Worshipping for free

Every week at Simple Free, we sing one song. Music is not a centerpiece of the service, but it is still very important. Our philosophy of simplicity in the church extends into the songs we select for worship, so we do not sing any songs that require us to pay for their use. 

If you have never heard of paying for worship songs, I’ll give a short explanation.

Forty or 50 years ago, people would sing hymns straight from the hymnal on Sunday mornings. But in the mid- to late-70s, modern praise and worship began working its way into the sanctuary. This became a problem.

Normally, if someone reprints the lyrics to a song for mass consumption — as is done in churches around the globe every Sunday morning — certain royalties must be paid. So, back in the day, if a church wanted to use a song during worship and reprint the lyrics in the bulletin or store them on the church computer for future use, they would purchase a reprinting license for each song. At least the churches that knew and obeyed the law did. This whole painstaking process could be circumvented by just purchasing hymnals, which already have all the licensing fees taken care of for the songs they contain. 

But hymnals just didn’t cut it. As modern praise and worship became more and more popular thanks to the likes of Keith Green and Rich Mullins, churches around the country were scrambling to incorporate the latest songs every week. As you can imagine, it could be a bit of a headache paying reprinting fees for two or three or more new songs every week. 

In 1988, the Church Copyright License was created as a catchall solution. Christian Copyright Licensing International procured licensing rights for all the songs and then churches just paid them.

CCLI offers an elevated fee scale depending on the size of the church. For a church like Simple Free, we would only pay $50 a year to CCLI. A church between 200 and 500 members pays $230.

So why don’t we at Simple Free pay a measly $50 a year to have access to hundreds of thousands of the latest songs? 

Because we agree with the late Keith Green that praising God should be free. After releasing two albums the traditional way, Green came to the conclusion that he wouldn’t make people pay for his albums or concerts. He and his wife personally financed the release of his third album, “So You Want to Go Back to Egypt.” People sent him a letter requesting a copy of the album and he sent it to them, asking that if they felt led to pay, they could send however much they could. You can read all about that here. The story is fascinating but way too long to go into here.

The argument for paying for these songs is that if we don’t pay the artists, then they’ll stop writing songs. That’s up to them. 

There are plenty of great, theologically rich songs in the public domain that are already written and available free of charge. We may be left out of the loop on the latest hit worship chorus, but we’re okay with that.

Keeping expenses to a minimum is one of the core ideas behind Simple Free. We don’t pay a pastor, we don’t own or rent a facility, and we don’t pay an annual fee to praise God. 

— Zach McDonald

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One response to “Worshipping for free

  1. I hate CCLI. I always respect more an artist who gives away his music, same as with the preachers who make their sermons free for downloads.

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