Myth #1: Is it legal to use secular songs in worship?

Today’s guest post is the first of a six-part series from Christian Copyright Solutions Founder and President Susan Fontaine Godwin, an educator and long-time member of the Christian arts community with 28 years of experience in the Christian media industry, church copyright administration and copyright management.Susan Godwin CCS Photo

The first time I remember hearing a secular song used in worship was at a rural church in northern Indiana. It was “Let My Love Open the Door,” by Pete Townshend, performed by a spunky blond woman from the praise band. It was a catchy and energetic way to kick off a service closing out their “Doors” series, which would invite people to walk through a large door on stage to symbolize their acceptance of Christ.

I became an instant fan of using secular music in worship, if it supported the message. I anticipated opposition to the idea from our church’s leadership, partially from a legal perspective (was a church even allowed to do that without special permission?) but mainly from a theological perspective. It can be controversial, as a lot of people feel secular music has no place in sacred worship. Granger pastor Tim Stevens makes the case for using secular music in his book, Pop Goes the Church, saying there is biblical precedent and gospel imperative for churches to leverage pop culture to reach secular people.

If you can remove the theological stumbling block for your congregation and fellow worship planners, you can rest easy knowing that the legal stumbling block has already been taken care of. As it turns out, secular music is included under the Religious Services Exemption to U.S. copyright law, stating that churches do not need a performance license to play live or pre-recorded versions of any kind of music (sacred or secular) in the context of regular worship services. The only exception in the exemption is “dramatico-musical” works (operas and plays) of a secular nature. These are not exempt and would require licensing.

It’s important to note that this exemption only applies to playing or performing music, and does not extend to reproducing music in any form, such as making an audio or video recording of music in your service, or making copies of song lyrics.

The morning after that service at Granger, I heard Pete Townshend’s song again on a pop radio station, and I was immediately reminded of the service’s message. To this day, I remember that Christian message whenever I hear the song. That’s the power of using pop songs in worship, and there’s no law to keep you from embracing it.

Want to know more about copyright myths that put your church at risk? Watch this helpful video from Christian Copyright Solutions and download their free downloadable resource to worship ministers – 6 Myths About Copyrights That Put Your Church at Risk. CCS’s quest is to help churches and Christian ministries “do music right.” CCS is an expert on church music copyrights and our primary focus is providing licensing and clear educational resources to churches, as well as representation, administration and advocacy for copyright owners.

Paul Alan Clifford, M.Div.

Paul Alan Clifford, M.Div. has been a tech volunteer with Quest Community Church in Lexington, KY since 2000 and is the founder of TrinityDigitalMedia.com, llc. He became part of the technology in ministry team when his church’s attendance was around 200 in one Sunday service and has witnessed it’s growth to 5,200 average weekly attendance in one Saturday service, four Sunday services in one online and two physical campuses. He literally wrote the book on podcasting in churches, twitter in churches, & servant-hearted volunteering, as well as writing various articles for publications like “Church Production” and “Technologies for Worship” magazines.