Music for the "Emerging Church"

A friend asked me recently what it would mean to do music for the emerging church. I thought a trite answer in passing would simply not do, and I have yet to write anything on the matter. Here it goes.

There is no simple “Look at what these artists” are doing for the emerging church. I don’t think there could be such a simple guide. But I think I can name a few trends that I have seen as relevant.

First, emerging church people like things that are old, but they don’t want them to seem old. There is a desire to connect with the historic church, especially the very early church. Of course, very little of the Second and Third centuries’ music is readily available. In absence of this, songs more than 100 years old will do. Remade hymns are very popular. They need to be “remade” because many emerging congregations are led in music by guitar-driven bands and the formerly organ-driven music doesn’t translate well. This is not only because the harmonization is hard to reproduce, but more importantly that the rhythms are wrong. I’m not a trained musician, but years of leading worship has told me that I can play the wrong chords in a modern worship song but I can’t mess up the syncopation. Rhythm drives modern music even more than melody or harmonization. The best of these remade hymns have been done by Passion Hymns: Ancient and Modern and The Odes Project. The first project consists of hymns which have been modified to work with guitar rhythms and often add a very singable and simple chorus/refrain between verses. A multitude of other projects are available with a little internet searching. (NOTE: DO NOT try to introduce these remade hymns into a church which loves to sing hymns and think that you will make your “traditional” church into a “contemporary” one. The differences will make the “hymns people” go crazy. This only works one direction because the guitar and rock rhythms are the uniting factor, not the lyrics or melodies. Contemporary churches can use these, traditional ones cannot. I have tried it in two different churches and it failed MISERABLY both times.) The Odes Project takes some first century worship songs and puts them to music. I haven’t used them, but I imagine they have great potential with emerging church types….just give them the history of what they are singing and they will love it.

Second, and this is related to the first, “emerging church” types are tired of shallow theology. “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” and “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever” just will not cut it with these folks. This is part of the reason they like the hymns projects, they have some theological depth. They don’t want to lose the singability of these earlier songs though. On a practical note, I have found that the best songs for this group are the ones with great theological depth in the verses and a very simple and singable chorus and, hopefully, a simple bridge also. While “emerging church” types do not want an overly simple sermon with trite answers to all of life’s questions, they similarly don’t want their music to express such a world either. The world is complex and mysterious, music and sermons should be too. I think much of the music by the Passion music label is going to take you in the right direction (especially David Crowder Band, Chris Tomlin, and Matt Redman).

Third, passion is more important than polish. Jeremy Camp and Rita Springer are cool, Hillsongs are not. The former artists sing their heart out in every moment. They are experiencing their own music, even in the studio. Hillsongs seems (though I don’t believe that this is their ministry hearts) to be more about strong harmony than connection with God. Four part harmony is cool once in a while, but don’t lose the total abandonment for the Good News of Christ. Worship leaders should be selected on the depth of their worship. Does their singing and playing come out of a deep desire to bring glory to God? This should come out in their worship in church too. Don’t choose the better vocalist, choose the more sold out worshiper. Don’t choose the song that sounds the prettiest, use the songs which make your worship leaders and your congregation want to sing their heart out.

I would suggest that the quintessential “emerging church” worship song is “Joyous Light” by Chris Tomlin. This song is a revision of the oldest hymn in continuous use in the church today. Some would suggest that “Phos Hilaron,” often translated in English as “Hail Gladdening Light,” was written in the late third century. The Orthodox churches of the East still sing the song daily at evening prayer. In Tomlin’s revisions, the song is infinitely singable, retains the basic lyric and structure of the original, and has a chorus that is best sung as if it is an anthem.

Here is his lyric:
Hail Gladdening Light, sun so bright
Jesus Christ, end of night, alleluia
Hail Gladdening Light, Eternal Bright
In evening time, ’round us shine, alleluia, alleluia
Hail Gladdening Light, such joyous Light
O Brilliant Star, forever shine, alleluia, alleluia

We hymn the Father, we hymn the Son
We hymn the Spirit, wholly Divine
No one more worthy of songs to be sung
To the Giver of Life, all glory is Thine

When I have shared the story of this song with young adults, I have rarely heard an ambivalent response. Young adults are desperate to be a part of something bigger than themselves, even when they sing.  Singing an ancient song with passion gets to the heart of that.

There is one other thing, music-related but not necessarily worship related. Emerging church types also really like the “protest songs gone Christian” of people like Derek Webb. (My personal favorite is one of his earlier albums “She Must and Shall Go Free.”) They aren’t really meant to be sung congregationally, but they work in other aspects of a worship service.

I hope some of that is helpful. If you have some comments or additional music selections, then please add them and lets start a conversation. What music are you doing for “emergents” that is working? Is there anything here that you just disagree with? Have I named too many main stream musicians to “really” be emerging church music?

If you like what you have read on this blog, please follow via e-mail or Facebook at the bottom of this post or via RSS feed from my home page.


  1. says

    Jeremiah:I see this is an older post so I am not sure whether you will receive my question which has to do more with "blended worship." In your experience does it work well to say begin and end with a traditional hymn with the organ, and then do contemporary in between?Thank you,Larry

  2. says

    Fr. Larry, Hopefully this will get back to you, even though you posted a long time ago. My sense is that the problem with blending music styles like this is that usually one or the other is simply not done well. I also think we are combating prejudices about music style that are hard to push down. Someone who likes one of these doesn't like the other. I know that some emerging church folks have seen this work in their churches. But my sense is that usually this is done with a congregation that is nurtured for this kind of eclecticism up front. Convincing an already existing congregation that this eclecticism is good is no easy task. One of the objections you may hear is that "no one" wants the "other" style of music that is being introduced. That is, if you are mostly traditional, the congregation will not see anyone in their doors that likes contemporary. So when you start doing the contemporary it is easy to look around and say that no one is interested. Because the reason that this group assembled in this place is at least in part because they liked the current worship experience. If you are starting a wholly different worship service, that is said from the beginning to be eclectic like this, then people may buy it. It can work in principle but this change is really hard. I've also tried this in a few places and have yet to be successful except in instances where we started an additional worship service.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s