheesy till I had an experience during the opening of a new music center. A beautiful soul led the song as a table prayer. As she got up, danced, sang, and prayed “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” God helped heal my brokenness. So in part we should always ask which songs are being used by God.

I’ll always remember hymnologists Mary Louise “Mel” Bringle and Sally Ann Morris explaining at the 2016 THS annual conference about proper contexts for singing “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” Though it began as a children’s processional song, some recent denominational hymnals have omitted it because of perceived militarism. But Mel and Sally showed a clip of Black Christians singing it during the civil rights movement, which reminded me how important it is to ask, “Who is singing this song—and why?”

Are there any CCLI Top 100 songs that you think shouldn’t be sung at all in worship?

In the context of the church in America, I think certain songs should not be sung. The church in America is in a dangerous place of being quite complicit in injustice, not speaking out for or helping people that Jesus asked us to care for, including the poor and immigrants. However, most songs can be sung with a proper frame, which is important since what a song means and how it is perceived could be drastically different. This past Advent, I realized that some people could interpret “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” as meaning that God will support Israel and destroy Palestine in every way. Good framing can remind worshipers that the Israel the Bible refers to is not the same as modern Israel.

Also, in my opinion, singing “Good, Good Father” can be used to undergird centuries of thinking that sees portraying God as masculine is the only acceptable image. We don’t need to add it to the huge canon of similar songs. The Bible has lots of images of God as masculine, but it also has feminine images for God.

Anything else you’d like to say?

When you look at the CCLI Top 100, you might think that every church is singing these songs. But CCLI is kind of an echo chamber. Not every church necessarily reports its song use. I suspect that churches who do report CCLI song usage skew toward larger churches with more resources and people who know they should report. We’d love to see CCLI be more transparent about posting data publicly about what songs smaller churches (fewer than a hundred people) or even house churches are using.

Also, remember that the vetting project and ecumenical list I’ve been describing are very specifically for and by churches in the U.S. and Canada. These lists are not designed to dictate to anybody or to be an international list to be farmed out all over the world. CCLI publishes CCLI Top 100 lists for various regions, and they’re not all the same.


To see CCLI Top 100 lists for different continents, go to this WorshipFuel page and use the dropdown menu in the upper right pane. Explore resources from The Center of Congregational Song.