A Progressive Christian Blog

Where’s the “Progressive-Leaning” Worship Music?

Worship Music Has Gotten Better, Yes

So I’ve been leading worship in the Evangelical Church world for 13 years now, and during that span I’ve seen quite the growth in the world of “worship music.”

In the days of youth group worship, we regularly parodied old rock songs and made them about Jesus, such as:

(Sweet home up in Heaven / where the skies are so blue / sweet home up in heaven / Lord, I’m coming home to you)  -Sweet Home Alabama

(I feel like praisin’ you… / I feel like praisin’ you… / I feel like giving praise to you!)  -I Feel Like Making Love #wtf

(And then I saw God’s grace / now I’m a believer / without a trace / of doubt in my mind / I’ve been loved / oooooo.. I’m a believer, I couldn’t leave him, if I tried)  -I’m a Believer

Then, thankfully, the Vineyard movement hit and that gave us some simple choruses that we could easily repeat over and over and over for eight minutes straight, and really whip people up in to the spirit.

Chris Tomlin hit the scene and started to write accesible pop music tunes that were easy to sing, easy to play, and spread like wildfire.

Then the “rock” scene within Christendom got wind of how much money could be made, ahem, sorry, excuse me, er, um, how much WORSHIP of GOD could be facilitated by giving and “edge” to the worship music. Thanks to bands like Sonicflood, Delirious, Skillet, Hillsong United and Kutless, we discovered that Jesus loves a good distortion pedal.

More recently, like in the past 3-5 years, I think we have FINALLY begun to see some really GOOD music being made for corporate worship. Music that is not just attempts to recreate what the “secular” world is doing. Music that is interesting, engaging, and challenging. I’m thinking of artists like Gungor, Jesus Culture, John Mark McMillan, Mike Crawford and All Sons and Daughters. Maybe to a lesser extant, but still in this category, you could add David Crowder Band and Leeland.

(sidenote: wow, after typing all that out, I notice an EXTREME lack of female artists. Is that just ME and my lack of exposure? Are we not hearing from our female musicians? Ugh… I need to figure that out. Waaaay to much masculinity going on here.)

So all this to say, “worship music” has come a long way, and I for one am grateful.

But What About Us Progressive Peeps?

But here’s my question: Where is the music being written for corporate worship that has a more progressive theological bent?

I, and many others like me, are moving away from a type of conservative, evangelical, western Christianity. But it is within that framework that virtually ALL of our worship music has been written. All the themes, language, and theology of the songs are, for the most part, indicative of a very narrow brand of Christianity. And I, and others like me, have been forced to sort of sing some of these songs with a bit of cringe. A sort of, “okay, well, I’ll SING this, but I won’t really like it.”

Sometimes I end up changing a word here, a line there.
Other times I just won’t do a song that every other church in the country is doing, because I just don’t want my people singing THAT. Getting THAT idea stuck in their head all week.

And it’s frustrating.
It’s hard enough to find music that is qualitatively GOOD and artistic and interesting, but now to also try and find ones that have the type of theological thrust to it that fits more within our faith community? Pfsh… good luck.

And furthermore, consider how LONG it took for the music scene to get from “crappy cover songs where we put in the word JESUS,” to “wow, that’s actually some really good music.” Probably like 40 years!

So if we are JUST now starting to move in a New Kind of Christianity type of direction, following Christ in to newly discovered (read: always been there, just not been realized) ways of being in the Kingdom, then do we have to wait another 40 years for really good church music, too?

I did a Google search yesterday on “progressive Christian worship music,” and sure, there is stuff out there. There are people writing songs with great lyrics and theology, but, um, it’s really not very good music. Just being honest. They sound like the campy folk songs of the 70’s and 80’s.

For instance, here’s a website dedicated to gathering resources for progressive christian artists. Really? PCAN is what you want to be called? #underwhelming

Here’s a guy who’s done some great philosophical writing on what exactly IS progressive worship music, but check out his website. And listen to some of the music. #underwhelming

Check out this video of one artist who’s name shows up a lot in lists of “progressive worship music” people. #sigh

Guh.

See what I mean?

Speaking of ‘mean,’ I’m not trying to be. Really. I genuinely want people to use their gifts, to make art, to DO the hard work of writing music.

And I’m sure the above people/resources are exactly what many people want and need. I’m just looking for something more. Something different.

Something like a Gungor, or Jesus Culture, or Civil Wars, or even Crowder, but with theology and lyrics that I can sing with full conviction and honesty and truth.

If you’re reading this and you’re similar to me (more bent towards a progressive type of theology) and you’ve stumbled across some artists that are making really good music with really good lyrics, can you please direct me?

24 Responses to “Where’s the “Progressive-Leaning” Worship Music?”

  1. Anonymous.

    Tenth avenue north
    Switchfoot
    Need to breathe
    Might not be exactly what you want but thought Id give it a try.

    Reply
  2. Mike

    So two questions: 1) if you had to write two songs that better represtented progressive Christian theology, what would the themes be, or what would the lyrics say? 2) what themes in conservative worship tunes have you cringed at singing or which lyrics have you regretted having the church sing? Mike B

    Reply
    • colbymartin

      Good questions, Mike. In response to #1, I would love to have a song that somehow expresses an embrace of mystery and doubt. One that doesn’t “resolve” by the bridge. One that gives voice to where a lot of people are actually at in their faith. Similar to some of the angry/lament psalms. But again, doesn’t necessarily end by saying, “but I know all will be okay, because God’s mercies are new every day.” Rather, it allows people to honestly just “emote.” Then perhaps another song that celebrates how Christ broke down walls that divide people and now ALL are welcome in to the family. There are some songs I’ve seen that speak to that, sort of, but again, it’s not often matched with really quality musicianship.
      Then, to #2, two songs come to mind as examples where I changed the original lyric so that I/we could sing it with more conviction and “true-ness.” One is “New Creation” by Leeland. Really great song. Love the theme, the message, the musicality. But their lyrics to verse 2 are, “I’m here, here in the world / buy my home is in a heavenly place / far above the stars out in space / I’m not afraid.” Which I changed to, “we’re here, here in this world / longing for a heavenly place / where Jesus brings us in by his grace / we’re not afraid.” I changed “I” to we, to make it more corporate. And I don’t like encouraging people to think of heaven as being far out in space, way removed from this world. I understand it’s poetic, metaphorical, yadda yadda yadda. But the problem is that for many people Heaven actually IS a place up in the clouds. That’s about the extent of their undertstanding of WHAT and WHERE Heaven is. So to reinforce wrong thinking (and potentially destructive thinking) by singing lyrics like that, well, makes me cringe.
      The other example is very similar, it’s Phil Wickam’s “Beautiful.” Verse 3 says, “now you are sitting on your heavenly throne / soon we will be coming home / you’re beautiful.” To which I changed, “now you are sitting on your heavenly throne / never will we be alone / you’re beautiful.”
      Again, same sort of idea. Don’t want to reinforce that our “home” is far out there. REmoved from this world. This reality. The New HEavens and New Earth is about the merging, the “coming down,” if you will, of Heaven to Earth. Not about us escaping away and going to the clouds. So to suggest that Jesus is up the sky on a throne and soon we’ll be going to where he is, which is our eventual “home,” is not the sort of theology I want to teach with music.

      As far as moments where I’ve regretted having the church sing something has more to do with a specific context than the song itself. One such moment I can remember singing Matt Redman’s “Never Let Go,” which is a great song of hope and promise. But when you look out and see people that you KNOW are going through an amazingly difficult time, and it FEELS like God has completely let them go, sometimes asking them to sing those words feels just wrong. Yes, I get the whole notion of, “but it’s true, God doesn’t let them go, and they should declare that promise in faith!” Yes, sure, in theory. But these are real people we’re dealing with, with real stories and real raw emotions. I know personally I have had moments where the LAST thing I wanted to sing would be “oh no, you never let go, through the calm and through storm.” My heart would much rather sing, “oh Lord, you seem to have let go, even in my darkest storm.”

      Reply
  3. KatyG

    Yes, Colby. This. This blog post is your finest piece yet.

    In crafting it, you were simply ruminating about music that glorifies God, allows us to mediate on Him, on our own struggles. And yet, this post is so much more.

    This post is the core of you. The core of your blog. The core of your message. It shares your theology, your openness, your pure understanding of God and who He is. Who we are. And where Christianity fits into that puzzle. Yes. This is exactly what I know to be true about God. Not putting him into boxes. Taking our life and fitting the message of God into it, not taking the message and making it fit our life. Evangelicalism has so often taken the Bible and tried to jam the Bible down the throat of the world by preaching the doctrine, and completely missing the people who that message is speaking to. If we took our life, exactly where we are, and put the Word of God into that very place, we would get so much more benefit than trying to gain understanding by taking a story and wedging our life into it. Yes. This.

    Living in a Midwestern town with tractors and cornfields, I struggle often with finding a “peogressive” place to share my faith, where I can grow and see God everywhere I am. Our local evangelical churches try to shove a message down the throats of the congregants, often forgetting that there are real people, with real shit going on and sometimes they need more than the message of “hope”.

    Perhaps your greater purpose is not just to lead, but to help assemble a team of people who can craft music with a true understanding of progressive Christianity.

    Reply
  4. Jill K Warner

    Colby, thanks for jumping in on the conversation. I’m both a musician and local church pastor. In the name of full disclosure, I’m from the same denomination as the two artists you used as example and consider both to be friends. We come at this conversation from the opposite direction as the forty year journey you describe. We’ve been theologically progressive for decades, but we’ve been very traditional in our music… I’m talking 18th and 19th century hymns traditional. Because of the simple chorus music you describe, what many of our folk call “7-11” (seven words sung 11 times) and “Jesus is my boyfriend” music, many people in our congregations have resisted contemporary music in worship. We are on a journey to make resources available, but it’s a struggle and it’s not well funded. You won’t find the best stuff in great recordings and You-Tube videos because it’s all about the congregation and not about the show. The music I use in worship is in song-book form (Sing! Prayer and Praise) and left to the interpretation of the musicians of the congregation. I realize this is a challenge if your musicians only play by ear. (More disclosure, I was on the committee that compiled the book.)
    Out of curiosity I listened to a couple of the artists you listed and in my congregation it wouldn’t fly. We don’t have the musicians to pull it off and, since we’re being honest, the sparce lyric style of Grundor I don’t find very condusive to congregational singing. We like melodies, and texts with a bit more to say. That is not to say it’s bad music, only not right for my context.
    The challenge I offer many people is to imagine beyond the recording. Great musicians can take the most bland song and add interest with the right instrumentation. A slight change in rhythm can be the difference between camp-song and congregational music. And if the Spirit is moving in worship, a simple a capella melody will move people as much as a polished worship band.
    Thanks, again, for the opportunity for conversation.

    Reply
    • colbymartin

      Jill, love that you stopped by and joined the conversation! Thanks for adding your voice. It is needed!

      The “7-11” and the “Jesus/boyfriend” music equally drives me nuts! Although there have been seasons of my life where I’ve found great value, solace and encouragement from them. There is a time for everything, I suppose…

      Yes, I imagine that, if you’re congregation is accustomed to song books and/or 18th/19th century hymns, then trying to pull off a song from Jesus Culture or Gungor would ministerial suicide! Ha!
      But in all seriousness, that must absolutely be part of the conversation. Understanding our OWN contexts and culture. And knowing the vibe and pulse of our people. not trying to force them to “get” a different style of music.
      And yet… and yet…

      If the church is going to have any success in passing itself on to the next generation, it must be acknowledged that rare is the young Millennial who “really connects” with 18th/19th century hymns! That is not to say that younger people don’t enjoy hymns at all, in fact it can often be quite the opposite. But it must either be in ration, or it must be instrumentally attuned to a more modern/familiar sound.

      And also, bands like Gungor specifically, are incredibly hard to emulate at the local church level because of their high musicality, funky instrumentation, and overall ‘otherness’ in form and function. I’ve succeeded with a few Gungor songs (Beautiful Things, We Will Run, and Every Breath) but these are probably their most simple and spacious songs.

      Lastly, let me say this: thank you for being a voice for more progressive theology for such a long time. I know many of us are a little later to the party, but it’s good to know there have been those have sat with this stuff for quite a while. Grace and Peace.

      Reply
      • Sam

        I recommend Ark’s masterpiece, “Burn the Sun.” They are not labeled Christian, but it’s very well done with an extremely potent positive message.

  5. Emily

    My husband was on the worship team at our old church and he had an idea to sing Bob Dylan’s Forever Young. Being a seasoned church-goer (and he not), I was like, “No. You don’t understand how church music works. We can’t sing a Bob Dylan folksy pop song as a congregational worship song. Maaaaybe as a ‘special song’ but not as a worship wrong.”

    I am so glad he ignored me and suggested it to the leader, because every time we sang this blessing-song at church, I would tear up and feel so much joy. It makes an excellent benediction.

    Reply
  6. Rosie

    How about the “other Gungor” – The Brilliance? I’m not very up on progressive theology or it it fits exactly the way you’re thinking, but I bet some of their songs could be done corporately… Definitely there’s a healthy portion of questioning/doubt/lament/exploring pain…

    Reply
    • colbymartin

      That’s actually a great suggestion, Rosie. I am familiar with The Brilliance, and they have written some great music just as you say. Thanks for chiming in!

      Reply
      • Rosie

        Heh, I was wondering if I’d get a response as I’m a bit late to the party! I actually have a question for you as well, if you don’t mind. I found your post when I was looking up people’s experiences doing Gungor-ish songs in corporate worship. When I’ve seen churches doing it (specifically Beautiful Things), on youtube for example, it seems like it’s most often done as a (please forgive the antiquated term) “special music” without the congregation participating much. I also saw that several churches did it closer to when it first came out, but I haven’t seen too many post in the 2012-2013 range, so I was wondering if perhaps it’s sort of a personal-worship-leader-fave that us musician types sort of geek-out about, and they end up trying it once or twice but decide not to incorporate it into a more regular rotation after not much response or because it turns out a bit weird. A worship leader mentor of ours was going to do it but then thought better of it. In fact I shared a link to the song with our pastor just yesterday and he said it should probably only be “special music!” Anyway, all that to say, do you find the Gungor or Gungor-type songs you’ve done go over well with your congregation(s)? Thanks for your post, and sorry this is a bit off topic.

      • colbymartin

        For what it’s worth, I too still use the term “special music.” I’m sure there are other/better terms, but that one just gets straight to the point… ha!

        I’ve done Beautiful Things in two different churches, in several different contexts. I’ve actually used it as a special music piece twice, both times with a full choir behind me, and it is incredible!
        I’ve also used it in an acoustic evening of worship, where the words were put on the screens, and people were invited to sing if they wanted to, but they could also just listen and reflect.

        And then, I’ve also used it, straight up, in the set of congregational worship. (When I did that, I had to lower the key, otherwise no one would be singing with me on the upper octave!)

        I think it went over well, and can actually be a great song in that context.

        But, i DO think you are accurate when you identify it as a “personal-worship-leader-fave that us musician types sort of geek-out about.”
        The way I see it, we HAVE to include songs like this every once in a while IF FOR NO OTHER REASON THAN TO KEEP US SANE!!! ;)

        Let me say this, though. I’ve used the following Gungor songs in corporate worship as well, and they are GOLDEN.
        – Every Breath (The peeps love this one)
        – The Earth is Yours
        – Late Have I Loved You (kind of in the same category as Beautiful Things)
        – We Will Run (really easy and really good)

  7. Christian Evolution

    Hey Colby, I see your post here is from 2012 so I’m not sure if you’re still tracking it, but its an excellent post! Years back I was more “evangelical” and even played in worship bands at large churches and venues, so I know all that type of music. But then I moved toward a more progressive theology and have since tried to find good music that didn’t contradict my theology. Anyway, it’s been challenging to say the least! One song I like now is by Lincoln Brewster “Love the Lord Your God” and I also like TobyMac “Lose My Soul.” A few months ago I started a progressive community on Google+ and today I posted a question to the community to share ideas for progressive friendly music, and then I Googled it a bit and just came across your blog post looking for the same thing :-). Anyway, if you found any ideas from your own search we would welcome a post from you letting us know what you found. The link is here: https://plus.google.com/b/103703198049627345452/communities/106463486758891931975?cfem=1

    Thanks!

    Reply
  8. linda bringer

    Also late to the conversation! I lead a traditional SATB choir of progressive Christians who are hungry for music that challenges us and lets us worship in a “good music”, contemporary style! Who’s composing for us? There must be music somewhere!

    Reply
  9. Matthew T.

    Two years removed, but I’m glad I found this post. Even if I probably won’t convince my contemporary service to change, it’s nice for me to have some alternative choices for myself

    Reply
  10. Eddie Giddens

    Ok, I’m REALLY late to the party! LOL! I too was an evangelical worship leader until I was kicked out of two churches…for being gay. I really miss and crave what I led, sang, played and listened to back then. I listen to a couple of local Christian stations, but sometimes I have to either change the station or just turn it off altogether. It’s now the Spring of 2016 and I still don’t know where to find really good, progressive music, especially for worship (although I love listening to contemporary songs too). All of my Google searches to date have led me to lots of music, but it’s just so…meh. I need to find artists who inspire and encourage me. So if there’s anyone still following this thread and has a clue, could you please pass it along to me? Thanks!

    Reply
    • colbymartin

      Feel your pain, brother! I would recommend checking out what David Lunsford and his team up at Eastlake Community Church in Seattle are doing. Especially their newest album, A Million Miles. Some really great stuff there.

      And also, I’m sorry that you were shown a really horrible expression of the Way of Jesus. There is no reason that “being gay” should exclude you from full participation in the Body of Christ. I write about a similar experience I had in my upcoming book, I hope you’ll check it out when it’s released: http://www.unclobber.com

      Reply
      • Eddie Giddens

        Thanks Colby!

        Listening to some of his stuff right now. So far I’m liking what I’m hearing. I like Rob Leveridge too but most of his stuff us a little simplistic cor my taste. I really love Chris Tomlin and Casting Crowns but sometimes their theology jyst makes my teeth hurt. LOL! If you have any other suggestions, I’m open!

  11. Michael Anthony Howard

    Hello Colby!

    I would certainly put Steve Schallert on your list to give a listen. Steve is one of these beautifully prophetic people who leads worship as a part of his ministry with Youth With A Mission (a more Evangelical missionary network), but teaches and speaks drawing on liberation themed resources from Leonardo Boff, James Cone, Cornel West, Ched Meyers, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Bonhoeffer.

    Several of the songs on his recent album are from Civil Rights era (and before) justice-activism songs (e.g. Ain’t Gonna Study War No More, Keep Your Eyes on the Prize, etc.). But I have led several of his songs in worship at more conservative gatherings and found people were able to sing right along…despite the radical theological roots and language…

    For instance…
    The Word:
    “The Word took on flesh/like a homeless baby in destress…It’s a groaning world/where even the trees are begging for/a place to lay down roots/where wars for oil will not destroy…”

    ****A Song of Lamentation…
    “Jesus/God of the poor/Liberator/Friend of the weak”
    “Jesus/Light of the world/these weary bones/tremble and weep”
    “Heal every heart/Heal every soul”
    “Heal this violence we carry/the blood in the soil”

    ***Run, Devil Run*** (You should hear echoes of Walter Wink a la William Stringfellow here)
    “I heard death had died/so run, devil run”
    “I say fare thee well to Babylon/ I have laid my tent/In the New Jerusalem”

    Hope your community can get as much from this as some others of us have…
    http://www.steveschallert.com/

    Reply
  12. Matt LeFevers

    Hi, Colby! This is Matt from One Church. I know this is an old blog post but it’s still one of the first results when googling “progressive worship music” (as one does, ha) so I thought I’d weigh in.

    Jackie and I have gone through all the same struggles planning worship for a pretty progressive leaning church, and your fix of cleaning up a few lines of theology in an otherwise evangelical song is still one of our go-to moves. The only really progressive artists making what I (subjectively) think of as good worship music are Eastlake Music and Gungor, who I know you’re aware of, and our own band (forgive the plug) The Praise Record (www.thepraiserecord.com). These are the ones we’ve had good luck with at One Church:

    Vapor (The Liturgists / Gungor)
    Cannot Keep You (Gungor)
    Break The Cages (The Praise Record)
    Keep Us All Close (Eastlake / David Lunsford)
    Anything That’s True (The Praise Record)
    You Know Me (The Praise Record)
    The Earth Is Yours (Gungor)
    Heartbeat (Eastlake / David Lunsford)

    We also like Matt Maher, who is Catholic and therefore very traditional theologically, but at least with a different flavor and less buzz words than the usual evangelical-Protestant thing, which can be refreshing.

    Hope that helps anyone who’s still coming across this thread! The struggle is real. We’re working on another batch of theologically progressive songs with guitar-worship music right now, and hopefully others will too. Right now the choices seem to be progressive theology with crazy banjo/cello/glockenspiel music or good performable guitar jams with fairly toxic assumptions about God just under the surface, haha.

    Reply
  13. Owen Bloomfield

    Thanks for the post and all the comments. I’m coming at this from a different place. I lead Music at a small and very progressive congregation in Ontario. While the music hasn’t been traditional it hasn’t been “contemporary” in the generic sense. Very little if any of the words would survive a service. We are making a concerted effort to move the style of music that way and are really struggling to find appropriate music. Thanks everyone for the leads.

    Reply

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