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The following is a draft of a chapter in a book I’m about to release called Progressive Christian Worship Music: What It Is, Why Its Needed, And Where To Find It. Sorry that this is long for a blog post, but I figured that sharing this chapter might be the best way to get a dialogue going online both about this book and about some of the issues raised in this chapter.
This book was written to provide clergy and musicians in mainline or traditional churches with an easy way to discuss some of the reasons why many pastors in these churches sometimes have problems with the language and theology of “contemporary praise and worship” songs. My hope is that a pastor will be able to give a copy of this book to worship band members or other interested church members and say, “here, please read this and then let’s talk about it together.” I think it will make what is often an awkward conversation much easier to have…
I hope to hear from you!
Thanks and God bless,
This Book In One Chapter
My hunch is that at least some of you reading this would like a very brief summary of what this book is about so that you don’t have to read the whole thing unless you really want to. I get that, and that’s why I’ve put this chapter together. I’m thinking especially of some of you church worship band members or organists who have been asked to read this book by your pastor or band leader. So this is my attempt to make it as easy as possible for you to get the main points of this book. But please know that I’ve elaborated on everything listed here in more detail in other chapters, and I really hope you’ll want to read the entire manuscript. You’ll get much more out of it that way…
What Is Progressive Christian Worship Music?
I chose the term “Progressive” because it is the quickest way to help folks know that the worship music I’m describing here will appeal to people whose faith has led them to embrace themes like social justice, gender equality, compassion for the poor, respect for Truth in all religions, and honoring the environment. These are things that are often part of what we might call a “progressive world view.” While there are some organizations such as The Center For Progressive Christianity that define “Progressive Christianity” in specific ways that I personally find helpful and compelling, you don’t need to agree with their definition of Progressive Christianity in order to benefit from this book. Again, I chose the word “progressive” simply because it was the best word I could think of that would help folks know that this new genre of worship music is particularly attractive to individuals and churches that care about things like systemic injustice, inclusive language, and theological integrity. And, if you don’t care about these things or don’t even know what I mean by them, then this book will help you understand these issues and concerns and get a better sense as to why they are important, especially to pastors in most “mainline” churches.
I’m not crazy about labels, and I really wish they weren’t necessary. Personally, I think the themes I alluded to in the previous paragraph—themes people also often associate with words like “progressive” or “liberal,” could just be referred to as “biblical,” because that’s where they all have their roots. But the problem is that there are plenty of churches that consider themselves to be biblical, but which for whatever reason are not committed to being inclusive or doing justice or treating the poor with dignity and respect or honoring the earth or making this world a better place. Instead, they’ve tended to reduce the Gospel to fire insurance—you know, avoiding hell and getting into heaven, and then focusing on living righteous or moral personal lives (according to their sense of what that means—which let’s face it, usually has a lot to do with being “conservative,” especially with regard to issues such as abortion and homosexuality). Progressive Christian Worship Music does involve praising God and thanking God for bringing meaning and wholeness and purpose (salvation) into our individual lives, and it certainly will encourage us to live out our personal faith with integrity. But it’s also more than that. It’s about healing and transforming this broken world, and reminding the Church of its call to be a people God can use to make this world more loving and just.
Many “traditional,” or “mainline” or “old line” churches are using more modern music in their worship services these days, but they are having a hard time finding contemporary worship songs that fit the theology of their congregation. Pastors in these churches are, for the most part, trained to read the Bible and understand the Gospel in ways which tend to be more “mainline,” or “liberal,” or “progressive.” Sure, there are plenty of exceptions to this, but the truth is that most mainline seminaries are dedicated to equipping their congregations with pastors who are deeply sensitized to issues of justice, peace, gender equity, the prophetic tradition of scripture, and theologies that focus on the liberation of oppressed peoples. For this reason, they often struggle with the theology of a lot of the “praise and worship” music that is available in Christian bookstores, because most of this music comes out of a more conservative branch of Christianity. I’m not suggesting in this book that this more conservative theology or music is somehow “wrong.” If it truly helps you and your congregation to worship God as you feel led to do so, than God bless you and power to you! But Progressive Christian Worship Music has been created to provide more liberal or progressive churches with new worship music that truly fits these congregations. Again, I wish labels like “progressive” or “liberal” or “conservative” weren’t necessary, but read chapters one and two if you’d like to know why I think they are.
A Brief Definition For Progressive Christian Worship Music:
Progressive Christian Worship Music refers to music with lyrics which has been created to be sung, in the context of a worship, by groups of Christians whose biblically based faith has led them to embrace a more “progressive” world-view. Of course Christians who do not consider themselves to be progressive are also welcome to sing and enjoy this music, and chances are they won’t even know that the song they’re singing is “progressive” by our definition. While there are no rigid litmus tests according to which a song can be considered a Progressive Christian Worship Song, the following are key marks of Progressive Christian Worship Music. (Note: There is an entire chapter in the book given to each one of these marks):
Progressive Christian Worship Music reflects:
1. An Emphasis On Both Praise And Justice:
This doesn’t mean that every song has to do both. There is a place for songs that simply praise God, and there are songs which are completely given to exhorting the gathering of worshippers to “do justice.” There are also songs that include both. But the point is that there will be a blend of both the “vertical” (loving and praising God) and the “horizontal” (reaching out to others in love and working together to transform the world). Whether a song should be more vertical (praise) or horizontal (loving action) depends most on how a song is being used in the context of worship (liturgically).
2. Inclusive Theology:
There is a consistent focus on welcoming all people into the circle of God’s love and acceptance, and honoring and meeting people wherever they happen to be in their spiritual journeys. There is little emphasis on things like being saved from hell and going to heaven, and not much emphasis on things like Jesus “paying the price for our sins.” The focus will be more on the joy of being loved unconditionally by God, and on the gift it is to be called into a loving and radical response to the amazing grace of God. Again, I strongly suggest that you read the chapter on this, especially if my remarks here about “paying the price for our sins” are confusing or concerning to you. (or perhaps intriguing).
3. Inclusive Language:
Whenever possible, pronouns for both God and humans will be gender neutral or somehow inclusive. For example, instead of using the word “mankind,” the word “humankind” might be used. And instead of always referring to God as “He” or “Father,” images such as “Holy One” or “Source of Love” could be used. Or God might be referred to as “Father” in one verse, and then as “Mother” in the next. If this is a new issue to you, please be sure to read the “Inclusive Language” chapter in the book. This is one of those things that blows people’s minds when they first encounter it, but that really begins to make sense once our eyes are opened to all the ways in which women have been excluded from or not fully valued in our language, and all the ways in which Jesus went out of his way to affirm the dignity and value of women in the midst of a very patriarchal culture. The point is not to be “politically correct” or feminist. The point is to be as loving and inclusive as possible, because that’s what our faith calls us to do. When this inclusive language thing is done well, folks rarely even notice it. The total lack of awareness or sensitivity to this issue however is also one of the most common problems that many pastors have with most contemporary praise and worship music.
4. An Emphasis On Both The Individual And The Community:
There is absolutely nothing wrong with songs that encourage individual believers to nurture a personal and intimate relationship with God. We need them. But we also need songs that remind us that the Christian journey is a call into a community of believers. Many pastors in more progressive churches are weary of the individualism of so much praise and worship music. There’s so much focus on the individual in this music that many more progressive pastors criticize a lot of praise and worship music because it’s just too “me centered.” Again, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with “Jesus and me” songs. But we need songs in which the whole community is singing to God together as one body, and that remind us that we can be and do so much more as groups of people than as isolated individuals. So there will be a deliberate focus on moving from “I/me” to “us/we” in Progressive Christian Worship Music.
5. Emotional Authenticity:
When music is written to be sung by a congregation, songwriters are literally putting words in other people’s mouths that we hope they will sing and feel and mean with integrity. For this to happen, the lyrics need to be “real” for the congregation. One of the reasons why certain contemporary praise and worship songs just don’t “feel right” in mainline churches is because these songs come out of a church worship culture that is much more emotional and extroverted than that of most mainline or traditional churches. There tends to be an almost romantic tone to many praise and worship songs, and while there is nothing wrong with this, the simple truth is that many people in mainline churches have never talked to or related to God in this more intimate, romantic way. So it often feels “emotionally inauthentic” to folks in mainline churches to start singing things like, “My Jesus, I love you.” Many people in mainline churches have come from ethnic backgrounds and communities which did not encourage them to be very emotional about anything, let alone their faith! And, for complex reasons, their church culture is such that they have been more inclined over the years to sing about God rather than to God. There is nothing wrong with helping folks develop new ways of feeling their faith and encountering God emotionally, and music is a wonderful way to help people do this. In fact, I think that an unprecedented number of people in traditional churches are longing to “feel their faith” and not just “think about it.” Music will play a key role in responding to this longing. But we need to meet folks where they are emotionally and culturally, and be sensitive to the discomfort many people experience with emotional “love language,” especially when it comes to their relationship with God. Progressive Christian Worship Music strives to deliberately reflect this sensitivity.
6. Fresh Images, Ideas, and Language:
The point here is to avoid worn out Christian clichés and buzzwords, and also to avoid images and that may be very biblical but which no longer communicate effectively in our current time and culture. The cliché’s pretty much speak for themselves. You probably won’t see any references to being “born again” in Progressive Christian Worship Music, for example. But that doesn’t mean that the idea of the second birth that Jesus mentioned so powerfully in John 3 couldn’t be creatively and freshly explored in a Progressive Christian Worship Song.
Another example of language that may not be communicating as effectively as it once did is “royal language”—referring to God as “King” or to Jesus as “Prince,” etc. This is tricky stuff, because this language is all over scripture, and some of the most popular praise and worship songs still use it (“Majesty,” for example). Again, there’s no need to be rigid or legalistic about any of this, but the simple truth is that most modern nations don’t have kings anymore (and those that do are largely symbolic), and for someone who hasn’t grown up in church, even a concept such as the “Kingdom of God” can be increasingly difficult to relate to. Or perhaps there’s another way of referring God’s Kingdom that might somehow get through to a modern listener more effectively. So Progressive Christian Worship Music songwriters are seeking new ways to refer to God’s “Kingdom.” Some might suggest “God’s Dream,” or “God’s Realm,” for example. These terms help to avoid the dominant male implications of Kings and Princes (remember the mark of inclusive language), and also the hierarchical and patriarchal implications of Kingdoms.
Now I can imagine that some of this kind of talk just feels totally “out there” or unnecessary or overly picky to some of you reading this, especially if this is the first time you’ve been exposed to things like analyzing the “patriarchal and hierarchical” aspects of a word. I really don’t mean to get too nerdy or intellectual on you here, but language really does matter, and it’s worth taking the time to make sure that the words we ask people to sing in worship truly express the best of what our hearts and minds long to say. And like it or not, this is the kind of stuff that seminary students and pastors have to spend a lot of time working with, and so by the time they get out of seminary it’s almost impossible for them not to notice or care when the words of a song are somehow out of sync with the theology and language they’ve been trained to respect and embrace. The whole point of this book is to help church musicians understand why their pastors sometimes aren’t satisfied with the theology and lyrics of certain “praise and worship” songs. So please just take a deep breath and hang in here with me on this. And I hope you’ll read the entire chapter on Fresh Images, Ideas, and Language. It’s not about certain words being somehow “wrong” to use. It’s about trying to come up with some fresh ways to celebrate biblical truths in order to communicate as deeply as possible in today’s culture and context. And, it’s about constantly studying and reflecting upon our beliefs and interpretations of scripture and then creating new songs which help us to express and celebrate our faith as we understand it at this point in history.
A Word About The Music
Progressive Christian Worship Music can include songs in any style of music, and can be accompanied by any instrument or group of instruments. As far as I’m concerned, there is no instrument or kind of music that is essentially more sacred or spiritual or appropriate for worship than any other. It all depends on the people who are gathered to worship together, and what style of music helps them worship God most deeply. It’s not about catering to any one person’s musical preference. It’s about trying to help the entire congregation, as much as possible, to worship God together in and through the songs they sing. Of course it’s probably impossible to find one style of music which everyone will love equally, but the point is to be sensitive to who is gathered for worship, and to try to use music that “speaks the heart language” of the congregation as a whole and helps them draw closer to God, give thanks to God, respond to God’s invitations, and experience God’s presence.
Because of where we are at this point in history, especially in the United States, the musical heart language of many folks who gather in traditional churches has a much more modern feel to it than the church hymns that were mostly written hundreds of years ago. This is a generalization of course, and many folks love the old hymns. Progressive Christian Worship Music is not at all about getting rid of the old hymns. The role these hymns play in the traditions and history of the Church, the spiritual lives of congregations as a whole, and in the faith journeys of individual believers needs to be honored and respected. But more and more people are also longing to hear and sing music in church that feels more like the music they know and enjoy beyond the walls of a church building. Even the “old folks” in our congregations grew up with Jazz, the Big Bands, Elvis, the Beatles, the Stones, etc. At least part of what is going on with the whole explosion of “contemporary Christian music” is that people living today are longing to be able to worship God and express their faith in and through the styles of music that speak most deeply to their hearts. For this reason, a lot of Progressive Christian Worship Music will have a more modern feel to it. Much of it is in a light, acoustic based rock style, probably because that style may be the most accessible to the ears of the majority of folks in the churches that make up most mainline or traditional denominations. But what makes the music “Progressive Christian” is the content of the lyrics and the way in which the music is used in worship (liturgically). The music could be any style—Celtic, Latin, gospel, funk, jazz, R &B, country, classical, metal, punk—the possibilities are as inexhaustible as music itself.
Different Kinds of Songs
Just as Progressive Christian Worship Music proposes that no one style of music is somehow the best or the norm, there is also no one kind of song that best fits this genre. There are different kinds of songs that are used in churches, and the only thing that makes one kind of song somehow “right” or “wrong” is the way in which it is used in worship. Or, to use a term that pastors and traditional church musicians are familiar with, the most important thing is whether or not a piece of music truly “serves the liturgy.” We want to make sure that a song used in worship helps the congregation do what it is trying to do at a specific point in the flow of the service. Maybe some kinds of songs are better than others for certain liturgical purposes, but even here there are no hard fast rules.
There are 3 basic kinds of Progressive Christian Worship Songs that are worth mentioning because of the differences between them;
1. Choruses: A chorus is a relatively brief little song which can be learned quickly, and which is repeated as many times as is needed to serve its purpose in the service. Many folks are familiar with the “praise choruses” that have been extremely popular in more evangelical churches for years. But not every chorus is about praising God. There could be a chorus which exhorts the congregation to love the poor, for example. Or a chorus that calls for an end to war. Or a chorus that is just a couple of lines sung to punctuate a certain point or moment in the worship service.
One of the things that many more progressive pastors don’t like about choruses in general is that they can sometimes be overly simplistic in terms of either lyrical content or music. They can feel either too “fluffy” or too “sugary,” and when they are used instead of hymns altogether many pastors miss the deeper theology and content of the hymns. As my friend and songwriter Dr. Christopher Grundy once put it in a lecture on new music in the church (and Christopher is one of the best writers of new choruses that fit all the criteria of Progressive Christian Worship Music I know), “if we’re going to ask a congregation to repeat a chorus over and over again, then the lyrics need to be substantive enough to ‘bear the weight of repetition.’” In other words, if we’re going to repeat a chorus a bunch of times, let’s make sure it’s saying something worth repeating! Similarly, the music of a good chorus needs to be both simple enough to pick up after hearing it only a time or two, and musically interesting enough to be moving and not overly trite. This is a very difficult thing for songwriters to pull off.
More and more churches are now projecting song lyrics on a large screen, and in most cases this means that the worshippers do not have the musical notation in front of them. Those who read music often say how much they miss having the notation, but there is a trend toward trying to do away with church bulletins altogether. There are some good reasons for doing this—it saves the church costs in paper and ink and it also saves the trees. But this also increases the likelihood that new songs will need to be very simple and easy to learn. Choruses are all the more attractive in light of this, but again, the challenge is to find choruses that don’t wind up somehow “dumbing things down” musically, theologically, or liturgically.
2. Scripture Songs: Quite simply, scripture songs are verses from the bible put to music. These are usually in the structure of a chorus, and so all of the comments made above about choruses apply here as well. But scripture songs could also come in a verse/chorus structure.
This is probably a personal bias of mine, but I really appreciate these songs because they make it easy for folks to commit portions of the bible to memory, and in my opinion there is a huge problem with what I’ll call “functional biblical illiteracy” in many of the more traditional denominations.
3. Contemporary Hymns: These songs usually have a “verse/chorus” structure, and so they are usually a bit more involved musically than choruses and scripture songs tend to be. The advantage to this is that themes and ideas can be developed in greater depth, and there can be a greater range of movement within the song itself. The disadvantage is that these songs or hymns tend to be a bit harder to learn, especially if the congregation does not have the musical notation in front of them. For this reason, I’m a fan of making the notation available for these new songs either in a booklet that a congregation puts together or by printing bulletin inserts of the lyrics and melody line and including them in the bulletin. I actually love it when the words are projected (if the congregation is into that) and a bulletin insert with notation is also provided. The easier we can make it for a congregation to learn a new song the better!
Where Can You Find Progressive Christian Worship Music?
One of the things that I’m very excited about is helping folks to find sources of Progressive Christian Worship Music. The truth is that I’m really not aware of many composers who are deliberately creating the kind of music which this book describes. But I’m sure there are many more folks out there writing these kinds of songs than I know about. So please, by all means contact me and let me know about music and songwriters whom I’ve yet to come across. It is very much my intention to create an easy way for churches to find great sources of Progressive Christian Worship Music, and publishing and distributing this music is part of what my company and ministry are all about.
At this point, the following are the best sources of Progressive Christian Worship Music with which I’m currently familiar:
1. Crosswind Music: http://www.bryansirchio.com/ This is my own publishing company through which I make my music available. I’ve recently released a collection of Progressive Christian Worship Music called “Something Beautiful For God.” Please visit my website if you'd like to listen to clips of these songs.
The "Something Beautiful For God" recording features 24 songs written for congregational singing, and I’ve put together a comprehensive package which makes it very easy to bring this music into the life of a congregation. The package includes a songbook with piano arrangements for all 24 songs as well as guitar lead sheet arrangements with guitar chord diagrams. There are also “lyric and chord” sheets for each song, and a split track CD in the book with the piano accompaniment on one side of the stereo field and the acoustic guitar accompaniment on the other side. This enables pianists and guitarists to hear what the music is supposed to sound like.
The package also includes a CD of all 24 songs fully produced with vocals the way I’d do them with a worship band in church, an accompaniment track CD with all 24 songs with vocals removed so that congregations that don’t have a band can sing to the fully produced music, and a CD with the lyrics of all songs in Word files and PowerPoint with images for projection. This CD also includes PDF files of bulletin insert lead sheets so that congregants can have musical notation for all of the songs. You can find out more about this package by visiting my website www.bryansirchio.com. Individual songs can be downloaded as MP3s on my site or on I-tunes, and sheet music for individual songs can also be purchased and downloaded immediately.
Feel free to call toll free to order or if you have questions: 1-800-735-0850. The entire package described costs $59 plus $6 postage, but any of the items can be purchased individually as well.
2. Sing! Prayer and Praise: This is a new collection of over a hundred songs released by the UCC’s Publishing House under the leadership of Rev. Scott Ressman. An excellent committee worked hard to choose songs that meet the 6 marks of Progressive Christian Worship Music. They did not have these 6 marks before them as I have specifically articulated them, but the committee was formed precisely to create a source of new “praise music” for UCC churches (and other more progressive congregations) with theology and language that UCC pastors and members can feel good about. These songbooks can be purchased by visiting the UCC’s website and following the appropriate links http://www.ucc.org/.
3. Christopher Grundy: Christopher Grundy is an ordained UCC minister and also a Professor of Liturgical Arts and Preaching at Eden Theological Seminary outside St. Louis, MO. He has recorded several CDs and released a songbook. I always refer to Christopher as one of the finest composers of new music in the Church today. He has a wonderful gift for writing beautiful choruses that are wonderful musically, yet very easy to learn and sing, and his gifts with language and theological insight are also exceptional. You can obtain his music at http://www.christophergrundy.com/, and 10 of his songs are also in the “Sing! Prayer and Praise” collection.
4. Richard and Trish Bruxvoot Colligan: Richard and Trish are a husband/wife team of musicians who write some beautiful liturgical music that easily fit the criteria of “Progressive Christian Worship Music.” Richard is also an ordained pastor, and they can be reached at http://www.riversvoice.com/. A number of Richard’s songs are also in the “Sing! Prayer and Praise Collection.”
5. James F.D. Martin: Jim is a UCC pastor and composer and close friend of mine. Hymns of his are in the New Century Hymnal, and also in “Sing! Prayer and Praise.” Jim has released several CDs of songs and you can reach him through his website: http://www.blendedworshipresources.com/.