Open Letter to Worship Leaders (Revised)

Several years ago, I wrote an open letter for worship songwriters and leaders. It appeared in Worship Leader magazine and was widely distributed. It seemed like time for an update (especially in light of the “Liturgical Challenge” section of my most recent book) … Feel free to pass it on to a worship leader or songwriter you know and love:

An Open Letter to Worship Songwriters (2013) (by Brian D. McLaren,
Greetings, fellow songwriters, fellow worshippers, fellow leaders in worship, fellow musician/artists, and fellow Christians who are working for deep renewal in Christian faith, identity, life and mission:
For about seven years now, I have been writing and speaking “on the road” full time, speaking to Christian leaders from across the denominational spectrum, from Africa to Asia to Europe to Latin America to the North America. For twenty-four years before that, I served as a church planter and pastor serving a church that committed itself to grapple with the rapidly changing culture we often refer to as “emerging” – postmodern, post-colonial, post-industrial, post-nationalist, post-communist, and so on.
There are no maps to guide us in this adventure – nobody can offer a $39.95 package that will get you through the postmodern transition if five easy steps. We only know we’re on a quest to honor God and follow Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit, rooted in the Scriptures and educated by our rich (and checkered) Christian tradition. We find ourselves in a story very much like the children of Israel did when they left Egypt and crossed the Sea into the unknown wilderness. We’re trusting that a God-sent cloud-pillar and fire-cloud will guide us by day and night.
In my travels, I have the opportunity to be with hundreds of worship teams, bands, and leaders, and have spent hundreds of hours being led in worship – from high liturgical to store-front Pentecostal, from “under a tree” indigenous to rock-concert-megachurch, from house church with a lone guitar to cathedral with a massive pipe organ and a mass choir. There are many observations and affirmations I could imagine sharing with you who are worship leaders based on my experience. But one request stands out: a request for the songwriters among us to explore and then lead us into some new lyrical/spiritual territory.
One still hears a lot of complaints about lame music, trite and repetitive lyrics, theological shallowness, etc., etc., in the world of contemporary Christian music. Some of these complaints come from people who secretly wish we would go back to singing hymns like they did back in the -50’s (18- or 19-, your pick). I am not interested in complaining, and I have more interest in what will be in the 2050’s than in what was in the 1950’s (the decade of my birth). My concern has to do with substance, because for all the musical changes (pipe organs to rock bands) and lyrical changes (traditional hymns to worship choruses), what we’re singing – the content – hasn’t changed much, except, perhaps, to be condensed or reduced.
Whether we’re vocalizing in traditional four-part harmony or singing and swaying to a solid rock and roll beat, we’re still generally celebrating the same basic theology that emerged in American frontier revivalism, or in British revivalism before that, or in the Reformation and Puritan eras still earlier. That theology served well (some irony is intended in that word “well”) during the time of European colonialism and industrial-era exploitation of the planet. By and large it didn’t disturb slavery or segregation or apartheid. It left public this-wordly life largely undisturbed while concentrating our private life on the afterlife, and on issues of guilt and forgiveness, hell and heaven, damnation and redemption.
Many of us have been going back to the Scriptures and allowing them to critique our theology. We have become convinced that there is more going on from Genesis to Revelation than the revelation of “the sinner’s prayer” and “the Roman Road,” or TULIP or this or that set of denominational distinctives. We have gotten a fresh vision of Jesus and his gospel of the kingdom (or reign, commonwealth, community, or ecosystem) of God.
That understanding of the gospel teaches us not to fear death. It infuses the afterlife with both hope. But it also gives us a sense of heightened accountability for how we live this life – in relation to the poor and marginalized, our enemies, future generations, and our fellow creatures in God’s world. It proclaims good news of great joy, not just for “people like us,” but for all people and all creation. Yes, it celebrates the holiness and joy of “one day in God’s courts,” but it also celebrates the holiness and joy of all of life, all work, all creation. Yes, it holds out a great future when “I’ll fly away” and “the circle will be unbroken” in heaven. But it also celebrates a meaningful present when “I’ll get involved” in the work of healing our broken circle on earth.
In short, it is a gospel of transformation and incarnation, not evacuation and abdication. We need songs and other liturgical elements that celebrate this powerful, holistic, integral, missional gospel.
Songwriters and worship leaders who only want to respond to market demands will be kept busy helping people rejoice within existing theological paradigms. That is good and needed work, I suppose. But we need more songwriters and worship leaders who will play a key spiritual role in the articulation and celebration of this more holistic theology in and among a new generation of worshipers.
Sadly, as I have sat in scores of venues listening (and usually participating in) extended times of worship around the world, I have sensed that our song lyrics are usually keeping us happy in the sanctuary of the status quo. They give us a kind of sugary theological chewing gum – keeping us busy without adding much in the way of nourishment. They are in some ways holding us back – repackaging some highly problematic theology in hipper camouflage.
Let me make this specific: Too many of our lyrics are embarrassingly personalistic, as if the whole gospel revolved around “Jesus and me.” Personal intimacy with God is a priceless gift indeed, and such a wonderful step above a cold, abstract, wooden recitation of dogma. But it isn’t the whole story. In fact – this might shock some – it isn’t necessarily the main point of the story. A popular worship song I’ve heard in many venues says that worship is “all about You, Jesus.” But apart from that line, it really feels like worship and Christianity in general have become “all about me, me, me,” or maybe “us, us, us” (where us = privileged spiritual consumers in the Western religious industrial complex).
If you doubt what I’m saying, listen next time you’re singing in worship. It’s about how Jesus forgives me/us, embraces me/us, makes me/us feel his presence, strengthens me, forgives me, holds me close, touches me, revives me, etc., etc. Now this is all fine. But if an extraterrestrial outsider from Mars were to observe us, I think he would say either a) that these people are all mildly dysfunctional and need a lot of hug therapy (which is ironic, because they are among the most affluent in the world, having been materially blessed in every way more than any group in history), or b) that they don’t give a rip about the rest of the world, that their religion/spirituality makes them as selfish as anyone else, but just in spiritual things rather than material ones.
I don’t think either of these indictments are as true as they would sound to a Martian observer; rather, I think that we songwriters keep writing songs like these because we think that’s what people want and need. The scary thing is that even though I don’t think these indictments are completely true … they could become more true unless we take some corrective action and look for a better balance.
It’s embarrassing to admit, but some of us are thinking right now, “If spiritual songwriting is not about deep, personal intimacy with God, what else is there?” Let me offer a list of Biblical themes I think we would do well to explore in our lyrics:
1. You’ll be surprised to hear me say “eschatology” first – and let me assure you that I don’t mean putting the latest apocalyptic novel to music. By eschatology (which means study of the end or goal towards which the universe moves), I mean the Biblical vision of God’s future which is pulling us toward itself. For many of you, raised like me in late-modern eschatologies, you’ll be surprised to hear that there is a whole new approach to eschatology emerging. This approach doesn’t indulge in future-telling charts or shaky predictions. Rather, it bathes itself in the Biblical poetry of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Revelation … poetry which, when it enters us, plants in us a vision of a world very much different from and better than ours. And when this hope grows and takes root in us, we become agents of it.
What joy I can imagine being expressed in songs that capture the spirit of Isaiah 9:2-7, 25:6-9, 35:1-10, 58:5-14! Who will write those songs?
They need to be written, because people need hope. They need a vision of a good future on earth as in heaven. They need their imaginations set afire with hopeful images of the celebration, peace, justice, and wholeness towards which our dismal, conflicted, polluted, and fragmented world must move. This is much, much bigger than songs about me being evacuated to heaven with Jesus, leaving the earth to be destroyed.
Dig into those passages, songwriters … and let your heart be inspired to write songs of hope, songs of vision, songs that lodge in our hearts a dream of the future that has been too long forgotten … the dream of God’s kingdom coming, and God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. Write songs about polluted rivers running clear again, about smokestacks giving way to wind generators, about drones, assault weapons, and bullets being melted down and recast as playgrounds, plows, and trumpets. Write songs about people waging peace, about land thieves returning lands, about the seas being full of fish again, about farmland being cherished rather than plundered, about the rich using their wealth to create opportunity for others rather than hoarding it for themselves. Write songs about slums becoming joyful communities, about polar bears and sea turtles making a comeback (for they too, are beloved by their Creator), about forests and valleys and coral reefs being cherished as God’s original temples.
2. You may be equally surprised to hear me suggest that we need songs of mission. Many of us believe that a new, larger sense of mission is the key element needed as we move into the future. We’re not just talking about missions, and not just evangelism, but mission – participating in the mission of God, the kingdom of God, which is so much bigger and grander than our little schemes of organizational self-aggrandizement.
Jesus came not to be served, but to serve … and as he was sent, so he sent us into the world. The very heart of our identity as followers of Christ must not be that we are the people who have been chosen to be blessed, saved, rescued, and blessed some more. This is a half-truth heresy that our songs currently root more and more deeply in our people. No, the heart of our identity is that we are the people who have been blessed (as was Abraham) to be a blessing, blessed so that we may convey blessing to the world, blessed not to the exclusion of others but for the blessing and benefit of all.
For many of us, the world exists for the church. It is like a strip mine, and people are mined out of it to build the church, which is the only thing that really matters. It’s time for us to acknowledge that this kind of image is disgusting. It mirrors the raping and plundering of the environment by our modern industrial enterprises. In it, the church is another industry, another mega-corporation, taking and exploiting for its own profit.
How different is the image of the church as the apostolic (or missional) community, sent into the world as Christ’s hands, feet, eyes, smile, heart. We need songs that celebrate this missional dimension – good songs, and many!
For inspiration, we have to again go back to Scripture, and read the prophets, and the gospels, and engage their heart for the poor, the needy, the broken. Shouldn’t these themes be expressed in song? Don’t they deserve that dignity? Remember Colossians 3,where Paul talks about singing the teachings of Christ to one another in songs of the spirit?
3. You may be equally surprised to hear me recommend that we re-discover historic Christian spirituality and express it in our lyrics. There is a wealth of historic spiritual writings, including many beautiful prayers from the pre-modern era, that are crying for translation into contemporary song. Every era in history has rich resources to offer, from the Patristic period to the Celtic period to the Puritan period. On every page of Thomas a Kempis, in every prayer of the great medieval saints, right up to the work of Walter Rauschenbusch, Karl Barth, and Dr. King, there is inspiration waiting for us. When we look at the repetitive and formulaic lyrics that millions of Christians are singing these days (because that’s what we’re writing, folks), the missed opportunity is heartbreaking. These “alien voices” will stretch our hearts and enrich them immeasurably … and eventually, these voices will become the voices of friends, of brothers and sisters, because that is what they are – if we invite them into our worship through songs.
4. You will likely be less surprised to hear me say that we need songs that are simply about God … songs giving God the spotlight, so to speak, for God as God, God’s character, God’s glory, God’s beauty, God’s wonder and mystery, not just congratulating God for the great job God is doing at making me feel good. And similarly, we need songs that celebrate what God does for the world – the whole world – not just for me, or us. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, read the Psalms, because they love to celebrate what the Lord does for the whole earth, not just the people of Israel.
Many of the songs we need will also celebrate God as Creator … an important theme in Scripture, but not for most of our churches. We have lacked a good creation theology in the modern era, and we need songwriters/artists and theologians to join together in the emerging culture to celebrate God as God of creation, not only 14.7 billion years ago (or whenever) but today, now … “Lord of the starfields” (as one of my favorite songwriters put it), the God who knows the sparrows that fall, whose glory still flashes in the lightning bolt, whose kindness still falls like the morning dew, whose mysteries are still imaged in the depths of the ocean and the vast expanse of the night sky.
While we’re at it, how about we find ways to stop reducing God to maleness? The God of Scripture is imaged by male and female alike, but sadly, many of our hymns and contemporary songs reinforce God as a male-only deity. We can start by acknowledging – as Scripture does – that both a mother’s and father’s love image God’s love. And we can continue by learning to avoid male pronouns in referring to our majestic Creator. You don’t have to make a big deal about it. You can just do it.
5. I should also mention songs of lament. The Bible is full of songs that wail, the blues but even bluer, songs that feel the agonizing distance between what we hope for and what we have, what we could be and what we are, what we believe and what we see and feel. The honesty is disturbing, and the songs of lament don’t always end with a happy Hallmark-Card-Precious-Moments cliché to try to fix the pain. Sometimes I think we’re already a little too happy, excessively happy on a superficial level: the only way to become more truly and deeply happy is to become sadder, by feeling the pain of the chronically ill, the desperately poor, the mentally ill, the lonely, the aged and forgotten, the oppressed minority, the widow and orphan. (In a recent book, Naked Spirituality, I explain this lack of lament in terms of stunted spiritual development, and I try to center a constructive understanding of spiritual pain in the simple words when?, no!, and why?)
This pain must find its way into song, and these songs must find their way into our churches. The bitter will make the sweet all the sweeter. Without the bitter, the sweet can become cloying, which is why too many of our churches feel, I think, like Candyland. Is it too much to ask that we be more honest? Since doubt is part of our lives, since pain and waiting and as-yet unresolved disappointment are part of our lives, can’t these things be reflected in the songs of our communities? Doesn’t endless singing about celebration lose its vitality (and even its credibility) if we don’t also sing about the struggle?
6. We need to explore fresh and deeper understandings of the gospel – Jesus’ gospel. Many of us were raised in contexts that reduced Jesus’ gospel to a theory of atonement. We were largely unaware that Jesus’ gospel was the good news of the kingdom of God available now, to all, starting with the least, the last, and the lost. Our gospel was a sinners’-prayer gospel, a sin-management quick/easy/convenient free-ticket-to-heaven gospel, a gospel that (to quote the inimitable Dallas Willard) wanted Jesus for his blood and little else. We marginalized Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and selected instead a string of convenient out-of-context texts from Romans, with maybe a verse or two from John (also taken out of context) thrown in. The result was a formulaic gospel that focused on forgiveness and stopped there.
That’s like getting a bunch of runners at the starting line. The starting gun goes off and they step across the line and start dancing and celebrating for starting the race.
We have thousands of songs – Puritan and Victorian to “contemporary” – that celebrate this reduced gospel. They do so with great passion and finesse, because that was the best or only understanding of the gospel available to them. But now, as we go back to the Scriptures and grapple with deeper, wider, and more integral understandings of the gospel, we need songwriters to dare to celebrate new understandings in song. How can we sing about the cross in its full range of earth-shaking New Testament meaning? How can we sing about Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection, and ascension outside the confines of a reduced gospel? How can we rediscover the gospel – not as a new way to appease a hostile God, but as a new understanding of God as gracious, not needing appeasement, who calls us into a new way of life characterized by reconciliation, inclusion, service, and peacemaking? The best critique of the old is a better celebration of the new, and we need talented songwriters to do the hard work of pioneering that celebration.
7. Finally, we need songs that are occasional – for important occasions in community life. We need more great eucharistic songs (keeping #6 in mind), more great gathering and departing songs, more songs that support “entering God’s gates with thanksgiving” and more songs that support intercessory prayer. We need great songs for baptisms, great songs for benedictions, great songs for funerals, great songs for births.
In this process, we need to preserve everything good in our tradition. Sometimes, that might mean keeping a familiar and beloved tune and providing new lyrics. Sometimes that might mean substituting a single word or a single verse. Sometimes it will mean dropping a verse that is problematic, preferably with a footnote and explanation. (Take, for example, this frightful lyric from the otherwise-beautiful hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful”: “The rich man in his castle,/The poor man at his gate,/He made them high or lowly/and ordered their estate.” Sounds like it’s right out of a Charles Dickens novel, the kind of verse Scrooge would sing with gusto. It was removed from most hymnals decades ago.)
In closing, I’d like to offer a few stylistic observations and requests.
First, is it not time to fully and finally get over King James English in our new lyrics, even if we choose to retain it in our old? Enough said.
Second, may I suggest that we be careful about using gratuitous Biblical language – Zion, Israel, go forth, on high, etc., etc.? If there is a good reason to use such language – in other words, if we are using it intentionally, not just for a “spiritual feel,” then fine. Otherwise, if we can find contemporary language and imagery that would communicate more crisply, poignantly, immediately, and deeply to people who don’t already have a lot of pew time … then let’s use it, in the spirit of I Corinthians 14, where intelligibility to the spiritual seeker is a gospel virtue.
Third, in an era of Quran-burnings, terrorism, and counter-terrorism, is it wise to perpetuate in our songs the language of warfare and hostility? I know such language is common in both the Bible and our tradition. No doubt there is a time and place to talk about that imagery (properly transformed within the gospel). But remember: warfare imagery sounded very different on the lips of a tiny Middle Eastern Bronze-Age minority than it does on the lips of the most heavily-armed and nuclear-capable nation in the history of history. These days I consider it irresponsible to use warfare language that can easily be co-opted by political forces that don’t distinguish between spiritual warfare and flesh-and-blood, bullet-and-bomb warfare. We all need a strong dose of Sermon-on-the-Mount peaceableness right about now, don’t you agree?
The same goes for language that dehumanizes the other – terms like “the lost,” “the nations,” “the unsaved,” and so on. If we’re not careful, these words turn us into smug insiders and render others depersonalized outsiders, which is all the more tragic and ironic when we claim to follow a leader who identified with the outsiders.
Fourth, musically, am I the only one wishing for more rhythmic variety? Why is it that I am being blessed so much by creative drummers and percussionists wherever I go?
Fifth, can our worship leaders enrich the musical experience by reading Scripture, great prayers of the historic church, creeds, confessions, and poems over musical backgrounds? Whether or not you appreciate rap music, it’s trying to tell us something about the abiding power of the spoken word, the well-chosen spoken word that is. (I think you’ll agree that we have far too many less-than-well-chosen spoken words already.
And speaking of confessions and creeds … is it time to confess in contemporary terms what we most poignantly regret and what we most sincerely believe?
And finally, can our lyricists start reading more good poetry, good prose, so they can be sensitized to the powers of language, the grace of a well-turned phrase, the delight of a freshly discovered image, the prick or punch or caress or jolt that is possible if we wrestle a little harder and stretch a little farther for the word that really wants to be said from deep within us? Sadly, while many of our songs have better and better music, but the lyrics still feel like “cliché train” – one linked to another, with a monotonous recycling of plastic language and paper triteness.
When I wrote a version of this letter several years ago, things were much worse than they are now. Many creative songwriters have been making important breakthroughs in recent years (thanks be to God!). But we still have a long way to go, which opens up lots of opportunities for creative leaders … like you.
Thanks for considering these things. I hope this letter will contribute to an important and ongoing conversation, and I hope it will stimulate creativity too.
Your fellow worshipper,
Brian McLaren