I’m not a songwriter, but as a worship minister I respect the skill that it takes to write a good song for corporate worship: the melody has to be in a singable range so that everyone, no matter their singing ability, can freely participate in the music. But the words also have to pass muster. I’m protective about the words my congregation sings. Not that every song is a theological treatise (that would be exhausting), but, like a dietician, I make sure that all the songs we sing contribute to the health of our congregation. While the roof-raising bangers might be fun to sing, we have to sing about sin sometimes and then hear God’s forgiveness. We need music to sing us out of the church into the streets where the Christian life really happens.
The music we sing has formative power. As the one shepherding my congregation through worship, I want to make sure the songs we sing express the fullness of the Christian experience, including the female Christian experience. So this got me thinking about who is writing the contemporary songs we sing. What backgrounds do they come from and, specifically, how many women are penning the church’s anthems? Not many.
Women and Worship Throughout History
First, a word of perspective. Women have never dominated the Christian worship scene, but they have never been absent from it, either. Miriam penned a song of worship in Exodus 15:21, Deborah sang of God’s provision in 1 Samuel 2:1–10, and Deborah wrote about God’s victory in Judges 5. And then there’s Mary’s prophetic Magnificat in Luke 1:46–55. The Bible gives voice to women who lift their voices in praise.
Throughout Christian history, women have continued to influence worship. Notably, Ephrem the Syrian made use of choirs of women in the fourth century to perform his beautiful hymnic theology in worship. In the sixteenth century, Teresa of Avila composed songs and had a mystical experience while singing the hymn “Veni Creator.”1 During the Protestant Reformation, Katharina Schütz Zell produced a hymnbook so lay people could sing songs of faith at home in German.2
Later, in the nineteenth century, Catherine Winkworth translated hymns into English, including well-loved classics like “Now Thank We All Our God” and “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty.” Meanwhile in America, Dwight L. Moody’s revivals were sweeping the nation, and Fanny Crosby provided the soundtrack. And when global Pentecostalism grew during the twentieth century, Darlene Zschech came out of Hillsong Church in Australia, sweeping the world with classics she penned, like “Shout to the Lord.”
The Problem Facing Women in the Worship Music Industry Today
So Christianity has always had women contributing to the way we worship. But have women been equal contributors with men to our great worship traditions? Hardly.
Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) is the leading licensing company for contemporary worship. The CCLI Top 100 chart is a bellwether of the Christian contemporary worship scene. The 20 songs currently at the top of the CCLI chart have 64 authors attributed to them (many are repeated from song to song). Of those 64 authors, 54 are men, which means women make up only about 16 percent of the authorship of the most influential worship songs being sung in churches today.
Part of the difficulty for women songwriters is simply getting in the room for a co-writing session, the most common way worship songs are created. Women songwriters can encounter difficulties that their male counterparts do not face. In a July 2021 interview, songwriter Krissy Nordhoff (author of “Your Great Name”) expressed the frustration of not being able to be involved in some co-writing opportunities because the other artists followed the Billy Graham rule, which says that a man should not be alone in a room with a woman other than his own wife. Nordhoff pointed out that, “if I had that same perspective, personally, I would not be able to be a professional female songwriter.” Rather than “making sure we’re healthy and can sit in a room together, one-on-one,” the men in the Christian worship scene find it easier and more comfortable to share their power and influence with a small, homogenous group.
Nevertheless, Women Are Still Making Music
However, there is one notable contradiction to the status quo, offering hope for the future. In 2015 a Nigerian musician named Sinach made a music video of her new song. A year later she recorded it and it was noticed by UK talent scouts. That song was “Way Maker,” which has taken the United States by storm and has subsequently been covered by the likes of Michael W. Smith, Leeland, and Bethel Music. “Way Maker” is the only song in the top 20 of the CCLI chart that is not co-written. It’s the only song written exclusively by women (in this case, one woman). And where does it sit on the chart? Number one.
With the advent of streaming platforms like Spotify, it has never been easier for an artist to have their music heard by a worldwide audience. Because high quality recording is possible for a fairly low price, more and more independent musicians are recording and finding their way into our headphones. Women songwriters are emerging, even if they may not be breaking onto the CCLI Top 100.
One such example of an independent worship project is Daughter Zion’s Woe, a compilation of worship songs written exclusively by women. Daughter Zion’s Woe is an album of lament written from women’s perspectives. From its conception, Daughter Zion’s Woe was created to serve the church, not reach number one on the CCLI Top 100. In so doing, they have filled a void in the contemporary worship scene: a need for honest songs of lament that can lead God’s people to grieve with hope. Who better to write these songs of lament than women actively serving in churches?
Finding Next Steps
Although the church today likely sings more songs by women than any time in its past, the fact that women still only make up 16 percent of those writing the most popular songs should give Christian egalitarians pause. We know that the church is majority female, yet our songs are overwhelmingly written by men. What new perspectives might we see in our worship music if even 25 percent of those songwriters were women? How might boys and young men be formed for mutuality by regularly singing to God from a woman’s point of view?
Equality in worship music would benefit the church as a whole. We might see a more diverse variety of topics, simply because women’s experiences often differ from men’s. Like Daughter Zion’s Woe, we might sing fewer songs of triumphalist victory and instead more songs of honest lament.
Men and women flourish when we are able to exercise our gifts in mutuality, which is another way to say the church flourishes when men and women have equal authority to serve. If you are a leader in a church, take a look at who writes the songs you sing, and consider broadening the sources from which you draw. If you are not in ministry, search out some of the lesser-known female worship artists and buy or stream their albums. Hopefully, the coming generation will have more and more women who, like Fanny Crosby, can share with the church their stories and their songs.
Looking for some of these female worship artists? Here’s a playlist just for you!
1. Teresa Berger, “Women in Worship” in The Oxford History of Christian Worship, Geoffrey Wainwright and Karen Westerfield Tucker, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 762–763.
2. Katharina Schütz Zell, Church Mother: The Writings of a Protestant Reformer in Sixteenth-Century Germany, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).
Photo by Soundtrap on Unsplash.
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