Freedom To Change Lyrics?


One of the most controversial thread topics at The Worship Community, and one that is revisited time and time again, is whether or not we have the freedom to change lyrics to songs that we use for corporate worship if, for whatever reason, we feel that a lyric might not work well in our gathering.

One of the most “questioned” lyrics in the last few years has been the “Sloppy wet kiss” line from John Mark McMillian’s How He Loves. We have a great example of a well-known worship leader/touring artist (David Crowder) changing the lyric to “Unforeseen kiss.” This article isn’t presented to dive into the merit, theological soundness or usefulness of that specific lyric, but to address the broader issue at hand:

When is it ok to change a lyric and how do you go about doing it?

There are a range of responses that come with a range of questions. Generally, the first issue that seems to come up is the legality of the lyric change. Is it ok to just change a lyric without the author’s permission? Technically, it’s not.

From the CCLI support FAQ: Can we change the lyrics of a song?

The copyright protects the integrity of the song’s lyrics (words) and melody.  The lyrics, the melody, and the fundamental character of a copyrighted song cannot be altered, or changed, in any way without the express permission of the song’s copyright owner.

Legally, without contacting the author of the song and getting specific permission, you can’t just go editing songs at your leisure. There’s no song lyric police roaming through churches however and there probably wouldn’t be a big legal issue if you DID change the lyrics for whatever reason.

Integrity and Honoring God by Honoring Authority

Some would say that to change a song without going through the proper channels would show a lack of integrity. That even though there aren’t lyric police enforcing the copyright laws that it doesn’t sit with them right to make changes without contacting the author. It’s probably best practice to do all that you can to stay above reproach. In this situation, that means contacting the author and explaining your lyrical dilemma and asking them if they’d mind you tweaking the lyric to best suit your congregation’s needs.

Contacting The Author

In this day and age of facebook and twitter, it seems everyone is easily accessible. Look them up, contact them, and ask them directly about your lyric change. I’ve heard several stories of people contacting the artist/authors of songs and explaining their situation to them and the author being thrilled to work with them.

As a songwriter myself, I’d love to have someone contact me and share their heart about a lyric and work with them to make sure that the song continues to have great impact. This can be done without changing the main structure and intergrity of the song.

Fred McKinnon shares an example of a lyric change he approached Jonathan Stockstill (Deluge) about recently:

I had issue with a lyric in” Open Up the Sky” by Jonathan Stockstill so I just sent him a message on facebook and got his permission to change the line, and the added benefit of his reasoning for the original lyric. Awesome!

Ian McIntosh (Jesus Culture) shares an example of a lyric change they made with the author’s permission on a recording they were doing for Jesus Culture:

There are two/three songs on JesusCulture’s upcoming CD/DVD that we changed MAJOR structure/lyric/chords on songs that haven’t been nationally/internationally recognized. We have shown and discussed these changes with the original authors, and they are super stoked… not weird at all. One such song was written by a 16 year old girl from Florida and the original verse just didn’t fit our DNA as JesusCulture… so we got a hold of her and told her we wanted to cover it and explained that while her verse was SOLID and really great doctrinally and everything, we really wanted to change it to “bla bla bla” so it would fit our world better. She didn’t care a bit.

Other Options

So you’re not able to change the lyric to that song legally. You can’t get the author’s permission. What are you to do? Well, first off you could just make the change and be like a Worship Leader Robin Hood, robbing from the establishment and giving to the poor. You know, like a singing bandit that runs from the law! Ok, I’m kidding here, and not suggesting this at all. My hope and prayer is that you would do all that you can do to contact the author and work with them to make the necessary change.

If for some reason that just doesn’t happen here are some other options:

  1. Skip that verse. Use other verses in the song.
  2. Medley the chorus from the song in question with another song. Sometimes the most powerful (and engaging) part of a song is it’s chorus. Set it up with another song that can move you into the chorus of the song in question and just skip the troublesome verses.
  3. Find another song that works thematically. There are literally thousands upon thousands of songs to choose from. I guarantee there is another song that will work thematically.
  4. Write a new song. As a songwriter, and one who loves to equip others to write, I sometimes get frustrated at the amount of “copycat” setlists we have throughout our churches. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes it’s beneficial and effective to use those songs that just seem to connect on a worldwide level, but it’s also beneficial and effective for you to write songs that serve your congregation right where you and they are.

Your Thoughts?

What do you think? Is it a really big deal to you to change lyrics to a song for the sake of others? What reasons have you had in the past for changing lyrics in a worship song?