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.
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?