How the CCLI Top 100 Project Came to Be

By Taylor Burton-Edwards

The CCLI Top 100 Vetting Project has its roots in three other projects, one that was already underway, a second that had recently begun, and the third that seemed likely to be forthcoming.

The project already underway was the Open Source Liturgy Project. This was an effort to create a platform for developing new liturgical texts across the cultural and linguistic diversity of The United Methodist Church. The process envisioned was built on the principles and practices of the largest projects in open source software development, particularly operating systems (largely based on Linux) and browsers (such as Firefox and Chromium, the Linux variant of Google’s Chrome). At the heart of these projects is a rigorous process of vetting at two levels.

The project that had recently begun was the preparation for a significant denominational worship gathering, with a particular focus on modern/contemporary worship, which we came to call Fusion. Part of the lead-up to that event was a symposium we held at United Theological Seminary in 2014. One of our invited guests was Chuck Fromm, editor of Worship Leader Magazine and founder of Maranatha! Music. In one of the conversations about the future of music resourcing in The United Methodist Church, Chuck said something simple and really important: “A hymnal is a vetted, curated collection of congregational song. That’s all it is. Its real value is in the vetting.”

That immediately clicked with me and my experience with the Open Source Liturgy Project, where, too, the real value is in the vetting. If we know what our core values are, we can offer rigorous, reliable vetting and from that guidance on whether, when, or how to use worship music of any genre.

The project forthcoming was a new hymnal for The United Methodist Church. The evidence was clear from our own interaction with pastors and worship leaders, and even clearer from CCLI statistics (The UMC is CCLI’s second largest denominational subscriber base in the US) that whatever a new hymnal would contain, it must include a substantial collection of worship songs from the past 20 years, many of which are being used via download from CCLI. But no one—no one—was offering any process for vetting these resources that were being so widely used in our congregations up to this time. And The United Methodist Church had never handled these kinds of resources—contemporary worship music for the most part—in any of its official resources.

So, if we were going to create a new hymnal, we needed to create a sound vetting process that could work with this body of music, and we needed to begin developing a group of people who could become expert at vetting this music with that process, so we could have both a process and people who could participate in the committee work of hymnal revision, assuming a new hymnal project was forthcoming

Of course, there are literally millions of songs in this literature. We needed some limitation on what we’d attempt to review. Helpfully, CCLI regularly publishes the list of the Top 100 songs downloaded or used by its subscribers. Knowing United Methodists rank quite high among CCLI’s users also meant our churches were significant drivers in what made it to the Top 100. So vetting the Top 100 would be a really useful starting place for our work, as well as making a sort of down payment on the larger work of possible hymnal committees that would follow us.

With this in mind, it was time to form the first CCLI Top 100 Vetting Team. First, I corresponded with church musicians and scholars I knew to be conversant with this literature. I asked them for two things: their possible interest in participating in the project as reviewers, and the names of others they knew who might be interested and qualified to offer a reasonable perspective on these issues, from as diverse a range as they or I could find. Once we had an original and diverse team of ten in place, we then began to work together to identify those issues we felt were most important for vetting this literature. Theology, language, and singability rose to the top of our list as the core criteria. We then dug down on each of these to develop and refine what would become the specific criteria we would use for vetting. And we used those criteria to work with our IT staff to build a spreadsheet and database driven scoring instrument we would all use to provide scoring and comments on all 100 of the 2015 Top 100 songs.

What we also decided early on is that scoring and comments alone would not decide our final recommendations. We still needed conversation to refine how we were commending these (or not), and decided we’d create two lists, a “green list” for those we commended without major reservation, and a “yellow list” of songs we commended with some significant caveats, but not necessarily show stoppers. And we decided we’d arrive at where songs would fall on these two lists through conference calls and consensus.

One more bit of background you may find interesting. Along the way we discovered in our conversations that scores sometimes didn’t reflect the kind of recommendation we would actually give some songs. What we all sensed was that theology was for us, as it was for John Wesley, perhaps the most important factor in our vetting. So before publishing our final scores, we adjusted the scoring tool to double-weight the theology scores within in the overall score. That helped significantly in our conversations and in the consistency between the scores we had assigned and the ways our conversations were leading us to consider them.

2018 will mark our third release of the CCLI Top 100 reviews. Our website will continue to carry reviews of all songs that have appeared from 2015-2017, and our Green and Yellow lists will continue to reflect all of these songs, not just those that appeared on the Top 100 for the first time in 2017. We’ve not changed our scoring tool since our initial release in 2015. As hoped, several of the participants in the CCLI Top 100 Vetting Team will be part of the hymnal revision process approved by the 2016 General Conference, and we trust their experience with this work has prepared them well for that larger task.