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Vetting CCLI Worship Songs for Faith Formation

Several denominations have created or are creating rubrics for vetting CCLI Top 100 contemporary worship songs. Vetting sparks conversations that help worship leaders make faithful decisions about which songs to put on congregations’ lips.

I love you, Lord. / Oh, your mercy never failed me” . . . “You give life. / You are love” . . . The first chords evoke an immediate reaction. Worshipers rise and lift their hearts to God. Many begin to sway, raise their hands, and sing along. Contemporary worship songs available through CCLI (Christian Copyright Licensing, Inc.) have become so popular that congregations around the world sing them, often in translated versions. Sinach’s “Way Maker” has been translated into more than fifty languages and has been covered by other artists.

Some worship leaders populate their weekly set lists with what they’ve heard at live concerts. Others automatically dismiss any contemporary worship songs as “7-11 songs” (seven words sung eleven times) or reject anything published by the “big four” worship megachurches—Bethel, Elevation, Hillsong, and Passion City Church—that dominate CCLI’s Top 25 lists.

Whether a CCLI Top song is a good choice for your worshiping community depends on important considerations that have nothing to do with its current ranking. “Every congregation is different (praise God), and every congregation will have and need different songs that form their faith and lift their voice in worship each week,” says Katie Ritsema-Roelofs, a worship specialist with Thrive, a ministry of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA).

Ritsema-Roelofs led a team that vetted CCLI Top 100 music suitable for congregational singing within a broadly Reformed tradition. “When I joined Thrive,” she says, “one of the most frequent questions asked was about songs churches should sing. I knew that the United Methodist Church (UMC) has a huge, ongoing project of evaluating popular worship songs. Brian Hehn, director of the Center for Congregational Song, asked whether I’d lead a project on behalf of Reformed churches. Nelson Cowan, manager of the UMC CCLI Top 100 + Beyond Project, was very helpful for our Reformed project.”

Ritsema-Roelofs, her project team, and Nelson Cowan explain that because songs form faith, it’s crucial to evaluate them with key criteria. Helpful song-vetting projects set criteria, look at the strengths and opportunities of various songs, and suggest ways to frame them in church worship.

Why vetting matters

“Will singing one song with questionable theology or not great language immediately impact your congregation? No, probably not,” Ritsema-Roelofs says. “But over time, if you sing the same themes over and over, they start to form you.

She gives some examples: “If a congregation sings nothing but ‘Jesus and me’ songs with first-person language, it forms them to think individually and not corporately. If a congregation plays favorites with the Trinity and sings only songs about Jesus, we forget about the richness of the work of God the Father and the presence of the Holy Spirit. If we only sing songs of triumph and joy, it forms us to forget about—or gaslight the experiences of—those who come to worship in deep seasons of pain. Faith formation is slow work that happens over time. And in this case, it happens song by song.”

Nelson Cowan says he felt privileged to be included on the original 2015 UMC song-vetting project team along with Methodist experts such as Taylor Burton Edwards, Constance Cherry, Jackson Henry, Swee Hong Lim, and Lester Ruth. Now director at the School of the Arts’ Center for Worship and the Arts at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, Cowan is also a worship leader, a liturgical theologian, and an ordained UMC pastor.

“As Methodists,” he says, “we believe what we sing shapes our view of God. Methodism is embedded in its hymnody. But being theologically Methodist doesn’t mean you have to make old hymns the gold standard for congregational worship. Contemporary worship music emerges from a different style of piety. These new songs from CCLI and beyond can also be compatible with our Wesleyan theological heritage and United Methodist principles.”

Key questions: Theology, language, singability

“The tool put together by the UMC is extensive and part of a huge research project with a large team dedicated to it,” Ritsema-Roelofs says. “We knew that was not going to be us.”

Her team scaled back the UMC tool for their context. “We used three UMC criteria: theology, language, and singability,” she explains. “We also used the color coding of their 2015 and 2017 projects, with green for (songs) recommended with little or no reservations; yellow for recommendations with caution; and yellow with italics for songs requiring additional caution.”

Her Reformed vetting team included people with CRCNA ties who now teach, serve as chaplains, lead chapel worship at Christian universities, or plan and lead worship in Anglican Church in North America, CRCNA, or Presbyterian Church in America congregations. They published their results in January 2024.

Similarly, the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians (ALCM) published a CCLI Top 100 list in the Fall/Winter 2023 issue of its journal CrossAccent. Its vetting categories were theology, language, and musical performance.

Theological commitments informed how song vetting teams evaluated the popular Elevation Worship song “O Come to the Altar.” The UMC 2017 list recommended it. The ACLM list appreciated its emphasis on Lutheran themes such as grace, law, and gospel, commenting that the song “invites us as broken people to the altar to receive forgiveness and comfort.” But the Reformed list cautioned, “Without a contextual understanding of an ‘altar call,’ where are we encouraging people to come? Is it a physical location? A spiritual one? To an unknown place where sins are forgiven? . . . There is also concern that leaving behind sinfulness is something we can/cannot do in our own strength.”

Vetting teams generally recommended language that is congregational rather than individualistic, is clear rather than ambiguous, and uses trinitarian and expansive terms for God rather than exclusively focusing on Jesus or overusing male pronouns for God. “The UMC, per their tradition, was very mindful of gendered language for God,” Ritsema-Roelofs says. “We noted it, . . . but it wasn’t part of our vetting process because it generally is not a concern for most our congregations. Denominations are different!” All three teams appreciated the Trinitarian refrain in “King of Kings” by Brooke Ligertwood and Hillsong Worship.

Vetting teams noted problematic, racially insensitive, and triggering language. Examples include equating whiteness with purity and salvation in “Jesus Paid It All” and “At the Cross (Blood Ran Red)“ or equating sin with darkness in “Build Your Kingdom,” “This Is Amazing Grace,” and “Glorious Day (Living He Loved Me),” which includes “sin as black as can be.” The Reformed list cautioned that “change leper’s spots” in “Jesus Paid It All” can be triggering in disability/ability conversations. It warned that singing “don’t wanna abuse your love” in “Holy Water” or “I will make room for you to do what you want to” in “Make Room” may be difficult for abuse/trauma survivors.

For singability, the Reformed list flagged songs with challenging vocal ranges, complex melodies, or highly syncopated beats that may be hard for some congregations to sing. Beginning with its 2021 CCLI Top 100 + Beyond Project, the well-resourced UMC began linking to acoustic, virtual, and other arrangements better suited to small churches with few musicians. The ALCM provides detailed music performance notes, such as marking songs with a recorded key too high for congregations to sing and recommending which key to use instead. The ALCM, Reformed, and UMC teams all rated “Goodness of God” by Bethel Music and Jenn Johnson as easy for congregations to sing.

Strengths and opportunities

Adam Perez grew up in the CRCNA and served on the Reformed song-vetting team. He teaches worship at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee and has been writing about contemporary worship music for more than a decade. “I’m grateful that language I learned from Lester Ruth, who was my Duke Divinity doctoral advisor, made it into our Reformed CCLI project” Perez says. “Thanks to him, we asked, ‘What strengths and opportunities does the practice of contemporary worship music present?’”

The prologue to the Reformed vetting list states, “Every song has strengths and opportunities, and we greatly respect the prayerful and Spirit-led decisions made across our tradition each week as worship planners get to work.” It suggests conversations to help worship leaders consider songs from a formative perspective.

For example, “Battle Belongs” fills a gap in the Reformed context because it “speaks to the reality of spiritual warfare and battles.” Another strength is that it “acknowledges very real fears” and “invites worshipers to name their fears and place them before God.” Its “warfare language” and “victory/deliverance theology” present an opportunity to question whether it’s appropriate to use praise as a power to control circumstances. The Reformed team suggests that “Battle Belongs” might be a good response to a sermon on spiritual warfare.

 “Sometimes a fish doesn’t recognize the water in which it swims,” Perez says. “We have to admit we are informed and influenced by Top CCLI songs more than we realize. The repertoire, history, and theology of praise and worship has its own distinctives worth reflecting on. Power, deliverance, and victory are strong motifs in CCLI songs.

“But we also need epistemic humility to recognize that we don’t know everything, life isn’t always going well for us, and we aren’t always on God’s side. It’s good to claim God’s promises, and yet we may receive full deliverance only when Christ returns.”

Framing songs in worship

Perez says that framing songs in worship is a way to exercise epistemic humility: “When worship planners choose a song that’s really heavy on ‘God’s on our side; who could be against us?’, maybe they can balance it with a prayer or litany that asks, ‘God, help us to see where we’re not aligning with your will.’”

Framing can be is as simple as using “in-between” words. Community Christian Reformed Church in Kitchener, Ontario, regularly sings “O Come to the Altar” during communion, says Laura de Jong, Community’s pastor of preaching and worship. “Altar calls aren’t a regular thing in the Reformed church,” she explains, “but we can frame the song with just a sentence beforehand, reminding people that coming to an altar is an act of dedication. We can invite them to come before God with all that they're carrying, laying it down at the feet of Jesus, who was the sacrifice for us all.” De Jong also served on the Reformed song-vetting team.

Nelson Cowan acknowledges, “Our UMC lists don’t just say no to a song. No one song can do everything theologically and liturgically. And you have to know your context. Songs with all masculine pronouns like ‘God Is Love’ or ‘Is He Worthy?’ might be heart songs in some congregations and highly offensive in others.

“Maybe you use a highly masculine song anyway but juxtapose it with ‘Mother Bird, Mother Bear’ by Leslie Jordan of the recently disbanded group All Sons and Daughters. God is described as a mother eagle in Deuteronomy 32:11–12 and as a mother hen in Matthew 23:37 and Luke 13:34. Depictions of God as a fiercely protective mother bear come from Hosea 13:8a and 2 Kings 2:24.”

Ritsema-Roelofs says that she has used and will still use songs the Reformed team issued cautions about. “Many of these are known and loved by my kids,” she says. “They’re not awful theologically or biblically unsound. But I make sure to have conversations at home and church about questions and disconnects. When facing death or difficult hardship, how and why do we keep singing about God’s goodness and how God is going to never let us down? 

“Sometimes it feels like God has let us down. Sometimes it feels like we don’t know if God is actually good. Just because we sing it in that moment doesn’t mean it has to be a representation of how we feel. We sing it because it’s true and because it’s the hope we hold on to. We don’t sing and bury all our emotions and our pain. We sing and we offer it up in hope.”


Explore CCLI Top songs vetted by Reformed churches and the United Methodist Church (2015/2017, 2021, and 2024). Access the Lutheran list by joining Association of Lutheran Church Musicians or ordering the Fall/Winter 2023 issue of CrossAccent.

You can find the latest CCLI Top 100 songs and explore its entire catalog for free on SongSelect. Members get access to lyric, lead, chord, and vocal sheets, auto transpositions, and more. Check out interviews with songwriters and worship leaders; tips on writing songs, improving vocals, or using tracks; gear recommendations; and more on WorshipFuel, an arm of CCLI. Consult the dropdown menu on the far right to find CCLI Top 100 results in other countries.

Catch up on contemporary worship research by Adam Perez and others at (WLR), such as “big four” worship megachurches’ influence on CCLI and this June 2023 survey of US worship leaders. Perez is leading WLR’s Vital Preaching, Vital Worship Grant project.

Compare the opinions of Katie Ritsema-Roelofs, Renewing Worship, and Katelyn Beaty on whether to sing songs from musicians or megachurches involved in scandals. Read Adam Perez’s 2022 Religions article “It’s Your Breath in Our Lungs,” which talks about singing about warfare themes in contemporary worship.

Gather a group to read and discuss A History of Contemporary Praise & Worship: Understanding the Ideas that Reshaped the Protestant Church, by Lester Ruth and Lim Swee Hong, and Singing the Congregation: How Contemporary Worship Music Forms Evangelical Community, by Monique M. Ingalls.