Brian McLaren: An Open Letter to Worship Songwriters

Today I wish to direct your attention to a piece written by Brian McLaren entitled “An Open Letter to Worship Songwriters“.  I wish that everyone I know who is involved in writing what we would call worship music could read this.

McLaren’s big idea is that despite all of the recent stylistic changes in church music (pipe organs to rock bands, traditional hymns to worship choruses), the substance remains unchanged.  This is not good, because the substance is rooted in a theology that emerged out of American frontier revivalism and British revivalism prior to that.  This theology focused predominantly on the afterlife, salvation and damnation, guilt and forgiveness, while failing to challenge the status quo of this world–a status quo which at that time included such ugly realities as slavery, apartheid, and segregation.

But in recent times, many are becoming aware that there is much more to Scripture and the Christian message than the “Sinner’s Prayer”, the “Romans Road”, the TULIP, or any other set of denominational distinctives.  Our songwriting needs to catch up.

McLaren says that the big problem in present-day worship songwriting is that there is way too much emphasis on celebrating an intimate and personal relationship with God, or “Jesus-and-me”.  An outside observer, say, a Martian, would see this and think that all these people are at least mildly dysfunctional and in need of hug therapy (which is ironic considering that we are among the most affluent and materially blessed people on the face of the earth), or that these people’s religion makes them just as selfish and self-absorbed as everyone else, just in spiritual ways rather than material.  This state of affairs has got to change.

But what else is there to write about?  McLaren offers several possibilities:

–Eschatology.  And by this he doesn’t mean “Left Behind”.  What he means instead is to meditate on the poetry of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Revelation, etc., which will capture our imaginations with the vision of a world much better than ours if we will allow it to do so.  Not of us being evacuated to a better world, but of this world being transformed into a better world, the world it was meant to be.

–Mission.  Here he does not mean just “missions” or “evangelism”, but participation in what God is doing, which is so much bigger than any of our dreams and ambitions of organizational/denominational growth and aggrandizement.  We must remember that Jesus came into the world, not to be served, but to serve.

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!

–Historic Christian spirituality.  Every era of church history contains a treasure trove of writings and prayers just begging to be translated into contemporary song.  The Church Fathers, the Puritans, the medieval saints, the Reformers, all the way up to MLK, offer an endless field of resources just waiting to be mined by worship songwriters.

–Songs that celebrate who God is and what He does for the world–the whole world, not just me and us.

–Songs of lament.  Such songs are glaringly absent from the landscape of worship music, and their absence is a shameful deficiency.  Real life is messy, people.  It leaves a lot of hurt, pain, and scars.  When people with real pain and real hurt in their lives come into churches and are greeted by nothing but happy, clappy, Jesus-and-me songs, it doesn’t take much to make them feel that the Christian life is a place where they just don’t belong and don’t measure up.  We need songs to let people know that the hurt and pain they feel in their lives (and yes, all of us have felt this at some point.  If you haven’t yet, don’t worry.  You will.) is real, that they are no less Christian for feeling it, and that we as a congregation and community of believers are standing with them in the midst of it.  Matt Redman has had a few good songs in recent years that give us at least a clue that the Christian life isn’t all sugar and roses and sweetness from here to eternity, but we still have a hella long way to go in this regard.

–Songs that explore a fresher and deeper understanding of the Gospel, not just as a theory of atonement or sin management or a free ticket to heaven, but as the Kingdom of God breaking into our world and available now to all, including and especially the last, the least, and the lost.

–Songs that mark and celebrate special occasions–eucharistic songs, baptismal songs, gathering and departing songs, songs to support intercessory prayer, songs for benedictions, songs for funerals, and songs for births.

McLaren closes with some stylistic considerations, including:

–Gratuitous use of Biblical language is not a good thing.  Unless it is absolutely necessary, refrain from using Biblical language when contemporary language will do just fine.

–Refrain from using warfare imagery, because it can all too easily be co-opted by political forces that do not differentiate between spiritual warfare and fleshly, blood-and-guts warfare.  And there are a lot of such movements out there.

–Language that dehumanizes outsiders by referring to them as “the lost”, “the unsaved”, “the nations”, etc. is also inappropriate.  It can far too easily turn us in on ourselves and create an “us-versus-them” mentality.

Personal intimacy with God is an important part of the Christian message.  But it is not the whole story.  When we overemphasize it in our songwriting, as we are doing in present times, we do ourselves and our churches a huge disservice.  There is so much else out there that is part and parcel of our Christian experience, and we will be all the richer if we include it in our songwriting.

Read Brian McLaren: An Open Letter to Worship Songwriters