pay it forward

Who composed the songs we love to sing on Sunday mornings? Sometimes, there’s an easy answer. Churches pay a fee to Christian Copyright License International (CCLI); we log which songs we use so that the artists get credit for their work. Like any system, it benefits those who know how to work it, copyright their songs, and register them. Many of our favorites are not listed.

Yesterday, I attempted to catch up on our CCLI log of songs; it isn’t my favorite task, so I have fallen behind. Starting where I had left off, I searched Welcome to My Father’s House. Hm. No obvious matches. Google found James Abbington, Associate Professor of Church Music and Theology at Emory, whose recordings highlight favorites from the African American Heritage Hymnal. Wait. We have that in the music room at NCF. I see other favorites, credited to African-American traditional. So… we basically use this music for free. Is this our concern?

But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the part with less honor so that there won’t be division in the body and so the parts might have mutual concern for each other. 1 Corinthians 12:24b-25 (CEB)

Predominantly white churches like ours are beginning to realize how much of the music we love and use freely is of African origin, composed by Black musicians who have not been compensated for their contributions to our worship. It begins to occur to us that singing these songs, without acknowledging their cultural context, does not give honor where it is due. 

If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part gets the glory, all the parts celebrate with it. 1 Cor. 12:226 (CEB)

Much of this music came out of experiences of suffering. Did the white church suffer with the Black church as one body? Are there ways that we can give glory to the parts that were dishonored, in order that we might be able to celebrate the gift of this music again? 

To begin repair of the body, one church has begun paying ‘royalties’ when they sing spirituals composed by enslaved Africans, donating to a nonprofit youth music program supporting Black musicians. Another is developing a reparations royalty program, which could include a donation any time they perform a song from any Black composer.

You are the body of Christ and parts of each other. 1 Cor 12:27 (CEB)

Our musicians recorded over 150 songs during the pandemic; we uploaded another 30 to Spotify yesterday. Many of those do not fit the CCLI framework for compensating artists. How do we honor singer-songwriters and musicians for their work that facilitates our worship? For traditional African American hymns, spirituals, and gospel songs- is there a way we can pay it forward to young Black musicians, part of us as one body with each other? For songs whose composers we know but are not part of the CCLI system, can we find ways to honor their gifts to us? The apostle Paul says that they key to our unity as a body of many parts, with many different gifts, is love.

If I speak in tongues of human beings and of angels but I don’t have love, I’m a clanging gong or a clashing cymbal. If I give away everything that I have and hand over my own body to feel good about what I’ve done but I don’t have love, I receive no benefit whatsoever. 1 Cor 13:1,3 (CEB)

As we learn to honor the parts of our body that have previously not been given honor, may our love for each part of us increase, that we might become more like Jesus.


3 Comments On “pay it forward”

  1. Thank you for reminding us that we are part of a wider church community: One body with many parts and different gifts, and at the center, Love.


  2. A lot of Christmas songs were composed by Jewish composers…

    There is a reason not to plagiarize. You seek copyrights before using them. Many are offered solely to the Glory of God and no compensation is requested.

    Our musicians should be rewarded. Even Jubal’s dad requests royalties for his music via CD sales. Ask what would be just. If they want it donated to charity, that is their perogative.


  3. I am so pleased you thought of this and there are ways to “repair” the wrong.


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