interior top image

The Church Is Dying – And I’m Not Bothered

The Church Is Dying

This morning I read yet another headline from a denominational news source to the effect of “9 things the church must change immediately so it doesn’t die.” The article was filled with claims of the church’s decline and our impending doom unless, of course, we made the urgent changes the author called for. I’m sure you’ve read similar articles over the last few years. At this point, I’ve stopped clicking on those headlines altogether, even if they hold strong suggestions or make good points.


I can’t be bothered

I can’t be bothered, and here’s why:

The church isn’t held together by what we do or don’t do. If that was the case, there wouldn’t be a church today. Seriously…have you read church history? It’s terrible. Have you read the Old Testament? The people of Israel screw things up pretty consistently. If you think the church is doing things today that are unrivaled in their bad-ness…please read more history and more scripture. The church isn’t held together by what we do or don’t do, it’s held together by the Spirit of God. Always moving, provoking, stirring in new and unexpected places: The Spirit is always at work in, around, and in spite of whatever evil we can throw at it. That is why the church still exists today. (Side-note: It’s also why I’m a big fan of Augustine’s concept of the church visible/invisible that was picked up by various Reformers).


Faith In God

If we’re worried about the church “dying,” that says more about our faith in God (or lack thereof) than in the long-term viability of the church. If you’re more concerned about preserving the church than you are following God’s call at any time, you’ve lost your way and you are part of the problem. Is God not loving enough to see the church into its next step? Is God not faithful enough to stick by us this time? I believe in a God who is more faithful, loving, and compassionate than I can possible imagine…so I just don’t have time or energy to worry about the church’s longevity.

Most of my believing and non-believing friends are interested in these things: living a life where they do a good job at their workplace, treating others with kindness and respect, finding experiences that brings them and their loved ones joy and fulfillment, and helping others in need. Here’s what most of my believing and non-believing friends are not interested in: joining a country club, doing mission work that creates more problems than it solves, ignoring or combating science in the name of scripture, feeling guilty for struggling with depression or anxiety, and being told that loving someone isn’t the right way to live. And that, my friends, is at the core of why many of my millennial friends won’t step foot inside of a church anymore. They are too busy living imperfect yet good and faithful lives to bother with the church as it currently stands. I don’t blame them.


I Can’t Wait

So if the church as we know it is dying, I can’t wait. I can’t wait for the church as I know it to die. At first that statement might sound shocking (in fact…the first time I said it out loud I shocked myself)…especially from someone who is currently making a living serving the broader church and serving in a local church each week. But as I heard growing up every Sunday morning for so many years as the opening statement of worship: Our hope is in the Lord who made heaven and earth. My hope is in a savior who became fully human and knows what it feels like to be hungry, tired, frustrated, lonely, and sad…a God incarnate, a God with us.

This Advent, I’m not afraid of the church dying. When it does, that just means the miracle of the incarnation can more clearly shine through and inspire us once again. This Advent my soul is inspired by God’s reminder to “fear not, for I am with you” (Isaiah 41), God’s call for us to “sing a new song” (Psalm 96), and God’s promise to “make all things new” (Isaiah 43/Revelation 21). I’m just glad God allows me to be a part of that work.


Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling,
calling for you and for me;
see, on the portals he’s waiting and watching,
watching for you and for me.

Come home, come home;
you who are weary come home;
earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,
calling, O sinner, come home!

Why should we tarry when Jesus is pleading,
pleading for you and for me?
Why should we linger and heed not his mercies,
mercies for you and for me? [Refrain]

Time is now fleeting, the moments are passing,
passing from you and from me;
shadows are gathering, deathbeds are coming,
coming for you and for me. [Refrain]

O for the wonderful love he has promised,
promised for you and for me!
Though we have sinned, he has mercy and pardon,
pardon for you and for me. [Refrain]

[hymn by Will L. Thompson, 1880]



Author Brian Hehn is the director of The Center for Congregational Song.


We’re grateful for friend of The Center and Hymn Society member Greg Scheer for sharing his document of “Lessons and Carols Brainstorms” that includes general background on this type of service, guidelines and advice on how to pull it off, and specific songs and resources for each lesson. We hope you find it as helpful as we have! – Brian Hehn, Director of The Center for Congregational Song


Greg’s Master List

For a number of years I planned an annual lessons and carols service at Church of the Servant in Grand Rapids, MI. In my own humble and objective opinion, it was freaking awesome.

If you’re new to the idea of the “lessons and carols” service, it’s simply a service of scripture readings (below) and songs that trace the arc of redemption from the Fall to the birth of Christ. It’s a simple, yet powerful format. My L&C services weren’t quite as stuffy as a traditional British cathedral L&C service, but not as tacky as most Christmas musicals. The services included a mix of music styles from choral anthems to folk songs, and always included plenty of congregational singing. They were relatively easy to organize, and included no live animals.


A few bits of wisdom I gained over the years:

  • Let the people sing. Seriously, this is the one time of the year when everyone wants to sing. No matter how much you want to show off your choir and other musicians, don’t take away from the congregation’s voice.
  • Don’t ruin people’s favorite Christmas carol. You may think your 7/8 rendition of “O Come, All You Faithful” is full of musical intrigue, but your people will hate it. I guarantee they will smile politely while inside they seethe and wonder why the music guy can’t just leave their favorite songs alone.
  • Keep it simple. There’s no need to kill yourself for Christmas, right? People have enough school concerts and work parties to attend during the Christmas season without you putting a gazillion rehearsals and services on their calendar. Just keep things easy on everyone. Invite them to come read scripture and sing some Christmas songs; maybe eat some cookies afterward. Your congregation—and your family—will thank you.

About this list:

What you will find below is the list of songs I consulted every year as I planned the upcoming L&C service. If there is a date in parentheses beside the song title, it means we sang it the year listed. Other songs were options for future services. If you have ideas, questions, or comments on this article, please feel free to contact me at I hope you will find some gems here!



“Zion Hears the Watchmen Singing” by J.S. Bach from Cantata 140 (2006, 2009)

Overture from Messiah (2010)

The Babe of Bethlehem (2007, 2011)

Jazz Combo: Divinum Mysterium, God Rest Ye, Joy to the World (2013)

Good Christian Friends Rejoice (2008, 2012, 2014)


Pastoral Symphony from “Messiah”          G. F. Handel



Taize Gloria with handbells, children, choir in four corners (2008)

Once in Royal David’s City (2005, 2006, 2008, 2010)

On Jordan’s Bank/All Earth Is Waiting (2009, 2011)

Dawning Light of Our Salvation (2012)

Brightest and Best (2013)

Creator of the Stars of Night (2007, 2014)


“O Come All Ye Faithful” Ososo

In the Heavens Shone a Star Restore Us, O God (Carlos Colón)


Invocation and/or bidding prayer and/or Lord’s Prayer



Sacred Harp “Fulfillment” (2008) strings play it while people sit, then choir sings it

On Jordan’s Bank/All Earth Is Waiting (2011)

“O Come All Ye Faithful” (2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014)

Of the Father’s Love Begotten

Creator of the Stars of Night (JN413)

Up, Good Christian Folk, and Listen

Good Christian Friends, Rejoice


FIRST LESSON: Genesis 3:8-15

God announces in the Garden of Eden that the seed of the woman shall bruise the serpent’s head.

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.” The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.”


Creation Fell in Adam’s Fall (2008) Greg’s arrangement V4 men, v5 women

The Truth Sent from Above, Vaughan Williams (2009 unison choir)

A Mark of Grace, Scheer (2010)

Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus (2006, 2007, 2011, 2012, 2013)

Hopp: From the Apple in the Garden (2014)

Adam Lay Y–Bounden

By Adam’s Fall is All Forlorn (ELH 430; text needs upadating)

Dorothy Otte: Genesis/Revelation recording

How Sweet was the Garden (LUYH 29, jazzy)

In Adam We Have All Been One (LSB 569)

Psalm 90 in connection with Gen 3 L&C reading?

Scheer: Garden of Grace

Son of God and Son of Man/At the Tree (Wardell)

The Tree of Life (LSB 561)

There in God’s Garden SNC 138

View the Present through the Promise

Watts: Deceived by Subtle Snares of Hell

What Adam’s Disobedience Cost (LUYH 34)

When Long Before Time (ELW 861)


SECOND LESSON: Genesis 22:15-18

God promises to faithful Abraham that in his seed shall the nations of the earth be blessed.

The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.”


“The Babe of Bethlehem” by William Walker from Southern Harmony, 1835 (2006)

O Abram, Look Up to the Sky, by Jim Clemens (2011)

When God Promised Many Children-Andrew/Wendy Donaldson (2012)

I Will Be Your God, LUYH 40 (2013)

The God of Abraham Praise (2008, 2010, 2014) congregation

All the Stars (Caroline Cobb)

Blessed Be the God (LUYH 67) other benedictuses?

Come, Thou Redeemer of the Earth

I Will Be Your God (LUYH 40)

In a Deep Unbounded Darkness (LUYH 38)

O Come, O Come, Immanuel

When God Promised Many Children, Andrew/Wendy Donaldson


THIRD LESSON: Isaiah 9:2,6-7

Christ’s birth and kingdom are foretold by Isaiah.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.


The People Who in Darkness Walked, Bach/PsH 192 (2009)

For Unto Us a Child Is Born, Atteberry (2010)

Before the Marvel of This Night (Carl Schalk, 2006, 2011)

Come Now, O Prince of Peace/Ososo (2005, 2007, 2012)

Parvulus nobis nascitur, choir (2013)

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel – Liebergen (2014)

Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light – Bach/PsH 343

Come Little Children (children’s chorus)

I Saw Three Ships

Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence, K. Lee Scott

Puer Natus Est (variety)

The Holly and the Ivy

Welcome, Dearest Jesus (children’s choir)


FOURTH LESSON: Isaiah 11:1-9

The peace that Christ will bring is foreshown.

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.


Lo, How a Rose (2008, 2009) congregation

Peace in the Valley (2007, 2011)

“Lo, How a Rose” by Greg Scheer (2005, 2006, 2013)

O Lord, May Your Kingdom Come – Sarwar (2014)

Of the Father’s Love Begotten

There Was a Rosebud Bloomed in the Snow

How Bright Appears (LUYH 101, with Mendelssohn’s “Es Wird Ein Stern”)


Alternative Fourth Lesson: Micah 5:2-4

The prophet Micah foretells the glory of little Bethlehem.

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth;

Bethlehem Night and A Child Will Come (2008) children’s choir

O Little Town of Bethlehem

Bethlehem, of Noblest Cities

How Far Is It to Bethlehem?



Isaiah 40:1-5 – Isaiah speaks comfort.

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

“Every Valley” John Ness Beck (2005)

Every Valley by Greg Scheer (2008)

Baptismal Anthem/In Those Days Came John the Baptist (2009)

And the Glory of the Lord, from Messiah (2010)

“Comfort, Comfort Ye My People” PsH 194/LUYH 59 (2006, 2007, 2011, 2013)

Portions of Handel’s “Messiah”

All Earth Is Waiting

Isaiah 12 – The day of salvation is foretold

 Rejoice and Sing Your Praise – Colón (2012)

Isaiah 35

The Desert Shall Rejoice (PH 18)

They Shall Enter Zion (Scheer)

Isaiah 54

For The Mountains Shall Depart (Hank Beebe)


FIFTH LESSON: Luke 1:26-38

The angel Gabriel salutes the virgin Mary.

In the sixth month the angel month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.


“No Wind at the Window” by John Bell (2006)

I Sing a Maid (2008) RitualSong #899

My Soul Will Magnify the Lord, Scheer (2009)

In This Quiet Annunciation – Colón (2011)

Mary, Mary, What You Gonna Call that Baby? Youth choir (2011)

“Dixit Maria Ad Angelum” Hans Leo Hassler (2005, 2012)

Holy Is Your Name (2007, 2008, 2010, 2013)

Mary’s Song/Our King of Peace – Kimbrough (2014)

A Virgin Most Pure

Blessed Be That Maid Mary

Gabriel’s Message

Holy Is His Name (John Micael Talbot)

Magnificats of all stripes

My Soul Does Magnify (SNT #7) good gospel magnificat

The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came – Anthony Prower

The Sans Day Carol


SIXTH LESSON: Matthew 1:18-23 [Christmas Eve]

Matthew tells of the birth of Jesus.

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph,  but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he   had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”


That Boy-Child of Mary” (2005)

Away in a manger  (2005)

How Will We Know Him?, youth choir (2009)

Lo, How a Rose, congregation (2010)

Today a Savior Is Born, youth choir (2010)

Sing Alleluia – composer? Adult and youth choirs (2012)

Good News – youth choir (2012)

On Christmas Night, arr. Ann Kapp Andersen; youth and adult choirs (2013)

Hark the Herald Angels Sing (LUYH 80)

God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen

Ding Dong! Merrily on High

While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night

“O Come, O Come Emmanuel” Patrick M. Liebergen

Twas in the Moon of Winter Time – Jean de Brébeuf

In This Quiet Annunciation (Carlos)

To a Virgin (TWC 139)/Cold December (UMH 233)

Gentle Joseph, Joseph Dear (NCH 105, see Joseph, lieber Joseph mein)


Alternative Sixth Lesson: Luke 2:1-7

The birth of Jesus.

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.


Mary Had a Baby – Dawson (2005)

“One Small Child” by David Meece – children’s choir (2006)

“Emmanuel Now” words by Colin Gordon-Farleigh, music by Greg Scheer (2006, 2007)

As a Tiny Baby/Husberg (2007)

Carlos Colon: Weary Is the World (2008)

O Little Town of Bethlehem (2008) people standing

Away in a Manger (2014)

We Do Not Know – Bell/Alonso (2014)

“Once in Royal David’s City”

How Great Our Joy

Love Has Come

In This Quiet Annunciation (Carlos)

The Pedigree (Bell)


SEVENTH LESSON: Luke 2:8-16 [Christmas Eve]

The shepherds go to the manger.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.


While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks – Sacred Harp (2005)

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (2005)

The Aye Carol, John Bell (2009)

Before the Marvel of this Night – Vajda/Schalk (2009)

Messiah No. 14a, 14b, 15, 16, Glory to God (2010)

Joy to the World (2010)

Infant Holy, Infant Lowly – PsH 353 (2011)

Angels We Have Heard on High – PsH 347 (2011)

While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks – PsH 215 (2012)

Angels from the Realms – PsH 354 (2012)

Cradle Hymn – Curry (2014)

How Great Our Joy (2014)

All My Heart This Night Rejoices

Come, Leave Your Sheep

Messiah, Chorus: “Glory to God”  G. F. Handel

Messiah, Movements No. 14a, 14b, 15, 16  G. F. Handel

On Christmas  Night

See, Amid the Winter’s Snow

Sussex Carol

While by My Sheep I Watched at Night – Jungst


EIGHTH LESSON: Matthew 2:1-11

The wise men are led by the star to Jesus.

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.


As With Gladness Men of Old

The Infant King

Unto Us Is Born a Son

A Shadow upon Cheops Sat – Durbin Schalk

O Come, All Ye Faithful – cong


NINTH LESSON: John 1:1-14 [Christmas Eve]

John unfolds the great mystery of the incarnation.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He  came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in  his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.


The Glory of the Father by Egil Hovland (2007)

The Word of God Was from the Start (2010 Xmas Eve)

In the Bleak Mid–Winter

Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence – Holst

Mirabile Mysterium

O Come, All Ye Faithful

O Magnum Mysterium – Victoria

Verbum Caro Factum Est





Joy to the World (2008)

Go Tell It on the Mountain (2007, 2009, 2011)

Jesus the Light of the World (2012)

Prepare the Way, O Zion (2013)

“Good Christian Friends, Rejoice” (2005, 2006, 2010, 2014)

On This Day Earth Shall Ring – Holst

Love Has Come

Beautiful Star of Bethlehem



Good Christian Friends/strings (2007, 2010, 2014)

Go Tell It, reprise (2009)

Guest Blogger Tanya Riches has published a number of well-known songs through Hillsong Music Australia, including ‘Jesus What A Beautiful Name,’ which reached #6 on Australia’s CCLI worship charts. Along with a team, she administrated one of the most successful worship bands in history, Hillsong United, for its first six years under Reuben Morgan’s leadership. Her song ‘Hear Our Prayer’ was on their second album, Everyday. She is now not only now a respected academic working in Pentecostal Studies and Missiology, but one of the world’s most respected scholars regarding the phenomenon of Hillsong Church. Her PhD research (Fuller Theological Seminary) is an attempt further reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, by bringing attention to the work of Indigenous Christian leaders in some of Australia’s major cities (The Gold Coast, Perth and Cairns). Her deep desire is for justice.


Picking Out Great Songs

I can still remember the very first time I heard the song “Oceans.” It was a blurry video performance posted on Instagram and recorded on an iPhone camera. Taya Smith sang it, with a single guitar backing her. Both the camera and her voice shook slightly, yet you could still tell it was an incredible song.

I’ve done a bit of informal research, and lots of songwriters, worship leaders, and publishers agree: it’s possible to pick out a truly great song well before any marketer gets involved. For example, you might remember the moment when “Revelation Song” was released onto video with a teenage Kari Jobe singing in her pink coat. There are so many Chris Tomlin or Michael W. Smith worship songs that became “hits” just by word of mouth after a worship service … it’s fascinating, isn’t it?!


Sharing Songs

There are many reasons as to why Christians share songs: they can be incredibly useful for teaching biblical and doctrinal content, they unify congregations in glorifying God, they can give prophetic words to particular moments, and they can allow us to grasp a sense of the church universal as we sing together words written by a fellow Christian. This is perhaps why the Christian music publisher Hillsong has largely abandoned the word “products” in favour of “resources” for their music.

Apparently, according to Amy Stillman from the University of Hawaii, the phenomena of song-sharing was even happening well back into the 1890s in Oceania. Well before the mass hysteria over The Beatles’ single releases, Christian songs were being passed from village to village around the lagoons in Papua New Guinea. Songs like “Onward Christian soldiers” developed a certain appeal in parts of the Pacific, and were sung until the missionaries couldn’t bear them any longer (and maybe even a little past that point).



Most worship leaders will understand the tensions that these missionaries must have faced. We tend to harness this kind of enthusiasm for sung worship. We know what is truly catchy, and what will assist the congregation in singing. This means that sometimes we use songs that we would prefer personally not to sing in order to encourage the congregation to magnify and glorify Jesus, the author and the finisher of our faith. But it’s the age-old question for a worship leader: what happens if you don’t like the lyrics of a song, especially if it is just one line of an incredibly popular song?

There are so many instances of this, and many of the discussions seem to be about the use of contextual language. For example, it’s become clear to me, as an Australian, that some North American Christians just can’t bear singing the line “the darling of heaven crucified” or, for that matter, the word “hell” used in the vernacular sense in a worship song. For Australian Christians, however, the word “darling” and “beloved” are almost interchangeable. Similarly, our (over?) use the word “hell” is troubling for some and has even confounded Oxford Dictionary experts ( Even if you understand the meaning of the term in the Australian context, however, it may not be appropriate to use in your own congregational setting.

In addition, there are also various theological issues. One famous example is the Stuart Townend and Keith Getty song line “the wrath of God was satisfied” which, some congregations have claimed, paints a particular picture of the relationship between God and Jesus which betrays the Trinity’s inter-mutuality and love ( ). The authors, however, disagreed that this was the correct interpretation of their work. So what can you do if you deem one line of a song theologically incorrect?

We tend to harness this kind of enthusiasm for sung worship. We know what is truly catchy, and what will assist the congregation in singing.

In order to sing contemporary worship songs, it seems, some global cultures are expected to learn to adapt more than others. Yet the context of some worship songs seem not to be a problem for people in the southern hemisphere who regularly sing about snow at Christmas time, sometimes even while packing their swimming costumes and preparing to head to the beach after church. Some of us can surely only imagine how incredibly hard it is to understand the line “his eye is on the sparrow” when you’ve never seen a bird that fits that name. It’s an exercise in trust to believe that not only does such a bird exist, but that God watches it with dedication. Yet such popular songs are regularly sung in Australia.


What To Do?

So what is a worship leader to do with these song texts outside of their original contexts? There are a number of ways to answer this question. Copyright law insists that the song is the work of the writer. That means that even if you love the tune, it would be inappropriate for a song leader to change the lyric “sloppy wet kiss,” for example, unless given expressed permission from the publisher. And yet, in this case, for example, David Crowder decided that there was enough outcry to allow for a new version of the song.

Still, despite the legalities in most countries and the publisher’s clear explanations that the author must be contacted, some worship pastors are under the impression that CCLI allows them leeway to change lyrics. Newsflash: it doesn’t, see:

Often, the church learns new worship songs through the radio, or online. So do you include a tune in the worship service at the recommendation of a congregation member who loves it? And do you omit the troublesome lines because you can’t stand to think that the believers would be led into theological error? The tension for the worship pastor is real! The worship leader can often get caught between the pastor’s teaching, the congregation’s expression, and the songwriter’s legal protections.

So what is the answer? On this the law is clear. You can omit lyrics. But you can’t change lyrics without the express permission of the author.

Therefore, rather than expecting songs to be able to do this work, perhaps worship leaders should see ourselves as missionaries to our own cultures.

But what is ideal in this instance? Well, perhaps we need to stop believing that we can and should all be singing the same repertoire globally? Although it is a beautiful thing for churches to share their resources, the agency to make decisions about what is included in worship still remains with (and has always been) with the local pastors to prayerfully consider song texts and decide whether they should be incorporated into the worship service. The best scenario is when the worship pastor or leader is given the right to negotiate with the various parties and set the right songlist for their context.


Different Ways of Speaking

The truth is, language is not universal. We recognize that we have differences in the way we speak, but we also have differences in the meaning of our speech. And so, unless we have verbatim quotes of the biblical text, we cannot expect that all songs will translate across all cultures —and even then we know that biblical translations carry various theological emphases. The Gospel, in contrast, is renowned for its translatability. This message can be told and retold in many different languages, and with a consistency that allows its essence to remain.

Therefore, rather than expecting songs to be able to do this work, perhaps worship leaders should see ourselves as missionaries to our own cultures. If we hold to the goal that the Gospel be understood by the people we serve, and that the scriptures would transform us as we gather in worship together as the people of God, then we can evaluate the usefulness of songs on this basis. This type of ministry, immersion into local culture, is based upon the model of the incarnation of Christ.

But we can certainly acknowledge that it is incredible that some songs do seem to manage to cross the language divides in order to unify believers of various nations. That’s enough to make you praise Christ, who promises “I will build the church” (Matthew 16:18).



Author – Adam Perez is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at Duke Divinity School.


Christ is Risen!

He is Risen indeed, Alleluia!


This past holy week, I was reminded of a song from Mumford & Sons’ triple-Platinum,[1] break out album Sigh No More (Glassnote Records, 2009). This folk/rock/bluegrass-inspired album is packed with religious material (both explicit and implicit). For me, popular music is often a great site for reflecting on the distinctives of Christian faith because it has a way of touching on very human desires and widely held notions of religion and spirituality. I’m thinking especially of a song on the album called Awake My Soul.” Here’s an excerpt of the pre-chorus and chorus:


“[…] In these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die

And where you invest your love, you invest your life

Awake my soul [3x]

For you were made to meet your maker”


If you’ll pardon my somewhat literal (and possibly shallow) interpretation of these lyrics, you’ll see what I mean with the religious content and popular notions of religion and spirituality. The themes packed in to this little segment of the song include the life and death of the body, love and relationships, the duality of body and soul, and the nature and purpose of human life before God. There is much to commend to songwriters from this masterful lyricism, but maybe less to commend in the light of Easter where we celebrate Jesus’ life, death, and bodily resurrection. As the Apostle’s Creed summarizes, “I believe… in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”

“In these bodies we will live / in these bodies we will die” and in these bodies we will be raised again to life everlasting. Christ is Risen!

But, for some reason, the resurrection of the body seems to be one of the hardest things for many Christians to believe in.[2] Maybe it’s a symptom of popular American Christianity’s penchant for concern over the condition of one’s soul and the “weakness of the flesh.” Admittedly, it is really hard to concretely imagine.

In both his incarnation (in Spanish: encarnación—literally, “enfleshment” or “inmeatedness”) and his bodily resurrection, Jesus affirms the significance of our bodies. I’m reminded of a passage from Luis Pedraja’s wonderful book on Christology, Jesus is My Uncle (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999) where he says,

“The Incarnation also makes it equally untenable to maintain that humanity can attain divinity on its own. It is only through God’s own initiative and action that this new reality can take place. But it takes place in human flesh… It also means that life in flesh and blood, our own incarnate reality, must be taken seriously as the place where we can encounter God… it affirms that our existence as flesh and blood is a part of God’s good creation—a part that is not alien to God.” (84)

What God affirms in the Incarnation, God fulfills in the bodily resurrection. If we thought human destiny was to ‘awake my soul,’ Jesus confronts us with his whole, embodied, new creation body. And, likewise, our bodies will be raised from the dead into the new heavens and new earth eschaton. This is a central hope of a truly Christian message at Easter and something truly worth singing about!

As the Apostle’s Creed summarizes, “I believe… in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”

In particular, let’s sing more about the embodied encounters of the post-resurrection Jesus as a way of celebrating that Christian hope doesn’t look so much like the Mumford family’s dead body and ‘awakened soul.’ Rather, it is better expressed in song texts like  “These Things Did Thomas Count as Real” (Thomas Troeger), “Aleluya Cristo Resucito” (Luis Bojos), or “The First Place” (Matthew Westerholm). Sing—and write new songs!—about Jesus the apparent gardener, Jesus the Emmaus road traveler, Jesus who still has nail holes in hands, and Jesus the seaside fish cook.

And while we’re at it, let’s give thanks for the bodies of those labored to make our holy week (and every week) services possible in and beyond music:

Piano Tuning Tools

For all guitar techs, luthiers, organ tuners, electricians, and brass machinists who create and care for the instruments that allow make our music possible;

For the tired eyes, arms, lips, voices, and fingers of those who make music in praise of God and service to the Church;

Gardening Tools

For the gardeners and florists of our Easter Lilies and all the visual artists whose work enlivens our places of worship and turns our gaze toward God’s beauty;

For the farmers, growers, field workers, bakers, vintners, and cooks who offer us a foretaste of the Kingdom to come in the sharing of holy meals;

Communion Bread

And for all the bodies that make up the Church—shaking, plucking, bowing, beating, pushing, pulling, resonating, and otherwise making music to remind us that the hope we celebrate at Easter will one day be resounding in the fullness of our own resurrected bodies.

“In these bodies we will live / in these bodies we will die” and in these bodies we will be raised again to life everlasting.

Amen, may it be so. Hallelujah!



[2] See also this short article on the issue from Albert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary:


If you enjoyed reading this blog, check out our other blogs here!