Why we need more Gungor and less Tomlin

This past week I had the pleasure of being led in worship by Gungor at a conference in Atlanta, GA.  I admit that I’m late to the Gungor party.  How this band has escaped my ears for so long, I have no idea.  But now that I’ve discovered them I have come to love them.  Gungor is fresh air in the midst of the cluttered worship atmosphere, and I’d like to suggest to you three reasons for why I believe this to be true.

Before we get to my three reasons, I want to explain why I’m picking on Chris Tomlin. First, I am not anti-Tomlin.  I do, however, think that Tomlin’s music and lyrics represent the vast majority of what is found in today’s churches.  This is no doubt due in part to the fact that Tomlin’s songs top the CCLI charts year after year.  The dude sells.  And I imagine that if I asked a typical evangelical to sing for me their five favourite songs from Sunday morning, that at least two or three of them would be one of Tomlin’s.  So why do I pick on him (and those similar to him)?  Well, let’s go to my three reasons.

1. We need to re-embrace the “us” and stop only singing about “me.”

I recently preached through a series that was about the church: who she is, where she came from, what she’s supposed to be doing, and where she’s going.  Among one of the central themes of the series was that in Jesus we are saved into a relationship with Father, Son, and Spirit, but also into a relationship with each other.  We are saved into relationships; we, together as sisters and brothers in Christ, are saved into the corporate body of Jesus — the church.  The “us” is just as important as the “me” (For just a few examples, see all of Ephesians, 1 Peter 2:9-10, St. Cyprian, & Henri DeLubac).  And yet, trying to find any songs that sing of this reality is a taxing exercise.  Our churches are filled with songs about Jesus and me/I.  Tomlin and other popular song writers lean heavily towards a myopic faith and personal-only salvation.  It’s no wonder, then, that a theology of the “us” is lost on most evangelicals.

Gungor, on the other hand, writes lyrics that lean heavily on the “us.”  It’s far more likely to hear “we” and “us” in their songs that it is to hear “I” and “me.”  Gungor’s lyrics reflect the truth of the church in action, the centrality of the family of God, the necessity of the corporate journey of salvation, and the beauty of the “we” who travel the faith together.  And the challenges and declarations that are written into the songs are directed at and declared by the people of God.  What emerges in each album (there are three with a fourth on the way) is a “this is about God and us” and the subsequent challenge of “what are we going to do together to embrace redemption and be the church?”

2. We need to sing of the whole story and not only substitutionary atonement.

The Bible begins in the garden and ends with the re-creation of creation.  The Bible does not begin with sin and end at Jesus’ death.  The story of redemption is so much bigger than just justification, and yet you would think by the songs we sing that the only thing that matters in the Christian faith is that we are sinners but Jesus died for us and took our place.  Now don’t get me wrong, I believe that substitutionary atonement is a part of the story of redemption.  But it’s a part, not the whole story.

Gungor’s album Ghosts Upon the Earth is a wonderful demonstration of the whole story: songs of the garden, the beauty of creation, the fall, the story of redemption, the death and resurrection of Jesus, the re-creation of the universe, and the journey of the redeemed people of God.  The album Beautiful Things touches on many of the same topics, while Gungor’s first album, Ancient Skies, even gets politically creedal (White Man) and powerfully ecclesiological (Song For My Family).  The Christian story may hinge on the death and resurrection of Jesus, but that’s not the only chapter.

3. We need music that reflects the creativity of our God.  We don’t always need music that could be played in a four-minute slot on the local pop-Christian radio station.

We are in relationship with the God who breathes all good and beautiful things to life.  And yet our music in church is typically from one genre and played in the same way with the same instruments week after week.  Those walking into our churches might think we serve the god of top-40 radio hits rather than the God who inspires musical styles and instruments as vast as creation itself.

Gungor’s music may not be for everyone, but they strive to be thoughtful, creative, and innovative.  They write in narrative.  Their music (i.e., the instruments, melody, vibe, etc) plays in narrative.  They use a variety of instruments.  They experiment with different genres.  Creativity and innovation pull us out of the ordinary and take us somewhere new.  Gungor forces me to think because of their creativity and inspires me because of their innovation.  It’s no coincidence that the same thing happens when I find myself in the presence of God.

In conclusion

It’s obvious that I like Gungor.  But I’m not trying to convince anyone to become fans of Gungor.  Give it a listen, and then if you like them, great.  If not, so be it.  But what I am hoping to gain by this discussion is at least an awareness of the songs we sing in church.  Do they reflect a theology of the “us,” or are they all focused on “me?”  Do they speak to the whole story of redemption?  Simply put, do they speak to Genesis 1 through Revelation 22, or are they primarily atonement focused?  And do they reflect a God who is creative or are they single-genre only with never a hint of experiment, innovation, or creative thoughtfulness?


Opportunity to discuss:
Am I out to lunch?
Do you know of any artists who write music for the church that address what I’ve mentioned above?  I have found a few, but they usually only have a song here or there that does so.

13 responses to “Why we need more Gungor and less Tomlin

  1. I’m late on the Gungor train too. I did it on purpose, though. I saw everybody starting to like them and so I wrote them off, but then I was forced to actually listen to them in a car and was thoroughly impressed. On the same note, I highly recommend Josh Garrels and My Epic. If you’ve never heard them, amazing.

  2. fun game:
    Go to Bible Gateway.
    Search Psalm 1-151
    Use your web browser “Find” function (e.g. Command F on the Mac)
    look for words “me” >100 matches, “I” >100 matches, “we”/”us” much less
    Lessons from the Psalmist?

    Not knocking Gungor but I can think of Tomlin songs that cover the range of scripture “Indescribable”, “We Fall Down” pretty much covers the Genesis to Revelation range right there and he even used the word “we”

    I agree that there is value in creativity and variety but there is certainly value in the congregationality (I guess that’s not a word because it got underlined) of the way we do music. It’s the reason why we bring the top 40 rock band and the old school jams on the organy (also not a word) dirge. It’s the reason why I listen to my favourite radio station. I like that music. It vibes with me. I respond to it.

    Mind you, I like lots of music. I almost like the organ. I prefer it over the harpsichord…just not all of it is great to sing to in church.

    • Great points, and I was going to come here to say the same… And add:

      I’m a pretty creative, and musical guy, I like all sorts of genres, and will listen to cool jazz or blue note any day, above listening to pop-rock. But… I don’t think that all music befits congregational worship music. The point of congregational worship is that it be upward, God centred and God-focused. The point is less to say things about God than to say things to God (notice the themes and object of the songs in Revelation. There is an element of truth about God [revelation], leading to and element of direct adress to God [response])

      What this should signify for the style of music that we listen to is that its feel, instrumentation and melody should also be upward, airy, leading the soul to lean towards heaven in a sense. More “earthy” styles of music, such as hip-hop or heavy metal are fantastic vehicles for stating powerful truth about God, but not so much for bringing into a place of speaking to God. Pop-rock does that rather well, as do the tunes of many ancient hymns. Simply, the tunes of many ancient hymns,or at least their original instumentation is out of date and culturally irrelevant in many ways, so… I’m quote content for now to sing to God through pop-rock when gathered with my brothers and sisters for corporate, sung worship…

  3. To your first point–I cringe when I hear and refuse to sing the words “He took the fall and thought of me above all.” To the points 2 and 3, you could always look in a hymnbook to see all manner of songs including but not limited to salvation and justificatioin, but we were pretty anxious to dump those books without providing a comprehensive substitute. Maybe we’re about to fill the void. And to the subject in general–music choosers need to be every bit as theologically astute as any preacher ever was. We sing a lot of junk (especially at Christmas–we need more ‘Hark the Herald’ type and less ‘First Noel’).

  4. Ya, I’m not convinced that the solution is to dump one for the other, though it’s worth mentioning that there is now a dirth of music that reflects on parts of the Christian experience aside from justification/salvation, so more on that front is likely needed.

    Heavy B’s comment is something to think about. BUT, the important caveat when talking about the Psalms and the singular voice (which is certainly dominant, 777 1st person sing verbs v. 93 1st person plural verbs) is that in many cases that voice is meant to be representative of either the king or the congregational leader (i.e. priest), and thus is meant to be an I that represents the We. In ancient Israel there was much less interaction in worship ceremonies and rituals. Things were mediated by the priestly caste. That is no longer the case for Christians (you are a kingdom of priests), and so we approach worship in a much more corporate way. There should be concomitant shifts in our worship language. I don’t have a huge problem with singing I-songs, however, so long as those I-songs don’t actually focus on me. Doug’s objection to “Above All” is vitally important. That’s a bad I-song because it places the focus and importance on my feelings of worth and value, and on how important I am to God. Setting aside the theologically validity of the idea that “he thought of me above all” (which I doubt is true, but who knows?), worship should flow in the other direction. It must augment and honour the God of creation, and not his creatures.

    Of course, all that said, in a culture so radically individualistic as ours, a little counter-witness in the form of we-songs can hardly be a bad idea.

  5. Great stuff folks. Since a couple years ago, after having a number of discussions on this topic with a few respected people, I have had a hard time writing anything about “me” or “I”. I like Colin’s point, and often I am thinking like that when singing “I” in songs of worship. At the same time, I have no problem taking on the Psalmists role and singing “I”…Revivalist theology is not my bent, but I do celebrate this part of our history and expression. One leader I spoke with wishes this time in church history would just go away, but I appreciate the exercise of our response to God. We respond to revelation, whether in Word, by His doing, through community, through art…but we still respond. I’m also OK with the top 40 thing, because we still live in a time when rock n’ roll is the language of the masses. Either rock or something derivative of it. Call it folk if you want, music of the people. I lead with rock because so many can follow with it. I fault myself here though: as an artist and a creative person, created by God, and as a part of His Bride, I should be leading and shaping the Church and world in creativity, but I don’t think I am. Most days I feel about as creative as a…well…I just don’t feel creative, let alone game changing or ahead of anything. So I believe I could use a push in this area. As far as the rock goes, I really love what John Mark McMillan does…he’s truly a poet, his words just melt in the mouth and roll off the tongue, awakening parts of the brain that have been asleep for too long.
    I guess all this is to say that I agree with everything that’s been said, but I will continue to be a rocker, trying to be creative, and trying not to navel-gaze and think too much about myself.

  6. Did a quick CCLI search on top songs used by churches and you’d be surprised Mr. Gerrard that a good number are songs that focus on the “we/us” rather than the “me/I”…I get your point, I understand the need to focus less on “me” and more on “we”. No argument there, but also know that hearing guys like Tomlin and Hughes talk about their approach to song writing, it more often than not stems from scripture…often the Psalms, but not always. I also agree with your stance on a broader view of who we’re worshipping and for what, that there’s more to God than “substitutionary atonement.” But again, when you look at a lot of current church worship songs, artists are writing a lot about these things…Indescribable (as previously mentioned), Revelation Song has elements of both, How Great is Our God speaks of the character of God, Majestic by Lincoln Brewster is another good one…I’m not saying we don’t tend to lean towards “just singing about the cross” because that’s probably “easy” to do…and I’m with your pops re: hymns…love them…use them in almost every worship set I lead…fun to spice them up or tone them down…and I think guys like David Crowder and Paul Baloche see the merit in hymns as well and re-work them to make them engaging musically…

    I’m with Mr. Toon (look how formal I’m being…) as far as his thoughts on creativity, and engaging the masses. Musical style preference right now is still, as Toon puts it, rock. And not to say we need to just stick with one genre because that’s what pleases people, but are we seeking to just push the envelope for the sake of pushing the envelope, or are we pushing the envelope musically, creatively to better engage people with God?

    I believe as worship leaders and church leaders we need to shepherd and pastor our people into understanding all your points Aaron…absolutely believe that, but I just don’t think we’re as far off the mark as you think we are. And for the record, I’m a huge Gungor fan, saw them (him…) at Catalyst a couple years back, so it has nothing to do with his music style or not liking what he does, because I think he’s great. I agree with you that worship music as a whole needs to push the envelope…a friend of mine that worked professionally in Nashville as a musician and toured with a couple big name artists said “church music is a practice in mediocrity”…which I laughed at and agreed with…I think we settle too often for mediocrity and being satisfied with ok rather than pushing things and improving things not because we think church music should be better, but to better engage people with the person of our worship.

    I probably don’t believe anything I just wrote…I just like disagreeing with you!…

  7. Interesting read on this… “Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns” by T. David Gordon

  8. Thanks everyone for the comments. All great and thought provoking (which is the purpose here).

    I think I made this clear in my title by using the words “more” and “less” and not “only” and “none of,” but I am not arguing that we get rid of the Tomlin-esque music (okay, maybe some of it). Rather, I’d simply like us to be aware of some issues and then attempt to raise the bar in our churches.

    I understand that “rock” is our contemporary language. But does it have to be thoughtless rock (no one suggested that)? Can transitions, instrument selection, vibe, volume, and feeling not also tell a story and teach? I’d like to think so. And I’m not talking about only allowing the best musicians to participate. That’s not what I mean. I’m simply asking for thoughtfulness and innovation. Do what we do with purpose; know how to answer the question, “Why is that way and what do you mean when you sing that?” We ask these questions of our sermons. Why don’t we ask them of the other element in our services (yes, in most of our evangelical churches there are only two elements)?

    Anyways, good stuff. Thanks again, everyone.

  9. Daan van Belzen

    Thanks for this article. I was trying to find out about the mixed up theology in some worship songs where people mix up addressing God and Jesus. I found Tomlin being consistent in addressing God in worship and was seeking some clarification on why he seems constant in what he sings. Had not heard of Gungor but that sounds also like a refreshing argument – will follow the story.

  10. And the younger Gungor – David – music for the worshiping community! Check out The Brilliance.

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