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Consumerism and Congregational Song

Blogger David Bjorlin is a worship pastor at Resurrection Covenant Church (Chicago), a lecturer in worship at North Park Theological Seminary (Chicago), and a published hymnwriter.




What Is Water?

In David Foster Wallace’s now famous commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005, he began, after the briefest of introductions, with what he termed a “didactic little parable-ish stor[y]”:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

The moral of the story isn’t anything we don’t already know: many of our most basic realities are so pervasive that it is nearly impossible for us to distance ourselves from them long enough to objectively evaluate them. Like the fish, these realities are the very waters we swim in, and we rarely notice how they fundamentally shape the environments we inhabit, the choices we make, and the lives that we live.

While there are countless realities that influence us, I would argue that perhaps the most all-encompassing and least-recognized force in our lives is consumerism. Here are a few gruesome statistics to illustrate my point: U.S. citizens make up 4% of the world’s population and consumes 25% of the world’s resources, waste almost 40% of the food we buy, and live in houses that are almost twice as large as they were in the 1950s—while 1 in 10 people still rent storage units for all the things they own.

Perhaps at this point you’re checking to see that you are indeed reading a blog dedicated to congregational song, but because these are the waters we swim in, I believe consumerism influences every aspect of our life—-including the church’s song. While there are surely countless ways consumerism impacts congregational song, I would like to explore just a couple of them over my next two blog posts. Today, I will examine the near-monopoly on the CCLI Top 100 list and how this too often leads to a homogenous song. My next post will look at the concept of planned obsolescence and how it relates to the life-cycle and production of the modern praise song.


Monopolies and the CCLI Top 100 

As many readers of this blog no doubt know, Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) is the largest copyright licensing company for (mostly) contemporary praise and worship music. This is how it works: churches buy licenses to use songs covered under CCLI and report the songs they have used over a six-month reporting period. Then, CCLI distributes royalties to the songs’ copyright holders based on the reporting percentages. One of the famous features of CCLI is the Top 100 list of the most-reported songs, serving as a gauge for the most popular CCLI songs sung by congregations who use the licensing service. Because it purports to be a repository of the most frequently sung songs at any given moment, the Top 100 list is often used by worship leaders to find new material for their congregation. In addition, many liturgical theologians have used the list as a starting point to study the sung theology of certain segments of the church.

I believe consumerism influences every aspect of our life—-including the church’s song.

Recently, I saw the list in a different light when a colleague told me that a huge percentage of songs on the CCLI Top 100 were administered* by two companies. Thinking that he was perhaps exaggerating, I decided to take a look at the numbers myself this past May. Of the 100 songs on the CCLI list, eighty-one are administered,* at least partially, by just two companies: Capitol Records (71) and/or Bethel (14).[1] Further, only ten songs are not administered by Capitol, Bethel, or Essential Music (a subsidiary of Sony). Obviously, my colleague was not exaggerating; there is something resembling a monopoly in contemporary praise and worship music.


Why Does This Matter?

Why does this matter? Surely, bigger companies can produce a high-quality product and streamline distribution in ways that help the average worship leader access and use resources. Yet, I believe there are a few implications on congregational song that should at least give worship leaders and planners pause in using the list uncritically. At the most basic level, monopolies are usually not in the interest of the general public because it eliminates competition and allows a company to set artificially high prices while also reducing the quality of the product. While larger than the scope of a blog post, it is worth asking whether price or quality of congregational song is impacted by this sort of monopoly.

However, to my mind the larger issue with this pseudo-monopoly is the fairly homogenous group of songs—ethnically and theologically—that end up comprising the list. Ethnically, much of the music that falls outside of white evangelical traditions is not covered by CCLI, and therefore not even eligible for the list. For example, besides the rare artist signed to major Christian record labels (e.g., Israel Houghton’s long-time relationship with Integrity), most black Gospel music is not covered by CCLI (which in turn has led to systemic inequities in distributing royalties, as many churches continue to use these gospel songs assuming they are covered by CCLI). This creates a fairly white list that perpetuates songwriting and marketing strategies that will continue to target white audiences, which is further exacerbated by a lack of competition created by a monopoly. Especially for those worship leaders seeking to better represent the diversity of the global church in their local contexts, the CCLI Top 100 is of limited value.

Ethnically, much of the music that falls outside of white evangelical traditions is not covered by CCLI, and therefore not even eligible for the list…This creates a fairly white list that perpetuates songwriting and marketing strategies that will continue to target white audiences.

Further, songs on the CCLI Top 100 are largely written by, and marketed to, (white) charismatic-leaning evangelical traditions with a more conservative theological worldview. Obviously, that isn’t to discount these songs completely. There is a place for many different expressions of style and even theology in our churches. Yet, for those congregations who wish to expand liturgical and theological mindsets beyond charismatic worship expressions, male God-language (e.g., King, Lord, Father) or substitutionary atonement theologies alone, the list again is of limited use. Further, for a monopoly, there is little incentive to widen the theological net, particularly if, like Bethel, you are tied to a specific conservative charismatic expression of faith.


Breaking Up The Monopoly

While this may come across as an attack on CCLI, this is not my intent. The church and school where I work are both CCLI copyright holders, and I do use the Top 100 list on occasion. However, as someone who is interested in the diversification of congregational song, I do not believe it is in the best interest of the vast majority of churches for two companies to hold so much sway over a particular segment of congregational song. As someone who does not even pretend to be business savvy, I do not have any advice on how the CCLI Top 100 monopoly can be broken up, but I do have a few suggestions for those who plan and lead congregational song:

  1. Do not assume CCLI covers all the songs you sing in worship! Know who holds copyright on the songs you sing, and make sure they are being paid fairly for the use of their song.
  2. Explore other music licensing companies. For example, One License covers larger swaths of Taizé, Iona, and other global musical offerings (in addition to traditional hymnody).
  3. Analyze the diversity—ethnic, national, theological, style—of your canon of song to see if it represents the diversity you espouse as a church.
  4. Look for local songwriters in your congregation (and beyond) who you can support and who can write songs contextualized for your community.

In this way, we can help assure that the songs we sing are not what a company or market forces make us sing, but are chosen to best represent the community we are and would like to be.


[1] Several songs were co-administered by Capitol and Bethel.

*The original post used the word “owned” instead of “administered,” which has since been corrected for accuracy.


Blogger David Bjorlin is a worship pastor at Resurrection Covenant Church (Chicago), a lecturer in worship at North Park Theological Seminary (Chicago), and a published hymnwriter.


[In my previous post, I explored how The Sound of Music’s “Edelweiss” helped me understand that a congregational song’s theological content can only be interpreted correctly if we understand the context in which it is sung. Today’s post can be read as a continuation of that discussion.]


If you went into the worship supply closet at Resurrection Covenant Church (the congregation where I have served as the worship pastor for the last eight years) —well, first you should watch your step, because it’s a mess in there and you might hurt yourself. But if you managed to avoid the protruding bass amp and the rogue music stand, you’d see a battered filing cabinet. If you pulled out the first two drawers, you’d find folders full of chord charts or lead sheets for almost every song we’ve sung over the last ten years. If you started flipping through the folders, you’d notice that many of the songs’ official versions have been amended in one way or another. On some, a word or two are changed to make the song’s lyrics gender inclusive. Others have an alternative chord scrawled in to replace one that just didn’t sound right (or sounded boring). Yet, the most frequent change you would notice would be the songs’ pronouns: scores of “I’s,” “me’s,” and “my’s” are hastily cross out with corresponding “we’s,” “us’s,” and “ours’” scrawled above.

In my first few years of ministry, I was something of a pronoun zealot. Armed with a firm belief in the harmful effects of individualism and consumerism on congregational life and a v5 Precise pen, it was my personal mission to banish I/me/my from vast swaths of congregational song. Whatever the season or context, we were going to sing “we” if it killed me (us?).

While I still believe the “we” is essential in congregational song, voices from other social locations have helped me understand that even the “I” we sing—perhaps especially the “I” we sing—is contextual. Before we as worship planners and leaders can know what “I” means in a hymn or praise song, we need to explore more basic questions: Who is singing? Where? Why?


Who Is Singing?

One of the first lessons I needed to learn as a worship leader and planner—especially as a straight, white, male worship leader—was that my experiences and social location weren’t normative (an obvious lesson perhaps, but one that needs to be stated again and again because it is still sorely missing from many theological and liturgical discussions). The way I understand “I” is conditioned by my race, gender, class, and sexual orientation, to name but a few.

Whatever the season or context, we were going to sing “we” if it killed me (us?).

My first lesson on this journey came in seminary from the pages of James Cone’s Spirituals and the Blues. In the midst of his brilliant exploration on the central place of the spirituals and blues in the black religious experience, Cone briefly explains how the “I” functions differently in these songs. Rather than an affirmation of the solitary individual disconnected from community, he argues that “[t]he ‘I’… who cries out in the spirituals is a particular black self-affirming both his or her being and being in community, for the two are inseparable” (61). Thus for Cone, the black “I” is always (1) an affirmation of the self in the midst of the malevolent forces of racism and dehumanization; and (2) understood as an “I” in relationship to the broader community. The “I” necessarily includes the “we.”

Around the same time I read Cone, a Korean classmate of mine decided to teach our seminary community a similar lesson through a chapel service he and a few fellow classmates planned to celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. The songs he included in the service were replete with I/me/my language, and at the bottom of the bulletin he included an explanatory note. While I no longer have the exact verbiage, he explained that because his cultural context was so focused on the communal and familial, the “I” became a necessary assertion of one’s own commitment to Christ. For him, the Korean “I” is a countercultural statement of faith.

The “I” necessarily includes the “we.”

While these two examples focus on race and ethnicity, there are obviously many other cultural contexts that will determine the meaning of “I.” For example, how does “I” function differently—how is it interpreted differently—among women? the upper class? refugees and immigrants? people in the LGBTQ community? Obviously, this work only becomes more complex once we take into account the many ways these different cultural contexts intersect in individuals and communities, but the basic message remains the same: what “I” means depends on the “I” who sings.



Connected to cultural and social location (class, race, status, etc.), a person’s geographical location may also change how people understand the sung “I.” The “I” sung in a gated suburb is different than the “I” sung in a densely-populated urban region, which are both different from the “I” sung from a relatively isolated farming community. For example, in Kathleen Norris’s memoir Dakota, she describes how her rural community still loves to sing the gospel hymns where “I” language predominates, like “I Need Thee Every Hour,” “I Love to Tell the Story,” and “Nearer, My God, to Thee.” Often these hymns are criticized for their sentimental focus on the individual’s relationship with God, but as one of Norris’s colleagues noted, “Church intellectuals always want to root out the petistic hymns, but in a rural area like this those hymns of intimacy are necessary for the spiritual welfare of people who are living at such a distance from each other” (166). And as many rural farming, mining, and manufacturing communities experience economic uncertainty and shrinking populations, their “I” is a reminder of the God who is always near.

Connected to cultural and social location (class, race, status, etc.), a person’s geographical location may also change how people understand the sung “I.”


Lastly, to understand what “I” means, it is necessary to understand why the “I” is being sung. That is, what is the liturgical and/or pastoral purpose of the pronoun? In my evangelical context, this is what first led me to change so many of the “I’s” in prayers of confession or songs of thanksgiving to “we’s.” My congregations were often well versed in the concepts of personal sin and individual faith, but had little concept of social sins or corporate faith. I believe this is still too often the case in many contexts, but I also understand now that broadening the scope of faith is just one of the many pastoral needs of congregations. Even in the most individualistic of contexts, there will be people there who have been worn down by personal tragedies, poor theologies, or abusive relationships that need to hear not only that God loves humanity generally (“Jesus loves us”) but that God loves them specifically (“Jesus loves me!”). They need more than a benign and aloof God who doles out provisions from a distant heaven, but the Shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to seek after the lost one, the Woman who overturns her house to find the missing coin, the Father who runs to meet his wayward son. For those teetering on despair, the “I” is a reminder of God’s pursuant, unrelenting love for you, for me.



To be clear, our churches will always need the “we” in worship. Indeed, I continue to wonder if late-stage capitalism will make the “we” all the more important across contexts as these economic forces attempt to homogenize all humanity into the one primary identity of consumer. Yet, we can no longer live under the false assumption that “I” (or any words we sing or pray) means the same thing to all people in all places in all situations. Context matters.

Though expressed differently in every context, our worship must affirm the community and the individual, the corporate and the personal. Perhaps this is one of the lesson of our two most basic Christian creeds—the continual movement between the “I believe” of the Apostles’ Creed and the “We believe” of the Nicene Creed. We need “I.” I need “we.” May our songs reflect our faith.



Blogger David Bjorlin is a worship pastor at Resurrection Covenant Church (Chicago), a lecturer in worship at North Park Theological Seminary (Chicago), and a published hymnwriter.




A Deeply Disturbing Fact

On a recent trip to Ecuador to visit my dear friends Chris and Jenny, I discovered a deeply disturbing fact about their family that shook me to my core: Chris and his two children had never seen The Sound of Music! I’m imagining many of you at your computers gasping and clutching your pearls. I understand; it is shocking! Obviously, as any good friend would, I obtained a digital copy via Amazon and planned for a movie night at their earliest possible convenience.

As you might have experienced, there is both great joy and trepidation involved when introducing people to a classic movie (or really anything) that you love. You revel in sharing something so personally formative with someone else because it helps them know a little more of who you are, but there is also the risk that they will not like it at all—and that can feel oddly personal, like they are also rejecting an important part of you. I also wondered whether this sprawling, sometimes slow, three-hour movie could still interest kids in this faster-paced digital age. Thankfully (and, as usual), my worries were baseless, as the magic of The Sound of Music continues to delight and enthrall.


A Lightbulb

When it became clear that the kids were enjoying the movie, I turned my full attention back to the beloved and familiar plot. I tried not to sing along too loudly as the story moved from the first “Do-Re-Mi” of the children to Captain Von Trapp’s musical and emotional breakthrough in “Sound of Music” to the gripping apex on the stage of the Salzburg Festival. It was only as the Captain beckoned for the crowd to join him in singing “Edelweiss” (a fictional Austrian national anthem) that a lightbulb went on for me. “Edelweiss” was a perfect example of how context is everything in congregational song. Let me explain.

To refresh your memory, “Edelweiss” is sung twice in the movie version of The Sound of Music. The first time occurs shortly after Captain Von Trapp has reconciled with his family and is in the process of rebuilding his relationship with his children (not to mention stoking a little flame for Fraulein Maria!). After the children’s puppet show, they all decide that the Captain should now sing for them. After a few half-hearted protests, the Captain takes his guitar and sings the folk song with the help of a counter-melody from the oldest daughter Liesl (who clearly has the hots for Christopher Plummer). In this context, the song serves as another sign of the Captain’s conversion, a song of continued healing that works to bring the family closer together.

The next time it is sung, the landscape has shifted dramatically. The Nazis have annexed Austria, and the Captain has been ordered to report for duty to a Nazi naval base. Appalled at the prospect of joining the German regime, the Captain realizes the family’s only hope is to escape to Switzerland. Caught trying to sneak out of their home, the family is forced to improvise a new escape plan that will include slipping out of the city right after their performance at the Salzburg festival. It is as the children leave the stage that the Captain sings one last song: Edelweiss. (apologies for the poor video quality)


Completely Different

Here the song means something completely different than it did only a few scenes earlier. In the context of the festival at this particular time and place, it is a song proclaiming the Captain’s true national identity; it is a song of farewell to the people of his homeland; it is a sorrow song for an occupied country; and, when the Captain motions for the audience to join him, it becomes a song of protest against the Nazis. The same song is sung, but the context in which it is sung fundamentally changes it meaning.

Songs are never abstract.

What implications does this have for congregational song? I think it requires worship leaders and worship professors to take context seriously not only when discussing worship style, but also when discussing theological criteria for song selection. Too many times, I have seen classes given the assignment of theologically evaluating a song’s lyrics without taking into account where the song is being sung and who is singing it (confession: as a professor, I have been guilty of this assignment). Sure, there are some songs whose theology will be found wanting across contexts because its lyrics contradict basic Christian teaching, but there are many whose appropriateness will depend largely on context.


An Historic Example

To take an historic example, let’s look at the hymn “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” In the 80s and 90s, rivers of ink were spilled arguing for the hymn’s inclusion or exclusion from denominational hymnals because of its militaristic symbolism and language. Those opposed to the hymn argued that comparing God and God’s church to the horrors of war—especially after Somme, Hiroshima, and Vietnam—was an affront to the God of peace and justice. Those who defended the hymn pointed out that battle metaphors were both biblical and apt, since we do war against powers and principalities. What was so rarely discussed was where the song would be sung.

One of the problems about this debate was that it so often assumed normative context: a white, middle-class, suburban mainline church. But this has never been the only context of this song. I was reminded of this at a hymn festival planned by hymnwriter Mel Bringle and tune composer Sally Morris at The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada’s annual conference in Redlands, California a few years ago. As I sat waiting for the festival to begin, I flipped through the program for the night and was both surprised and intrigued to see we would be singing “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” Knowing something about the perspectives of the festival planners, I anticipated that we wouldn’t simply sing the song without some introduction or context setting. And indeed, right before the hymn was to be sung, they showed a clip from the wonderful Civil Rights documentary Eye On the Prize. The excerpt was from a section of the film documenting the Montgomery bus boycotts, and it focused on the nightly services where the people would gather to strengthen their resolve through songs and sermons. As Coretta Scott King explained these services in an interview, the camera panned over the congregation singing—you guessed it—”Onward, Christian Soldiers.”

Now think of that particular group of people at that particular time and place singing this hymn:

Onward, Christian soldiers,

marching as to war,

with the cross of Jesus

going on before.

Christ, the royal Master,

leads against the foe;

forward into battle,

see his banner go!


It Changes Everything

Doesn’t it change everything about how the song is interpreted? The war that these Christian soldiers are engaged in, the foe they are up against, is the powers and principalities of systemic racism and oppression. Further, these soldiers were committed to the nonviolent resistance and pacifistic witness of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., ensuring that the metaphor of war never became interpreted literally—even when it could have easily been justified by the violence of their opponents. Even the marching takes on new meaning when we think of the thousands of miles these protestors walked to get to work and church and appointments in lieu of riding the segregated buses.

One of the problems about this debate was that it so often assumed normative context: a white, middle-class, suburban mainline church.

My point is not to reintroduce “Onward, Christian Soldiers” into hymnals, but to help us think with more depth and nuance about the theological criteria we use to evaluate song. With all of the other questions we ask about what the song says about God and humanity, we need to ask additional questions: Who will be singing this song? What is their lived experience, and how does this change the way the song is understood? Where is this song being sung? On what occasion? What is the song doing in the liturgy? Would this song be appropriate in some contexts and inappropriate for others? For those within the dominant culture, it might mean that a song could be inappropriate for your context to sing, but that doesn’t mean it’s inappropriate for all contexts.

This seems to be particularly important (and tricky) in services that will include people from many different ethnicities, classes, traditions, and life experiences. This will require the worship planners to include a diversity of voices in the process to ensure that songs are not only deemed appropriate when they fit the dominant culture’s theological criteria. Perhaps there will need to be more introductions to some of our songs—like Bringle and Morris did so deftly at their festival—to help contextualize them in a particular narrative so that they can be sung together from this new (for some) vantage point.

Songs are never abstract. They are always sung by particular people in particular places for particular purposes. Thankfully, The Sound of Music reminded me why this matters for congregational song. It really is the gift that keeps on giving. So with that: so long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodbye.


As we worked toward the launch of The Center over a year ago, we developed a set of guiding stances for the work of The Center for Congregational Song. I’d like to highlight a few of those guiding stances that I think speak to what we hope to accomplish in 2019.




We celebrate the width and depth of variety in the church’s song throughout history, recognizing that each genre, like each culture or each person, brings unique gifts and challenges to the church.

My hope is that in 2019 The Center for Congregational Song will be a cheerleader for the church’s song and all those who work to lead God’s people in song. There is so much to celebrate, but during this time of overwhelming pain and hate it is easy to forget God’s love for us. Our events, while tackling difficult subjects and not shying away from controversy, will be places of celebration of God’s good gift of song and singing together. Likewise, our blogs, podcasts, and other content will be in the spirit of celebrating the goodness that comes from viewpoint diversity and deep listening.



Collaboration and teamwork honors each other’s different gifts and therefore makes everyone stronger by building up partnerships, strengthening relationships, and amplifying each other’s ministries.

My dream for 2019 is that the relationships and partnerships we’ve been building over the last 15 months will bear unexpected and wonderfully creative fruit. As a part of our ecumenical work to build bridges, we have been working hard to learn who is also working to encourage, promote, and enliven congregational song in every denomination, piety, and genre. This year we’re ready to begin building those bridges and already have a couple programs planned that will bring diverse groups of people together to meet, collaborate, and create.



At its best, singing together enables unity when perhaps spoken conversation is difficult or impossible.

Our original blog team [introductions here], made up of Rosa Ramirez, Adam Perez, Ginny Chilton, and myself conceptualized the content for the blog as a place where folk would be sure to find joy, optimism, humility, grace, and contextualization. The posts, like the blog team members, would represent a variety of viewpoints and skill-sets so that throughout the year you might encounter posts that speak directly to your own ministry challenges as well as open your eyes to the challenges and thoughts of others. With that in mind, we’ve expanded our blog team for 2019 to include three more voices. Each person brings a unique perspective that will continue to challenge and inspire us. We’re excited to welcome each of these new members to our team!


The Center for Congregational Song, Centered in Song, Blog, Church Music, Song

Felicia Patton is a lifelong Chicago native. Felicia received an undergraduate degree from North Park University followed by two graduate degrees from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. She was very active while at North Park, having served on worship teams, gospel choir, jazz choir, jazz band, and guitar ensemble. In her previous position, she was the director of traditional worship, where she directed three choirs. Felicia has continued to sing within the Chicago and surrounding areas as a solo artist and with her band, Chicago Soul Revue.


Center for Congregational Song, Centered in Song, Blog, Hampton, Atlanta, Church Music

Min. Rylan Harris is a graduate of Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia. While still active with the Hampton Minister’s Conference, he has recently moved to Atlanta, Georgia to pursue a Master of Religious Leadership with a concentration in Music and Worship at Candler School of Theology. He now serves as Minister of Worship & Arts at Ray of Hope Christian Church with Senior Pastor Rev. Dr. Cynthia L. Hale. Along with his passion for music ministry, he is a keyboardist, singer, and composer.


Center for Congregational Song, David Bjorlin, Centered in Song, Blog, Singing, Church

David Bjorlin is an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) and currently serves as the worship pastor at Resurrection Covenant Church in Chicago. In addition to his role as worship leader, David is a lecturer in worship at North Park University and a published hymnwriter. He holds a PhD in History and Hermeneutics (liturgical studies) from Boston University School of Theology. His academic interests include the history and practice of hymnody/congregational song, the connection between worship and ethics, and the incorporation of children in worship.




We hope you’ll join us in celebrating and collaborating. Here’s to a great 2019!



We’d like to welcome our latest guest blogger, David Bjorlin. David is a worship pastor at Resurrection Covenant Church in Chicago, seminary faculty member at North Park Theological Seminary, and a published hymn writer. David has found a wide range of outlets for his passion for worship and the church. His interests include hymnody, connections between liturgy and ethics, and children in worship. He loves being able to plan worship so that a congregation may enact and indwell the redemptive story of God in worship week after week. – Brian Hehn, Director of The Center for Congregational Song

A Key Question

Over the past few decades, one of the key questions that liturgists have been asking is how what we say and do in worship shapes our theology and ethics. Because we are liturgists and need to show just how out of touch we are with contemporary trends, we even use Latin shorthand to describe this connection—lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi. Literally this saying means that “the law of prayer [is] the law of belief [is] the law of living.” That is, prayer/worship shapes theology shapes ethics. While debates rage over how the three are connected, most would agree that worship helps form our understanding of God and the way we live in God’s world with one another. If this is the case, it means the words we say and sing in worship are vital to Christian formation.

Atonement Theology

Because this is true, I have grown more and more concerned about how our songs, particularly contemporary worship songs, sing about the atonement—the way we are reconciled to God through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. In the vast majority of contemporary praise songs, Jesus’ death is almost always portrayed as substitutionary: we should have been punished for our sins, but God took our place and the punishment that was rightly ours and saved us. In its most extreme forms, Christ’s death satisfies the wrath of God that we incurred through our sin (penal substitutionary atonement). While examples abound, here are just a few of the most well-known from CCLI’s Top 100 list:


“This is unfailing love / that you would take my place, / that you would bear my cross” (“This Is Amazing Grace”); “Behold the man upon the cross, / my sin upon his shoulders… / It was my sin that held him there / until it was accomplished” (“How Deep the Father’s Love for Us”); and the granddaddy of them all, “till on the cross has Jesus died, / the wrath of God was satisfied” (“In Christ Alone”). Lest we think this trend is only found in contemporary praise songs, many classic hymns rely heavily on the substitutionary trope as well. Take the second stanza of Philip Bliss’s “Man of Sorrows!”: “Bearing shame and scoffing rude, / in my place condemned he stood; / sealed my pardon with his blood: / Hallelujah, what a Savior!”

That is, if our central atonement theology claims that God needs retribution for his (male pronoun used purposefully) wrath or justice to be satisfied, it’s no wonder that our justice system would also be built on the idea of retribution rather than restoration.

To be clear, there are differences between substitutionary atonement and penal substitution. In my estimation, there is some biblical warrant for the former (much of the book of Hebrews, for example), while I find the latter to be less biblical and more pagan in origin. However, in both modes, the clear message of the atonement is the need for retribution for the sins of humanity. I have long understood how this myopic focus on substitutionary atonement has led to theological distortions. God the Father becomes an angry God of justice who must be won over by the merciful Jesus (God the Son saves us from God the Father); wrath often becomes the motivating force of the cross rather than God’s unrelenting love; and Christ’s life and resurrection seem to become unimportant additions to Christ’s death. I believe this overemphasis on substitutionary atonement theories is part of the reason why many Christians find it so much easier to believe in an angry God just waiting to punish them than a loving God seeking to reconcile all things through Christ.


However, I was struck anew by how this singular view of the atonement can warp our ethical lives in reading Dominique DuBois Gilliard’s excellent new book Rethinking Incarceration: Advocating for Justice That Restores.

The entire book is a must-read for those who wish to understand and challenge the racism endemic to our justice system that continues to disproportionately target and incarcerate people of color. However, what struck me was the connection Gilliard drew between penal substitutionary atonement and the punitive way we treat those who are arrested and incarcerated in our society. That is, if our central atonement theology claims that God needs retribution for his (male pronoun used purposefully) wrath or justice to be satisfied, it’s no wonder that our justice system would also be built on the idea of retribution rather than restoration. A crime has been committed, and satisfaction must be paid for that crime even if we desire to show mercy. What happens before and what happens after is of little consequence; punishment is the key. And if we lay this theological system onto a racially-biased criminal justice system, Christians too often find themselves “theologically justifying racism.” In the end, if we distort our worship, we not only distort how we understand God, but also distort how we treat one another.

A Challenge

I think this is offers a challenge to worship leaders and songwriters to offer congregations different ways of understanding Christ’s atonement. We desperately need more praise songs that sing of Christ’s saving way of living in the world that challenged oppression and injustice and continue to challenge us to new ways of living in right relationship to God, others, and creation. We need more songs that celebrate Christ’s resurrection as an integral part of Christ’s victory over death, not just to save me from my sins, but to reconcile the cosmos. We need more songs that remind us that God’s death was motivated not by an angry God who scares us into obedience, but a God whose “love so amazing, so divine, / demands our souls, our lives, our all.”


David Bjorlin – Blog Author