Shane Claiborne and Daniel Deitrich on Contemporary Worship Music and ‘Hymn for the 81%’

Artist Daniel Deitrich. Photo by Tom Oldham, courtesy of danieldeitrich.com

Shane Claiborne is an activist, author and co-director of Red Letter Christians. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.


A lot of contemporary worship music doesn’t offer the best theology.  Many of the lyrics focus entirely on going to heaven when we die, rather than reminding us that we have a mission to transform the earth — to bring God’s “kingdom on earth as it is in heaven” — while we are alive. Many songs depict a God who saves us individually from our sins but miss the part about welcoming the stranger, caring for the poor and loving our enemies.

There’s a reason for this: Christian worship leaders are among the 81% of white evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump in 2016. Many of them gathered recently at the White House to praise Jesus and bless President Trump. The same folks who are writing worship songs to Jesus line up behind a president whose policies directly contradict the core teachings of Jesus.

So it moved me to tears to hear “Hymn for the 81%,” a song by a South Bend, Indiana, worship leader that has gone viral in recent days. A cocktail of prophetic fire and Christ-like grace, Daniel Deitrich’s hymn is both a love song to the church and a call to repentance, which castigates the Trump administration for “putting kids in cages, ripping mothers from their babies,” but blames the church for failing to rein them in: “I looked to you to speak on their behalf/But all I heard was silence/Or worse you justify it.”

It is also a warning to the church: “You weaponized religion and you wonder why I’m leaving to find Jesus on the wrong side of your walls … ”

I talked to Deitrich about his background, the song and what drove him to write it.

Tell us how you got involved in making music.

I grew up in a small farm town in southwest Michigan. I was a pretty shy kid, I’m still an introvert, but my youth pastor taught me three chords on guitar and I’ve been writing songs and playing in bands ever since. For a good eight years, I toured with a band made up of my best friends playing bars and clubs while also leading worship more and more in my church.

About four years ago a friend invited me to help start a new church in South Bend, Indiana. South Bend City Church is a Jesus-centered community for believers and doubters and everyone in between. It’s a place where spiritual exiles have found a home, a place where you don’t have to check your brain at the door, and it’s been so beautiful to see people who have been excluded from or wounded by the church feel safe and seen and loved.Eventually the band called it quits and I became full-time staff at the church where I grew up, but those honest conversations over post-bar-show beers definitely informed how I approach church and worship music. Like, if church isn’t addressing the questions and struggles that real people are going through, what are we even doing?

We also think that while the message of Jesus often has political ramifications, it’s not partisan. We want to be a community that transcends political parties, where those that watch CNN or Fox News can worship side by side and be challenged by the teachings of Jesus together.

What do you think is the purpose of worship music?

There’s this great line from a prayer in the old Church of God hymnal that says, “We thank you for music, and for everything that elevates our spirits above the smoggy confusions of our time and gives us hope.” I love that. I’m stuck in the smoggy confusion a lot. Worship music should give us hope — hope that the way of Jesus can bring healing and peace to a hurting world here and now.

Worship music teaches and shapes us, so what we sing about really matters. There are a ton of great songs that help us praise and thank God, but worship music should also help us lament, reflect, confess, celebrate, challenge and push us outside the walls of the church to be the hands and feet of Christ.

How did ‘Hymn for the 81%’ come to be?

The seed for this song has been rumbling around in the back of my mind for a few years now.  In 2016, 81% of white evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump after, among other things, hearing an audio recording of him bragging about sexually assaulting women.  Even after enacting deliberately cruel policies to rip families apart and put children in cages at the southern border, evangelical support is as fervent as ever.

I was raised in the evangelical world and was taught to take the words of Jesus seriously: Love God, love your neighbor, feed the hungry, fight against injustice. I was taught that things like love, peace, kindness, gentleness and self-control matter. That’s why I have been so confused and deeply saddened by the unflinching loyalty to a man who so clearly embodies the opposite of these values.

So this song is a lament and a rebuke, but I hope people hear that it comes from a deep well of love.

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Source: Religion News Service