Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today


Worship Music

Worship Words Determine Faith

The early churches developed a saying:

The rule of prayer is the rule of faith

As we have moved through the centuries, things have changed. Our worship communities have moved from being centered on prayer, to sacrament, to preaching … and now many are centered on music.

I am proposing that now, the rule of worship is the rule of faith.

Watch this 5 minute video and let me know what you think.

you can also check out “changing words to worship songs“.

Changing Words to Worship Songs

Over the years, I have grown comfortable making 3 changes to songs that we sing at church.

  •  From blood to love
  •  From father to savior
  •  From King to anything else

Blood To Love

Atonement theories are fascinating and I love exploring different historical approaches to understating what happened on the cross of Christ. My historic understanding is one of the many reasons that I intrigued with how many hymns and worship songs from the past 2 centuries are so bloody. In the past 200 years ‘penal substitutionary atonement’ (PSA) has become the dominant understanding in many protestant circles and our songs reflect it.

It has a simple fix however. Just cut ‘blood’ out and paste ‘love’ in and it amplifies the meaning of the song even better! It does not detract from the meaning of the song and actually amplifies it, making it better.

The love of God is bigger than just the blood that Jesus spilled. There is more to the love of God than the fact that Jesus bled.

Somebody is going to argue this is how God forgives us of our sins … but the truth is that Jesus forgave sins before the cross (Luke 7:48, Matt 9:5, Mark 2:5, etc.). Jesus forgives sins based on his identity rooted in God’s goodness, not our violence. The incarnation not the crucifixion where God to identified with humanity and brought us into a new relationship. (for more read about the victim [scapegoat] on Good Friday)

Example: and old hymn has been remade (Cornerstone) and makes so much more sense with the change, “My hope is built on nothing less that Jesus’ [love] and righteousness”. It is more singable (less distracting) and richer theologically.  It is not just our faith in Jesus but the faithfulness of Jesus by which God’s righteousness is imparted to us. [Here is another way to do it]

Father To Savior

In similar fashion, the change of ‘father’ to ‘savior’ is a significant upgrade. The Bible references God as ‘father’ not only because it was written in a time-period that was heavily patriarchal but because Jesus had a special connection to God he referenced as ‘Abba’ or dad. Here is the problem though, Jesus was not telling us the meta-physical (or ontological) reality about God, Jesus was using a relational metaphor to let us know how he (and thus we) might relate to God as a perfectly-pictured parent.

Jesus’ very identity was comprised of his connection to God and he said things that I cannot say like, “I and the father are one”. Things brings up several issues:

I love my father very much but don’t think that God is entirely (or only) like him nor is my father entirely like God. It is too limiting to confine God to my earthly understanding of paternal pictures.

Not everyone has a great relationship with their father. It is meant to be a metaphor. We have made it too concrete. We have concretized and given substance to something meant to be illusive and illustrative.

Example: In the new chorus added to the same Cornerstone song from our first example, it makes more sense to sing ‘savior’ than father. “Cornerstone, weak made strong in the savior’s love, through the storm, he is Lord, lord of all.” The confession of the early churches is that Jesus is Lord (not Caesar) and so this change is perfect both in our contemporary context and historically.

King To kin

Lastly, King imagery is so antiquated that Christians seems to be the last ones longing for a King. This is especially true of American Christians. The entire point of democracy is that we don’t have a monarchy. I cannot figure out the current obsession with royal weddings and royal babies on this side of the Atlantic. I also don’t understand our worship songs that make it seem like God rules from a far-off land and we are a colony of heaven here on earth. Between monarchy, imperialism, and colonialism I really worry about our Kingdom understanding.

God is here and at work among us by God’s Spirit. God is not high up and far off – that old picture of God was supposed to done away with in Christ’s incarnation. Yet somehow the church of N. America continues to long for a Roman way of ruling the world utilizing military power, coercive governance, and violent hierarchy to rule and reign.

It is almost as if we missed the upside-down, outside-in, anti-imperial, counter-kingdom that Jesus came to initiate. We have reverted to longing for monarchy and imperial rule. It is almost as if we missed the thing Jesus was teaching about and prefer the thing he was interrogating and subverting.

Example: Switch ‘kin-dom’ for ‘kingdom’ in your worship songs or prayers. See how big of a difference it makes to what you are picturing.  Then switch out ‘King’ for ‘Queen of Heaven – Mother of us all’ and expose both the way that you are imaging and imagining the Divine.

Remember – it is just as accurate and as inaccurate to call God mother as father. They are both word pictures and relational metaphors.

Make these 3 changes to the worship songs at your church

  1.  From blood to love
  2.  From father to savior
  3.  From King to anything else

I would love to hear about the difference that it makes – or what underlying ideology it exposes.

Church Survey Responses

Earlier this month I responded to a survey being done by a grad student about new worship communities and churches in revitalization.

Below are some of my responses to the 3 questions – and here is a 10 min video with some pictures spliced for illustration.

1.What innovative practices set your faith community apart?

Vermont Hills UMC is attempting a hybrid expression that combines two very different ecclesial and liturgical formats. We have been a classic mainline worship format for our 50 years of existence. We never went through the ‘blended worship’ wars in the 1980’s and 90’s. We never had a worship band or song leader. It is just piano, occasionally organ, and a choir. We use singable hymns so that the singing is robust and fills the space with sound.

We have now added a coffee shop/living room feel that splices in conversation and a TedTalk style homily early in the gathering. Also, instead of the sermon, a different person (or persons) comes to a high-top table and has a conversation. Sometimes it is about the homily, or the passage of scripture – other times it is about an outside topic (such a non-profit that we support). This serves to ‘decenter’ the sermon so that our gatherings are centered around conversation.

Another innovation is that each time we do communion on the first Sunday of the month, we try something different. The two most recent communion weeks, for instance, were vastly different than each other.  In January, we set up 6 round tables in the corners of the sanctuary (we have an odd shaped space) and had 8-10 people at each table. They served each other communion with a prepared litany, and commune together for the rest of the service. In February, we set up different stations – a baptismal font, a table full of prayer candles, etc. – and had them wander around the space doing different activities before they went to the communion station. A 6-minute video played on the screen for those who did not want to wander.

2. How does your faith community meet people where they are, literally and figuratively?

I have developed an ecclesiology called Church 2.0 where we provide the space but not all of the content. The conversations during our gatherings are unscripted so that people can bring their concerns and insights.

Another aspect of our service to the community is the many non-profits we participate in and support financially. In January and February, we have had a different ministry or group ‘come to the table’ and tell us about what they do and how we can get involved. This includes our backpack ministry that packs food for kids at the elementary school next door who would not have food on the weekend, and Neighborhood house that helps families get back on their feet. We have 7 or 8 of these ministries that we support and participate in.

3. How does your faith community develop and equip young leaders? eg internships, pastoral residencies for young clergy, intentional communities?

I have only  been here 7 months but we already have a young minister going through the ordination process and several seminarians who help teach and lead. The format of ‘the table’ allows multiple voices to heard. Depending on the topic, they can help teach Sunday school, mid-week Bible study, ‘preach’ the homily, and be the liturgist as well. This gives them lots of opportunities to participate and practice. We will be developing a ministry team in 2018 for formalize this process.

Dialogue across the table is the key though. It is a platform that allows their voice to be elevated and broadcast. It is shared influence instead of one persons talking for 20-30 minutes week after week.

Pre-Woke Worship

It has been an interesting couple of weeks! I found out that I did not get the professor jobs I applied for and at the same time, I have been talking with churches and denominations about becoming a pastor again.

I have also been visiting different churches every Sunday to see what is happening out there. I figure that if I am headed back into local church ministry this might be a one time opportunity to do so. It has been an amazing experience and I will write more about it later.

Today I wanted to tell you about a podcast that I have really enjoyed listening to. The show is called Represent, where host Aisha Harris tackles different themes each week. Some weeks focus on pop culture, others on politics, some on media, others on relationships.

A new segment that has become a reoccurring feature is called ‘Pre-Woke Watching’ where the host and at least on other friend talk about some movie, TV show, or song that they used to enjoy but which needs reconsidering. It is fascinating series of conversation where young adults revisit things that they loved as children or teens in order to examine elements that now seem racist, sexist, hurtful, and dangerous.

In a recent episode, they evaluate a song from the original ‘Jungle Book’ animated movie from 1967. The song ‘I want to be like you’ is iconic and epic … but upon further review it is highly problematic with themes of colonialism superiority and racial undertones. Kids, obviously don’t know about Roger Kipling and Disney is not obligated to be forthright about his influence.

Where the conversation gets even more interesting is in the final assessment when they ask each other, “So … can you watch/listen to that anymore?”. It is fascinating to listen to the rational/justification regardless of whether the answer is yes or no. My favorite answer is

“I’m going to keep listen to/watching it because I have really fond memories and associations with it … but my kids will not be watching it because I don’t want them to be introduced to it.”

It is in the inverse of so many conversations I get to have with people who are rethinking-reevaluating the way that they and their families are participating in faith/church. From them I hear things like “I just can’t sing that song anymore in good conscience … but I my kid really likes it and I want them to have good feelings about the church/faith.”

These are interesting conversations because for so many people their faith/ view of the Bible  or understanding of God / prayer has changed or matured from what they grew up with. They are truly concerned both with finding a posture and practice of faith that has integrity for them and works for their kids/teens.


I like the podcast partly because it is interesting to listen in to folks wresting with similar issues only in a very different arena. It reminds me of the journey through criticism into a second faith that I referenced (about Ricouer) a couple of weeks ago. I referenced it again at the ‘Theology on Tap’ event the other night about how our views on the afterlife mature and evolve.

Worship songs, however, seem to be the biggest point of contention. Wether it is bloody penal substitutionary atonement songs about the cross, exclusive masculine and heavy use of father language, overly sappy romantic imagery, or my least favorite – the unnamed ‘You’.

Side-note: pronouns such as ‘you’ need an antecedent such as ‘Doug’ or ‘Mom’ or ‘God’. Last week at church the opening song used ‘You’ sixteen times without even saying ‘god’ or  ‘Lord’. It drives me crazy. If we never stipulate who it is we are addressing …

So I sang the song to the guy sitting in front of me!  “You are great, you have a good heart, I trust you and I need more of you in my life.” 

Anyway – I would love to hear about any pre-woke worship experiences, practices, or songs that just don’t seem the same now that you know what you know.



Charismatics, Evangelicals, Singing & the unamed ‘You’

by Bo Sanders

Three interesting conversations have recently merged in my little corner of the interwebs:

  • The Republican presidential primaries have brought to the limelight some very complex subjects like race, economics, and religion that are handled with stereotypical banter, generally at increased volume.

Santorum is an uber-Catholic, Romney is Mormon, Newt wants the Evangelical vote and all of this is contrasted to Obama’s social-justice-Jeremiah-Wright past. The religion aspect of this election year is going to be fascinating.

I point out that in our national militarism mentality and our cultural myth of redemptive violence, that PSA is playing a role in our religious silo that is spilling over in unhelpful and even harmful ways.

The author calls them evangelical – in contrast to pentecostals who speak in tongues – even though I am not sure that the Vineyard (which both of her congregations are) are wholly representative off all the different camps that come under that tent.


Last week I posted that I was ‘worried about worship’ and one of my concerns dealt with the epistemology behind the band-centered worship experience. I said

“ Is this situation inflamed by an epistemology employed by evangelical and charismatic churches? I don’t know how else to say it but …. if you think that you are singing to God (vs. about God) and the God is actually listening to you and evaluating what is going on, then are you more critical of both the sour-notes and distracting ‘self’ behavior or overly elaborate performances?”

As I read the review of Luhrmann’s new book in the New Yorker magazine (“Seeing is Believing” by Joan Acocella) I was amazed at the obvious parallels to what I had attempted to address. Unfortunaly, the New Yorker requires that you subscribe to the magazine in order to read the article… so I can’t just link there for you. If, however you get the chance to pick up the magazine or copy it at the library, it is well worth your time.

Without the article to link to I will just offer a couple of related thoughts:

The three step plan to Hearing the Voice of God (the Father) is exactly – 100% – my experience of being raised evangelical. So many people that I talk to who were/are charismatic or evangelical have this exact same experience [she also mentions there lack of social service, lack of political involvement, and lack of theology]. The thing I still find shocking is that so many of those outside those groups do not know that is what it is like inside, and how often those inside don’t know that this is not everyone else’s experience of the christian faith.

David Bebbington in Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (Routledge, 1989) did a masterful job of find some common theme that ran through evangelical history. This was a tough job (not always obvious) and has resulted in much debate about if these can even be called one grouping in any coherent sense. I am leaning more and more toward saying that Evangelicalism is not an official membership but is rather a dynamic relation between experience and expression. These two things are facilitated by an epistemology that is more central than any doctrinal or theological markers. Over the last 400 years what has been defining is not the political involvement (it has changed) or what was believed (it has adapted) but the experiential component (enthusiasm) that manifests is a distinct expression.

I have been out of the worship-band culture (Hillsong, Matt Redman, etc) for 2 years. I recently preached at a church with a worship band. What stood out to me so forcibly was the word “You”. I didn’t know why at first but as the service progressed I was struck by how many (all) the songs were addressed to ‘You’. You are holy, you are famous, I need you, etc. It stands in stark contrast to songs sung to God or about God like: a mighty fortress is our God, Oh God our help is ages past, and even Holy is the Lord God Almighty.

I often get to hear Mainliners talk about the alien experience of stumbling upon a christian music station on the radio. I also get to hear visitors to our pipe-organ-hymns-only church wonder about the lack of intimacy and excitement. I think it has less to do with the music style and more to do with the epistemology of singing songs to a ‘You’ and all the assumptions that would accompany that subtle change.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this – agree or disagree

[originally posted at Homebrewed Christianity]

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