‘Oceans’ Keeps Rising
Image: Hillsong United

The worship music powerhouse out of Hillsong Church in Sydney has created some of evangelicals’ favorite worship songs of the past decade: “Mighty to Save,” “Desert Song,” “The Stand,” and many more.

But “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)” by Hillsong United has blown them all out of the water with its commercial staying power.

It's been on the Billboard Hot Christian Songs list longer than any other Christian single. Though it came out more than two years ago, “Oceans” ranked No. 1 as recently as last month, based on radio airplay, sales, and digital streaming. (It’s currently No. 2.)

From Zion, Hillsong United's quickest and best-selling album, the now-platinum “Oceans” first swelled to the top of the chart in December 2013, where it stayed for 50 consecutive weeks—another record.

On YouTube, the 9-minute-long lyric video for “Oceans” has 35 million views, more than any posted by Hillsong, and a performance in Relevant Magazine’s studios also continues to be hugely popular, with 17.5 million.

Worshippers have sung out, “Call me out upon the water…” at hundreds of Christian gatherings; “Oceans” currently ranks 3rd among songs licensed by churches through CCLI. Plus, the song has received some mainstream exposure: pop singer Selena Gomez said she plays it in her dressing room, and a contestant performed “Oceans” on the latest season of The Voice.

In anticipation of the May 26 release of their newest album, Empires, Hillsong United recently performed on the Today show. Their newest single, “Touch the Sky,” is fifth on the Billboard Christian charts and features Taya Smith, the soloist on “Oceans.”

So why is “Oceans” still so popular? Here’s what worship music experts had to say:

Tanya Riches, Hillsong collaborator, singer, and researcher at the University of Birmingham's Cadbury Centre:

There is a huge demand for songs women can lead, and for this reason a popular congregational song sung by a female is always going to stick around. There's no doubt that Taya manages the fine balance, as she holds her own with the boys but has also brought a distinctly feminine sound back to United. She's a very unique talent but has a great worship pastor, Cassandra Langton, and a long heritage she's inherited from Darlene Zschech.

The lyrics of “Oceans” are modern but also timeless, which fits Taya’s quirkiness completely. It could be sung in this generation, or a century ago. It echoes the fears of missionaries heading off to do work overseas. Some of the greatest songs “I Surrender All” and “Amazing Grace” are linked to the sea. In that sense, maybe it connects the current church to the faithfulness of those in the generations before us.

Wen Reagan, contemporary worship music historian and doctoral candidate at Duke Divinity School:

I think it's return to the Billboard No. 1 is probably a result of its play on The Voice and its rising popularity on CCLI's Top 25, where it's currently sitting at No. 3.

CCLI can be slow build; it can take a good amount of time for songs to climb up CCLI charts (months or years), but once they do, they generally have longevity. So I would imagine the [No. 1 Billboard ranking] is the fruit of a long build in churches that spilled over.

It's a good Hillsong song. The lyrics are some of their better ones, and match a trend—to write more compelling lyrics that employ a wider array of language and imagery beyond the traditional Christian worship music language steeped in a one-on-one love relationship with God.

July/August
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‘Oceans’ Keeps Rising