This Book In One Chapter
This blog entry is the revised version of the appendix of my new book "Progressive Christian Worship Music: What it is, Why it's Needed, and Where to Find it."
The appendix is called "This Book In One Chapter," and so this is an overview of the book in very brief form for those of you who may be curious..."
Note: The "6 Marks of Progressive Christian Worship Music" are listed and briefly described here.
I hope to hear from you!
Grace and Peace,
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.
Why I'm Using the word "Progressive"
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 or in order to call yourself a Progressive Christian and to define that term in your own way.
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 will be particularly attractive to people who care about things like systemic injustice, inclusive language, and progressive theology.
If you don’t care much 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 Wish Labels Weren’t Necessary…
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 themes.” That’s where they all have their roots for me as a Christian.
But the problem is that there are plenty of churches that consider themselves to be biblical, but that 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. Usually, this righteousness and morality 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 and concise 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 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 Praise, Justice, and the Fullness of Human Experience
This doesn’t mean that every song has to do all of this! 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.
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).
There will also be songs in the genre of Progressive Christian Worship Music that touch upon other “moods” and nuances of individual and corporate relationship with God such as lamentation, frustration, reveling in the beauty of the natural world, etc.
2. Inclusive Language
Whenever possible, pronouns for both God and humans will be gender neutral or 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” might 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 mainline or Progressive Christian pastors have with most contemporary praise and worship music.
3. Progressive Theology
This is definitely the most controversial and complex aspects of this whole discussion. I go into a lot of depth in the full chapter on Progressive Theology in the book.
But to sum things up positively and succinctly, there is a consistent focus in Progressive Christian Worship Music on welcoming all people into the ever-expanding circle of God’s love and acceptance, and honoring and meeting people wherever they happen to be in their spiritual journeys.
The focus will always be more on Grace than on Law, and themes of mercy, compassion, forgiveness, inclusion, acceptance, tolerance, and “extravagant welcome” will almost always be central.
There is little emphasis on things like Jesus “paying the price for our sins” or our being “saved from hell” and going to heaven in Progressive Christian Worship Music. Many Progressive Christians are questioning if not rejecting traditional doctrines such as “substitutionary atonement” and “blood sacrifice,” so you won’t find these doctrinal emphases much in Progressive Christian Worship Music either.
Progressive Christians also tend to read and regard the Bible differently than more conservative Christians. We take it very seriously, but not always literally. I go into quite a bit of discussion about this in the chapter on Progressive Theology. I mention it here because this issue of how we read the Bible differently is connected to why Progressive Christians often struggle with and/or reject doctrines such as blood sacrifice or the notion that all persons who are not in a “personal relationship” with Jesus will burn for eternity in hell.
Progressive Theology includes respect for the Truths found in other religions beyond Christianity. The focus will almost always be more on the joy of being loved and received 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 mark, especially if my comments here about “paying the price for our sins” are confusing or concerning to you. (or perhaps intriguing).
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 and me” to “us and 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.
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, 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.
3 Basic Kinds of Progressive Christian Worship Songs
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.
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.
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 To Find Progressive Christian Worship Music
You’ll find a list of sources of Progressive Christian Worship Music in chapter 13. Hopefully this list will be ever-expanding, so please check in with me from time to time via my website for updates!