Brian McLaren on worship music

The (sometimes bewilderingly) controversial theologian Brian McLaren wrote an article in a newsletter (I think) in which he enunciates his take on where we are and where we should go in modern worship music. He addresses it as “An open letter to songwriters” (direct pdf link), and presents some well-stated observations and requests in his typically humble way. Here are a couple excerpts:

Let me make this specific: too many of our lyrics are embarrassingly personalistic, about Jesus and me. Personal intimacy with God is such a wonderful step above a cold, abstract, wooden recitation of dogma. But it isn’t the whole story. In fact—this might shock you—it isn’t, in the emerging new postmodern world, necessarily the main point of the story. A popular worship song I’ve heard in many venues in the last few years (and which we sing at Cedar Ridge, where I pastor) says that worship is “all about You, Jesus,” but apart from that line, it really feels like worship, and Christianity in general, has become “all about me, me, me.”

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?”

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 too happy: the only way to become happier 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. This pain should find its way into song, and these songs should find their way into our churches. The bitter will make the sweet all the sweeter; without the bitter, the sweet can become cloying, and 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?

McLaren lists five neglected topics/themes and six “stylistic observations and requests”; of the latter, my favorite is, “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?”

Good stuff, hopefully altogether uncontroversial, and good to hear from someone as influential as he is among the next generation of songwriters.

Tagged with:
Recent Posts:
  • Hi Stephen,
    Oh boy. Ain’t that right! Our family started attending an Evangelical Anglican church about 6 years ago. It is much better than some of the standard fare at many Evangelical churches, but we still get our fair share of songs that make me positively cringe.

  • Hi Stephen,
    Oh boy. Ain’t that right! Our family started attending an Evangelical Anglican church about 6 years ago. It is much better than some of the standard fare at many Evangelical churches, but we still get our fair share of songs that make me positively cringe.

  • I agree with your statement, Stephen, that songwriters should reach deeper and be more creative. But it basically sounds like Mclaren is saying our songs are too happy.

    Now by “our song” I mean p&w songs we sing in church. I’m not talking about some of the lame sappy garbage we hear on CCM (e.g. Casting Crowns).

    I personally would not want to play or sing a song that started off singing about “the blues” and ended with no resolution.

    Something was said this past weekend at the New Attitude conference which greatly captured something I’ve been trying to express. The question was should Christians be involved in the arts (which is no brainer in my opinion but that was the guy’s question). The answer in a nutshell was “of course. And the art must always be a servant to the gospel.” The gospel has always been good news.

    So even “bluer” sounding songs like “Jesus, Thank You” which reflect on our sins which were covered by the suffering of Christ have a reason to celebrate wrapped up in them:

    Your blood has washed away my sin. Jesus, thank you.
    The Father’s wrath completely satisfied. Jesus, thank you.
    Once your enemy now seated at your table. Jesus, thank you.

    I would hesitate to say that a weary soul would be blessed by hearing a song about a fellow weary soul in which that soul remained weary. I would think that the weary soul would be more blessed by hearing something like Darrell Evans’ celebratory chorus of:

    The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?
    The Lord is the stronghold of my life, whom shall I fear?

  • I agree with your statement, Stephen, that songwriters should reach deeper and be more creative. But it basically sounds like Mclaren is saying our songs are too happy.

    Now by “our song” I mean p&w songs we sing in church. I’m not talking about some of the lame sappy garbage we hear on CCM (e.g. Casting Crowns).

    I personally would not want to play or sing a song that started off singing about “the blues” and ended with no resolution.

    Something was said this past weekend at the New Attitude conference which greatly captured something I’ve been trying to express. The question was should Christians be involved in the arts (which is no brainer in my opinion but that was the guy’s question). The answer in a nutshell was “of course. And the art must always be a servant to the gospel.” The gospel has always been good news.

    So even “bluer” sounding songs like “Jesus, Thank You” which reflect on our sins which were covered by the suffering of Christ have a reason to celebrate wrapped up in them:

    Your blood has washed away my sin. Jesus, thank you.
    The Father’s wrath completely satisfied. Jesus, thank you.
    Once your enemy now seated at your table. Jesus, thank you.

    I would hesitate to say that a weary soul would be blessed by hearing a song about a fellow weary soul in which that soul remained weary. I would think that the weary soul would be more blessed by hearing something like Darrell Evans’ celebratory chorus of:

    The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?
    The Lord is the stronghold of my life, whom shall I fear?

  • I think what he’s talking about here is not a song that ends, “Why, O Lord, is everything sucky?” He is talking about songs that, like so many Psalms, do express hope along with disappointment and turmoil, without pretending that the resolutions hoped for are already a present reality, or, worse, just pretending such things as disappointment and turmoil do not exist and not singing to God about them corporately. There is in fact a place for songs that end with the thoughts, “Please comfort me and save the day!”, not songs that end with, “Gosh, I hate life.” I don’t think the latter is what McLaren was talking about at all. If not, I disagree with him.

    Perhaps he is overstating his objection to “Hallmark endings” (something I am wont to do myself); I’m absolutely positive, based on other comments he made, that he doesn’t mean to suggest that we can’t end songs with gratitude and encouragement. In fact, he’s not complaining about the presence of those songs but about the absence of songs that don’t just end with thanksgiving that our eternal destiny is secure, an absence that sweeps under the rug all our concerns about the here and now: loved ones unsaved, conflicts unresolved, starving people in Africa. Only singing about the cross – good and necessary, obviously – rings hollow for those in a hard place right now, for the same reason “Everything happens for a reason” and “God is good” sounds so glib and irrelevant to the tragically bereaved.

    In summary, what I think McLaren has in his crosshairs is the Church’s apparent allergy to using worship music to acknowledge unresolved problems and to ask for God’s help in the resolution of those problems, rather than just pretending that everything’s hunky-dory because we’re born again. It’s about relevance to today rather than just some esoteric emotional experience that makes us happy until we get to the parking lot after the service and sigh, “Well, back to real life…”

  • I think what he’s talking about here is not a song that ends, “Why, O Lord, is everything sucky?” He is talking about songs that, like so many Psalms, do express hope along with disappointment and turmoil, without pretending that the resolutions hoped for are already a present reality, or, worse, just pretending such things as disappointment and turmoil do not exist and not singing to God about them corporately. There is in fact a place for songs that end with the thoughts, “Please comfort me and save the day!”, not songs that end with, “Gosh, I hate life.” I don’t think the latter is what McLaren was talking about at all. If not, I disagree with him.

    Perhaps he is overstating his objection to “Hallmark endings” (something I am wont to do myself); I’m absolutely positive, based on other comments he made, that he doesn’t mean to suggest that we can’t end songs with gratitude and encouragement. In fact, he’s not complaining about the presence of those songs but about the absence of songs that don’t just end with thanksgiving that our eternal destiny is secure, an absence that sweeps under the rug all our concerns about the here and now: loved ones unsaved, conflicts unresolved, starving people in Africa. Only singing about the cross – good and necessary, obviously – rings hollow for those in a hard place right now, for the same reason “Everything happens for a reason” and “God is good” sounds so glib and irrelevant to the tragically bereaved.

    In summary, what I think McLaren has in his crosshairs is the Church’s apparent allergy to using worship music to acknowledge unresolved problems and to ask for God’s help in the resolution of those problems, rather than just pretending that everything’s hunky-dory because we’re born again. It’s about relevance to today rather than just some esoteric emotional experience that makes us happy until we get to the parking lot after the service and sigh, “Well, back to real life…”

  • As a Christian composer and lyricist, I sometimes struggle with the two seemingly opposing requirments that I should make songs 1. praiseful and encouraging and 2. addressing particular needs and causes of sadness in the congregation.
    I think the Lord requires us to FIRST praise Him…give Him the glory (for what He has done)…and THEN ask Him for specifics. Nothing wrong with combining the two in one song or chorus, but it ain’t easy. The tendency is to make songs one or the other. It’s a LOT easier to write songs about ‘it’s all about you, Lord’ or ‘Thank you Jesus’ than to approach the Lord about more pressing and perhaps difficult-to-enunciate topics. Brian McLaren’s article is certainly food for thought!

  • As a Christian composer and lyricist, I sometimes struggle with the two seemingly opposing requirments that I should make songs 1. praiseful and encouraging and 2. addressing particular needs and causes of sadness in the congregation.
    I think the Lord requires us to FIRST praise Him…give Him the glory (for what He has done)…and THEN ask Him for specifics. Nothing wrong with combining the two in one song or chorus, but it ain’t easy. The tendency is to make songs one or the other. It’s a LOT easier to write songs about ‘it’s all about you, Lord’ or ‘Thank you Jesus’ than to approach the Lord about more pressing and perhaps difficult-to-enunciate topics. Brian McLaren’s article is certainly food for thought!

  • Thanks for commenting, Brian.

    I think the Lord requires us to FIRST praise Him…give Him the glory (for what He has done)…and THEN ask Him for specifics.

    Yes, this sounds like, “Enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise.” So while I think “the Lord requires” is perhaps a little strong (it would be petty of God to say, “Errnt! Get out, come back in, and tell Me how wonderful I am, and then we’ll deal with your problems”) it is certainly only right that we show Him gratitude and give Him glory for what He’s already done before we go asking Him for more, as though we’re the center of the universe.

    And while I’ve not really tried my hand at writing praise and worship music, I can imagine that it’s because it’s so much more difficult to artfully integrate these “difficult-to-enunciate topics” that we don’t see more of this type of songs. Good luck to you!

  • Thanks for commenting, Brian.

    I think the Lord requires us to FIRST praise Him…give Him the glory (for what He has done)…and THEN ask Him for specifics.

    Yes, this sounds like, “Enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise.” So while I think “the Lord requires” is perhaps a little strong (it would be petty of God to say, “Errnt! Get out, come back in, and tell Me how wonderful I am, and then we’ll deal with your problems”) it is certainly only right that we show Him gratitude and give Him glory for what He’s already done before we go asking Him for more, as though we’re the center of the universe.

    And while I’ve not really tried my hand at writing praise and worship music, I can imagine that it’s because it’s so much more difficult to artfully integrate these “difficult-to-enunciate topics” that we don’t see more of this type of songs. Good luck to you!

  • Naarasanchez

    Is worship music intended to be liked by people or to be liked by our Lord Jehova Almighty and our precious savior Jesus Christ? Is it intended to bless us or to bless our Lord? jous wondering…