(RNS) — On Easter Sunday, the worship band at Bethel Community Church in Redding, California, opened the service with “This Is Amazing Grace,” a 2012 hit that has remained one of the most popular worship songs of the past decade.
Chances are thousands of other churches around the country also sang that song — or one very similar to it.
A new study found that Bethel and a handful of other megachurches have cornered the market on worship music in recent years, churning out hit after hit and dominating the worship charts.
The study looked at 38 songs that made the Top 25 lists for CCLI and PraiseCharts — which track what songs are played in churches — and found that almost all had originated from one of four megachurches.
All the songs in the study — which ranged from “Our God” and “God Is Able” to “The Blessing” — debuted on those charts between 2010 and 2020.
Of the songs in the study, 36 had ties to a group of four churches: Bethel; Hillsong, a megachurch headquartered in Australia; Passion City Church in Atlanta, which runs a popular youth conference that fills stadiums; and Elevation, a North Carolina congregation with ties to the Southern Baptist Convention.
“If you have ever felt like most worship music sounds the same,” the study’s authors wrote, “it may be because the worship music you are most likely to hear in many churches is written by just a handful of songwriters from a handful of churches.”
The research team, made up of two worship leaders and three academics who study worship music, made some initial findings public Tuesday (April 11). More details from the study will likely be released in the coming weeks.
Elias Dummer, a worship leader and recording artist, said he and his colleagues have been watching changes in worship music over the past decade. They wanted to know how worship songs become popular among churches, he said. They also wanted to know how the business of producing and marketing songs is shaping the worship life of local churches.
Dummer said many worship leaders believe the best songs become the most popular in churches. They also believe those songs become popular because they work — people respond to them during worship services and want to sing them over and over. But that’s not exactly true. Dummer and his colleagues found many of the more recent hits songs were released as singles on Spotify and other streaming services, which helps fuel their popularity.
“There are actual mechanisms by which songs become the most significant,” he said. “It’s not just whatever songs the Holy Spirit blesses that make it to the top of the charts.”
For their study, researchers compared popular worship songs written before 2010 with those written from 2010 to 2020. Those earlier songs were often associated with individual worship leaders such as Chris Tomlin and Matt Redman, rather than with churches, and came from a variety of sources.