‘Atheist’ Worship

Sometimes, I feel like an atheist amid worship. The songs being sung earnestly around me are about a god I don’t really believe in anymore. As Shane Claiborne asked, does God really have lightning in his fists, or is this Zeus we’re talking about? “God, rid me of ‘god,'” Meister Eckhart prayed. Many times this is my silent prayer amid circles of saints singing their hearts out to a deity I scarcely recognize.

[September update: For visitors from Jonny Baker’s blog, I’ve included some new thoughts here. Feel free to drop by this post once you’re finished with the present one.]

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy singing, and many songs old and new still resonate with me. I used to be an assistant worship leader in my old church, ages ago. And I still keep track, albeit a bit peripherally, with the “worship world” today. There is much to be commended in the crafting of new music for friends of God in Christ to sing, as there is among those who lovingly revive somewhat older hymns and ancient liturgies.

But to put it bluntly, my worship-life-in-song has not quite kept pace with my spiritual, theological, and social development these past 5-10 years. My journey of apprenticeship to Jesus means that I’m reading, praying, thinking and doing very different things now than I did as a late teenager. At the same time, I’m still singing the same old songs. I don’t know about you, but I’m longing to raise a new song to God, one that integrates a vision of God and humanity, creation and cosmos that I can get behind.

How close are we to such a worship-in-song renaissance within the emerging church conversation? I don’t know. But in this vein, I want to bring your attention–if you’re not already aware–to the inaugural widespread release of one of the newest singer-songwriter kids on the block…Brian McLaren. “What, he sings too?”, you ask. Yep, the epitome of the well-rounded human being, Brian has actually been strumming his guitar and creating original worship since his post-Jesus Movement days. (I always hated those guys in school, the ones who were good at poetry and calculus; some of them are my closest friends, alas…) Songs for a Revolution of Hope is inspired by his upcoming book release, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope and is coming out this fall. One of the tracks, “Atheist,” explores this worship dissonance I’ve been feeling head-on. It’s now on YouTube in a sort’ve “music video” format:

Here’s the full lowdown from Brian’s website:

“In July I spent a week in the Colorado Rockies, working with some wonderful musicians to record a collection of songs that I’ve written or co-written to accompany my upcoming book, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope. Like the book, the songs will be available this fall via CD and MP3 download at Restorationvillage.com – where you can pre-order now.

I wrote an article a few years ago called “An Open Letter to Worship Songwriters” which received a lot of positive attention and has been translated into several languages. [Mike’s note: See John Mortensen’s Unauthorized Postscript to Brian’s open letter] This collection of songs is a small offering in the direction of the issues raised in the open letter. A lot of people only know me as a pastor, author, and speaker, so they may be surprised to know that music has always been a big part of my life. I did some recording back in the late 70’s and early 80’s … it was a real thrill to return to these creative roots after 30 years this summer.”

Some of the Restoration Village musicians have been involved with projects like Enter The Worship Circle, as well as a group with roots in Brian’s home church, Harp 46. Overall I anticipate Songs for a Revolution of Hope to be a hope-full addition to a “new kind of singing worship.”

I’ll probably write more on this soon, expanding and clarifying. Because I don’t mean to say all contemporary/ancient worship is somehow sub-par, nor do I want to overlook some of the great stuff coming out today, particularly in Europe. If you’re part of an emerging church and you’ve recorded some worship-in-song that you think I need to consider, contact me and I’ll give you a way to get it to me. I’ll review it here.

See also:

Restoring Worship: An Example

New Worship for a New Covenant

25 Responses to ‘Atheist’ Worship

  1. seth Irby August 28, 2007 at 1:39 pm #

    Hi Mike, Neat stuff. Who would have thought…Brian McLaren!?!?

  2. Frank Spencer August 28, 2007 at 2:47 pm #

    Hi Mike,

    Funny, Sherry and were just listening to “Christian Radio” yesterday to see what we would actually “hear.” This is something that I don’t do much of anymore! This is a great start by Brian.

  3. Brittian Bullock August 28, 2007 at 4:37 pm #

    Thanks for highlighting that Mike…again…McLaren? Bizarre but beautiful.

  4. Brother Johnny August 28, 2007 at 5:34 pm #

    I have a tune…
    I’ll bring it up soon.

    Ta daaahh!

    Seriously though…
    I’ll send you a link when I get it up on MySpace!

  5. Jenny August 29, 2007 at 3:09 am #

    Such a good point. The songs have not kept pace in a strange way… the hymns lasted forever, so why not our new songs? Are things changing that much more rapidly than before? (Well yes, and no.) Or maybe it’s just that the shift has been so profound that our songs, rather than needing constant change, are just in need of one major overhaul in their approach or (if you will) spirit and the time is now. I don’t know the answer but I look forward to hearing (and singing!) the new stuff you discover.

  6. Tracy August 30, 2007 at 4:53 am #

    Good conversation Mike. Well articulated. I’ll probably start quoting you 🙂 I have found that many people have given up trying to grow in expression of worship, because there is a lack of understanding…or maybe we just forget…what tremendous purpose there is in worship, and singing worship. I have written a collection of articles exploring our purpose in worship, recognizing God’s purposes in different forms of expression and generational creativity, and restoration. Sounds really amazing when I put it all in one sentence, but it’s mostly what I’ve observed and learned over these past 7 or 8 years as a worship leader working with a really diverse cross section of the Church. I have some thoughts on hymns as well Jenny, in “More than New and Old.” Anyway, they are posted at http://www.worshipexplore.com.

    And, I just put clips up to most of the songs for the new “Everything Must Change” CD. The clips are posted at:



  7. Steve August 30, 2007 at 2:24 pm #

    I’m reading, praying, thinking and doing very different things now than I did as a late teenager. At the same time, I’m still singing the same old songs. I don’t know about you, but I’m longing to raise a new song to God

    Yeah, that’s quotable! But I’m not up for a ten minute set of “Athiest.”

  8. zoecarnate August 30, 2007 at 2:36 pm #

    Thanks Steve!

    Now, is it the “ten minute” or the “Atheist” part that you’re really not up for? ‘Cause mebbe ten-minute renditions of a single song is part of what has to disappear, at least for a season. (I think the actual cut on here is half that)

    And Tracy, I’m trying to email you personally, but it’s getting returned. I’ll keep trying, but in brief: Thanks for stopping by! I look forward to hearing more from this album, as well as your reflections…I am also well-aware that there’s been a lot of wonderful worship-in-song that’s been happening for the past decade or so that’s very “under-the-radar,” recordings from local emerging churches (“local” being here and especially in the UK) not being as commercially-distributable as what they sell in the Christian chains. So I’m gonna try and procure some of the “good stuff”–such as worship from Church of the Apostles, Solomon’s Porch, tons of stuff from Proost and even Mars Hill Seattle’s debut album, before they took a hard Right turn, ideologically-speaking. It could be that many great expressions have been pouring forth, but they’ve been thus far isolated and we need to unearth ’em, giving the Church “permission” to keep moving!

  9. Steve August 30, 2007 at 3:06 pm #

    Maybe six minutes of something else would be more helpful for me. But I’m in no way on the edge of worship music. Where I have been for seven years, I’m thirsty for a new song.

  10. Tracy August 31, 2007 at 4:17 pm #

    Hmm…not sure why my email is bouncing back. Don’t give up! The worship explore link isn’t working in my comment either, but it’s just worshipexplore.com

    Yes, there are a lot of wonderful things growing and happening in the kingdom. Steve, are you looking for A new song, or YOUR new song (that is, your own unique expression to come forth and find place in the body, that may or may not be a singing song). I don’t mean to be too mystical. I am just clarifying your perspective in my head in hopes to encourage somehow. Regardless, blessings to you.

  11. Mark Golding September 2, 2007 at 9:11 am #

    There is an argument for accepting a very large plethora of worship styles and formats to suit every taste so that the greater number of people is included in the experience of worshipping God.
    The only very worrying aspect is the way God’s character and form is often articualted in the songs, which becomes a spiritual driving force behind believer’s behaviour and attitude toward each other and fellow man. If the theology of the song is wonky, and God’s character and will is portrayed differently to what Christ revealed, then worship becomes a worship of another man’s theology.
    I prefer to worship God with the mind of Christ and to have the mind of Christ means puting aside the Bible and concentrating on the person and Spirit of Christ, eschewing the personas and the ‘spirits’ in the Bible. A lot of post-modern worship is bordering on worshipping man’s wealth and power under a lot of flag waving.

    Christ said, “My words, they are Spirit and Life” (my capitals). God had a way of condensing Truth down to aphorisms and often He did this to bring us into alignment with His will to worship the words and life of Christ above all things.

    If we don’t get back to the foundation of Christianity – Christ – we increase the risk of creating even more denominations of Rome.

  12. jonny September 11, 2007 at 8:44 am #

    mike good thoughts…

    many alt worship groups have been down this road and let go of singing altogether for a season to find other ways of articulating liturgy. we are doing a series of pocket liturgies on proost that capture some these articulations from various communities. in the US if you go to http://www.lulu.com and search for pocket liturgies you’ll find them. or via http://www.proost.co.uk

    my motivation for writing worship songs was theological rather than stylistic. i needed to be able to have stuff that articulated what we believed or where we were at on the journey. i am convinced many people learn more theology through songs than sermons which is why we need to re-engage with it

  13. Matybigfro September 11, 2007 at 1:00 pm #

    top words Mike

    I agree some songs that i have sung in the past i feel had lead me into lying really. I find the whole worship thing really fustrating like a thorn in the foot. I used to lead worship allot, i loved it i still do loved to sing , but most places where i find myself hearing worship singing i can’t or get annoyed. or laughthing at the huge snow ball fights that will happen in the life to come if God really does have heavenly store houses laden with snow.

    I like B Mac but the songs dead annoying


  14. Nat Stine September 12, 2007 at 6:57 pm #

    well said. i resonate with much of what you wrote.

    harp 46 is great. a breath of fresh air when they came to our church three years ago…

  15. The Merry Rose September 19, 2007 at 6:26 am #

    hi mike, here via jonny. i am a person who loves music and to sing, but i find more and more that what i see is not what i hold true in my head and heart. but i love “Atheist” song by brian – brillant! i have found for a while that what is put out as “worship” doesn’t always seem to fit. cheers tmr

  16. Janine September 29, 2007 at 12:10 pm #

    Wow!! awesome stuff. i never thought of it like that. the video was brilliant


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