interior top image

Modern Justice Songs

One of the joys of my position as the Director of The Center for Congregational Song is to be asked interesting questions from people who are working week in and week out to get their congregations singing. This series of blogs will take some of the questions I’ve been asked and post the answers publicly.

 

The Question

Dear Brian,

I have a deep desire to write songs. But I can’t…it’s not my gift. But here’s what I want: modern justice songs. New songs that are today’s equivalent of “We Are Called” (Marty Haugen), “Beatitudes,” or “They’ll Know We Are Christians” or some of the great justice hymns. I’m fully aware that those songs are great and classic hymns and are important to our tradition (Roman Catholic). But I want to create a new genre. Not hymns, but praise songs (focused on God) that somehow still speak to the communal nature of our church. There are a few of these out there, but not nearly enough. Are there groups or artists out there who are working on this?

Thanks,

Joe Youth Minister

 

The Reply

Dear Joe,

First, thanks for your question! So many people are asking themselves the same thing. The church is always changing and learning. While we love the songs that speak to who we were and are, we’re also called to create hymns and songs that speak to who God is calling us to be. Like you referenced by mentioning Marty Haugen, many members of The Hymn Society (as well as others) who write mainly strophic hymnody have been writing songs and hymns with these topics in mind for decades. Authors that come to particularly to mind are Shirley Erena Murray, Adam Tice, Dan Damon, Carolyn Winfrey Gillette, Ruth Duck, and many more…there are too many to name here. However, since you asked about a “new genre” and specifically mentioned “praise songs,” I’m thinking that you’re wondering about music written for praise-bands but which have socially-progressive texts.

Below is a list of artists, groups, and other things to look at concerning social-justice oriented music that comes from or is designed for a more praise-band oriented style. When listing an group or artist, I’ve tried to link to a specific song that I think is a nice representation of their work/style. I hope this is helpful. Feel free to reach out anytime with other questions.

 

The Convergence Music Project

is a conglomeration of artists, many from the United Church of Christ and other socially-progressive denominations, who are writing theological liberal and/or social-justice oriented music. There are lot of great artists in that group, so make sure to look through their full catalog, but today I’ll point you to The Many, especially their song “These Bodies” https://www.convergencemp.com/artist/the-many/these-bodies.html

 

Mark Miller

while often published as looking like traditional music, is often a go-to for me because I’ve found it works equally well with an organ/piano/choir set-up as it does with a praise-band. You can learn about Mark and his music here: http://www.markamillermusic.com/

 

Common Hymnal

is a group of mostly evangelical, Anglican, and Reformed singer/song-writers who are moderate to liberal socially/theologically, but still rooted in their more conservative traditions. Where do they turn? This is a group trying to nurture each other’s musical and spiritual lives in a safe place where the CCM marketplace and/or their denominational bodies won’t stifle them. One of my favs from this group is Dee Wilson, whose song “Rose Pedals” is a powerful witness: https://commonhymnal.com/exchange/rose-petals-story

 

Wendell Kimbrough

is an Anglican worship leader. Because of his focus on the Psalms, much of his music has a social-justice flare. Check out: https://wendellk.bandcamp.com/album/come-to-me

 

Sandra McCracken

is a nashville singer/song-writer who is writing some great music. Because of her focus on the psalms and her own personal journey, many of her songs are justice-oriented. Check out: https://sandramccracken.bandcamp.com/track/all-ye-refugees

 

The Porters Gate Worship Project

is a group The Center for Congregational Song recently collaborated who are writing some justice-oriented music. A new album will be coming this Fall. Their first album on “work songs” is pretty cool: https://www.portersgateworship.com/ The group includes a few of the people already mentioned above.

 

Liz Vice and Others

A recent collaboration between a few artists and theologians gave birth to a new song called “Away From the Manger,” which you can see here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ThaVvxuFCP8&feature=share

 

Urban Doxology

is a song-writing and worship-leading group centered around race reconciliation in Richmond, Virginia. Their songs are genre-bending goodness while staying rooted in Black Church styles and experiences. http://www.urbandoxology.com/

 

Matt Maher

has a recent Advent/Christmas album (which I find problematic in a few places) that includes this gem with a very singable refrain of “There’s hope for everyone” after each line meaning this could easily be sung as a call-and-response: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X-ThP8qEio4

 

Andrew Peterson

writes music that is not always congregationally focused, but sometimes it is. This is one of my favs from him, focusing on fighting inner voices that say our bodies and efforts aren’t good enough to be loved by God: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sYiM-sOC6nE

 

Have fun with exploring all that! I hope at least a few things will be new to you and maybe something will be helpful?

 

INVITATION TO BROOKLYN

The “Centered in Song” launch tour for The Center for Congregational Song is coming to Brooklyn! Join organist, composer, and master song leader Mark Miller for a day celebrating the importance and power of congregational song. There will be sessions on justice in music-making, introducing The Center for Congregational Song, and a closing hymn festival. Come join in the song!

LEADERS

Mark Miller, Composer, Organist, Centered In Song, Brooklyn, NY, Center for Congregational Song, Let Justice Roll Down

Mark Miller believes passionately that music can change the world. He also believes in Cornell West’s quote that ‘Justice is what love looks like in public.’ His dream is that the music he composes, performs, teaches and leads will inspire and empower people to create the beloved community.
Mark serves as Assistant Professor of Church Music at Drew Theological School and is a Lecturer in the Practice of Sacred Music at Yale University. He also is the Minister of Music of Christ Church in Summit, New Jersey.

Hymn Writer, Poet, The Hymn Society, Congregational Song, Singing, Let Justice Roll Down, Centered in Song, Brooklyn, NY, Brooklyn NY

Jacque Jones has been writing in various forms all her life and in recent years has taken up the challenge of writing hymn texts. Her hymn text collection Songs Unchanged Yet Ever Changing was published in 2015 by GIA. Jacque has been a member of The Hymn Society since 2003, and is currently serving as its Immediate Past President, having served previously as Treasurer and President. A native of Texas, Jacque lives in New York and is an active member of the laity at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights.

Ana Hernandez is a composer/arranger, workshop facilitator, author, and mischief maker. She works with people to create beautiful liturgies in many different styles; from early music to contemplative, to drummy and participatory. She facilitates deep and meaningful conversations using the Art of Hosting modalities.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

REGISTRATION

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Ethics

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