Worship for an Emerging Church – Part 1 – Zehnder

Last year I blogged (here, here and here) about a need for worship songs that I could sing with integrity. Adam Walker Cleaveland blogged about this very same thing years and years ago, and then again more recently – inciting some controversy as to one of his choices. Let’s revisit some of Adam’s practical suggestions for composing fresh emerging church worship music:


  • gender-inclusive language (esp. in our language for God)
  • a shift from a I-YOU-me & God focus, and a refocusing on the community
  • a passion for the biblical themes of social justice, peace and a desire to speak for the oppressed
  • maybe just some more songs straight from scripture (or from saints and desert fathers), letting God’s work speak for itself, instead of pressing our own interpretation onto it, and onto the congregation that will sing the song

Jonny Baker is always blogging faithfully about alternatives to the “Contemporary Christian Music” worship scene on the one hand and inflexible traditionalism on the other – as does Dan Wilt. And a few years ago Brian McLaren penned on Open Letter to Worship Songwriters. You should read the whole thing, but I’m going to distill some of Brian’s practical suggestions, starting with biblical themes he’d like to see (re-) emphasized:

  • Eschatological themes in their purest sense; focusing on God’s world-remaking work, wooing us poetically to see God’s New Covenant World through new eyes
  • Songs of Mission, telling the story of Good News for the poor & broken
  • Mining lyrical treasure from Church history, “from the Patristic period to the Celtic period to the Puritan period.”
  • Songs celebrating God’s character and God’s role as Creator
  • Songs of lament
  • Mixing it up to have not just ‘songs’ at all, but “poetry, historic prayers, silence, meditative reading, etc.”

With this in mind, over the next few days I’m going to highlight worship artists who are producing quality worship for the Church in emergence. I’m not going to really be ‘reviewing’ the albums with the cool, dispassionate ear of someone seeking to evaluate a passive recorded-listening experience. Rather, I’ll be overviewing them for their lyrical content, ethos, and congregational ‘singability’ – how they might actually enrich our worshipping life together.That said, our first artist spotlight will be…

Zehnder: Going Up

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No, silly heresy-hunters, ‘Zehnder’ is not some new emerging church meditation practice, it’s a last name – belonging to twins Tim and Tom Zehnder. Called “musicians, disciples and theologians – all in one” by their senior pastor at Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles, Zehnder produce original worship music on a regular basis for groups as varied as their local church, Yale’s Faith as a Way of Life program, and Bread for the World – I met the brothers Zehnder at a Hunger Justice Leaders training by Bread this summer in DC.

Zehnder’s sound is upbeat, pure Los Angeles – strings and harmony and multicultural instrumentation. Clearly it’s a couple of white guys, and yet they manage to incorporate Latin, Reggae and Soul sounds honestly. They sound impressive, and yet – I think this is a testimony to their humility and desire to produce music for the whole Church – it’s not intimidating. When listening, you think “My church could sing that.” Both in the technical sense (“We could pull that off”) and in the desire sense (“I’d like to sing that.”)

Zehnder draws from Scripture, African spirituals, traditional hymnody, and their real-life experiences. Some lyrical examples:

“And oh the grief, to say goodbye,
Sing out waiting thorugh labored sigh.
Swing white-hot fury to black despair,
Dare you to find your God in there!

I believe, help my unbelief. I believe, help my unbelief.”

– from I Believe, written in the aftermath of their father’s death in 2006.

“Blow through me, Wind, breathe on me, Breath, make Spirit born,
All of my soul, make Spirit born, Spirit born.

The Nicodemus in me can’t believe how
The Nicodemus in me is too long in religious categories
The Nicodemus in me still runs to the rebel rabbi
In the middle of the night…”

– from Spirit Born, available as a free MP3 download here.

You can find out more info about Going Up here. Here’s a music video for Song of Peace, from one of their previous albums:

Calling emerging worship artists!

Do you have a CD that you’d like me to take a listen to for this series? (This means you, COTA, Solomon’s Porch, and Proost!) If so, leave a comment below and I’ll give you my snail-mail address.

26 Responses to “Worship for an Emerging Church – Part 1 – Zehnder”

  1. 1 justamouse October 28, 2008 at 8:56 pm


    You are in my brain reading my thoughts.

  2. 3 Heather October 29, 2008 at 5:04 am


    I got out of work really late this evening, got in my car, and as soon as it started up the radio came on and started spewing its noise at me. Yes, I generally do have it pointed to the “christian” station in my area, and much of the time I am relatively unimpressed and unengaged with what’s on it. Except for moments like tonight.

    Tonight, the song caught me unawares. It was a worship song I had heard countless times before, and the lyrics have never really impressed me. Until tonight.

    “Your name, is a strong and mighty tower –
    Your name, is a shelter like none other –
    Your name, let the nations sing it loud –
    for nothing has the power to save, but Your name.”

    It is often when I am most uninterested in a christian song that I suddenly become aware of the Spirit of the Lord coming through the people singing it – and the One they are singing about and to. So I’m a mystical-charismatic-something or other…. but I’m not TRYING to be…!

    Bottom line: musical worship can serve lots of different functions. It can unite people together in a sense of community, even shaping our view of who we are together AS a community. It can focus people towards a certain action; in the case of the emergent worship you are proposing, that would be towards social justice, amid other things. It can connect us to the past, to the ancient or traditions that we enjoy or find meanings in. But there are two things that it can do that I really don’t want to see done away with:
    1) Extoling Christ (and God)
    2) Being a vehicle for intimacy and communion with God.

    I am wary of either side of the intimacy coin. I’m wary of the people who see intimacy as an ends unto itself, and yet I’m also wary of ideas that don’t value or too easily dismiss individual believers’ intimacy with their Lord. Matt Redman sings, “Let worship be the fuel for mission’s flame…” I once was in a church that tried to make every song “corporate” – ie, always singing “we love you” versus “I love you” to the Lord (for example). Great idea sometimes, but sometimes….distracting. And I think both things have their place in worship? Maybe I’m alone in this, but for me the sheer fact that voices cascade around me in unison is enough for me to know and relish that I’m singing corporately, even though each of us is singing about our own relationship to the Lord individually.

    Can we do both, appreciating that there are moments to focus on all the “things” that life in Christ affords us – being in community with one another, going forth with justice and mercy to others, being honest, expressing doubt – while at the same time never loosing site of the beauty and majesty and awesomeness and tender love of the One we do it all for and the One we adore and love to extol?

    Or have I betrayed some side of me that has not yet …emerged?

  3. 4 Heather October 29, 2008 at 5:06 am

    Sheesh….there should have been a new paragraph in the middle of one of those paragraphs, and unfortunately facebook has spoiled me with the “edit” button.

  4. 5 David Derbyshire October 29, 2008 at 9:44 am

    I don’t feel that the emerging church is where creative worship songs are coming from at the moment. It will be interesting to see of they can muster a serious challenge to the CCM worship movement. The lyrics of ‘I believe’ are brilliant it’s a pity that’s not the one on YouTube. But I think Zehnder’s strength is in their writing rather than their performing. The best music from emerging church people that I have heard must be Aradhna. This year I heard also Molten Meditation at Greenbelt who was also very good. But neither of these is produce songs for congregational singing. So I will follow this series with interest.

  5. 6 dan horwedel October 29, 2008 at 12:54 pm

    I don’t have anything to offer, but I look forward to more on this. Definitely a need. Thanks!

  6. 7 Heather October 30, 2008 at 12:48 am

    After a day of reflection:

    a) I wish I didn’t post to your blog in the middle of the night, because I end up feeling like a dweeb for what I write and how I write it, which is prone to happen when I really ought to be asleep already. Ug.

    b) I think this thread hits at the heart of where the emergent church is when it comes to the *individual* and *God.* Wow, this could be a whole other discussion in itself. It seemed like a few years ago, before the whole missional wave hit the emergent church, that the thing giving EC its wings was a focus on letting the individual have a journey and an experience with God. Aka, remember all the labryniths that were popping up everywhere? Also, the whole emphasis on revisiting early church forms of meditation. It seems that worship music for the emergent church may first of all need to emphasize the freedom to question, the freedom to doubt, the freedom to be authentic – but how then can we also have music that can honestly express, “I found an answer to my question” or “I am no longer in doubt” or “I am authentically ecstatic about You Lord..” Too often authentic seems to only be valued when it is authenticity towards the vague, the unknowing, or the negative. Yet if we are going to push for authentic expressions of conscience towards God and others, then we need to appreciate music that expresses both the vague and the formed, the unknowing and the knowing, the negative and the positive – the doubt and yet also the experience of true faith, the ability to question God but also celebrating that God sometimes actually answers. Community is made of individuals – how do we celebrate community without becoming cultlike to the point of no longer cultivating any individual engagement with God? There needs to be balance.

    Ok, I hope I don’t look back on this post with regret as I did the first one 🙂

  7. 8 Heather November 1, 2008 at 5:02 am

    Of course, there is always the Psalters…and their Divine Liturgy 🙂

  8. 9 Neil Haydock November 4, 2008 at 2:57 pm

    Writing a good congregational worship song has to be one of the most challanging tasks a song writer can ever do. I think that there are some that write really good ones, almost by accident, but then never really develop much consistancy in their writing. Others have developed great technique, but perhaps are a little uncreative because they follow well-worn songwriting stratergies.

    I liked zehnder, I liked the creative energy in the music, and the fresh sounding lyrics. But for congregational use….maybe lacking in musical simplicity? Maybe not memorable enough? Not sure without roadtesting this with a congregation…

    Nick Page has written an excellent book as a critique on lyric writing in modern worship songs called “And Now Lets Move into a time of Nonsense” (its on Amazon if you’re interested) – asking some great questions such as – why do we tend to employ biblical imagery in worship songs when the world in which we live now is somewhat different? E.g. Jesus is “King” “Lord” etc. Of course, I believe that He is, but we need to find modern imagery to convey this, and not just regurgitate well worn and tired, outdated imagery. This would perhaps be the danger in following this route,

    “maybe just some more songs straight from scripture (or from saints and desert fathers), letting God’s work speak for itself…”

    …and wind up not communicating in todays language.

    But writing in a way that does not simply repeat old imagery is much more challanging and demanding. It means exercising our creativity and imagination.

    Mike, this is a great thread and look forward to hearing other artists who can offer us fresh and dynamic congregational songs.

  9. 10 Jeff Goins November 4, 2008 at 10:04 pm

    listening to zehnder now… funky. so would they play this at a church or something? i can’t imagine (maybe my imagination just needs to be stretched, tho).

  10. 11 A.S. Tatum November 13, 2008 at 11:11 pm

    Mike, I love the suggestions that you pointed to earlier in the post and I’ve listened to Zehnder’s album and I must agree with a previous commenter that I’m not sure that this particular group (or any of the others I’ve encountered who could be called “emerging”) will become a viable alternative to the polished sound (and, honestly, better musicianship) of many of the better CCM acts. David Crowder, Lincoln Brewster, Chris Tomlin and even the Enter the Worship Circle folks (who, in my mind, could easily be called “emerging”) are all writing and performing songs that are attentive to the suggestions listed early in your post. I really enjoyed the lyrics to most of the tracks on the “going up” album but the music was much to cheezy and unoriginal for my taste. Maybe it’s just my personal preference but I think “emerging” worship acts are going to have to step it up quite a bit on the musical performance factor if there’s going to be any hope of subverting the status quo of worship music.

  11. 12 John van de Laar March 3, 2009 at 8:13 am

    Hi Mike,

    You asked for suggestions. I’m in the final stages of an album of new worship songs that does just what you’re saying. If you would be intereste din hearing it and possibly reviewing it, please send your address (as you mention above).

    I have other music on my site (much of it sung by many churches here in South Africa), but most of it is old now, written when I was in a different space, and in much the same vein as other worship stuff, so please don’t judge by that (should you go past there at any time). This new one is my attempt to address exactly the concerns you raise. I’d love to send you copy when it’s done.

    For what it’s worth,

  12. 13 redundancy pay August 11, 2009 at 7:14 am

    I like the idea of writing a song directly from Scriptures. In that way, we can easily meditate the Word of God and apply it in our lives. When trouble comes, the song pops up in our minds and healing of soul comes with it.

  13. 14 Weezey October 22, 2009 at 1:24 pm

    Erm, Im from Asia and I don’t know how overrated Hillsongs is over in US? But i really feel some of their songs especially from the newer songwriters like Brooke Fraser and Joel Houston really resounds with the emergent movement.
    Songs like Savior King “…let now the poor, stand and confess, that my portion is Him, and I’m more than blessed…” With Everything “…open our eyes to see the things that make your heart cry… be the church that you would desire, your light to be seen…” All really community conscious lyrics.

    In fact, if anything the songwriters are mostly ‘getting it’ despite their identity as a megachurch-Christian-MTV status. I do hope the words reach the hearts of the worshippers and not just the ubercool musical arrangements – although the new sounds probably do help in that.

  14. 15 Worship Leader Darin June 16, 2010 at 5:18 am

    As a songwriter, I love incorporating scripture into song, but find it hard to just have a song 100% scripture. Love the style though, and I think that every move of the Lord can produce and contribute something to the body.

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  1. 1 the church geek » Blog Archive » Wednesday Roundup Trackback on October 29, 2008 at 4:31 pm
  2. 2 Zehnder: Emergent Worship Music | RockOm Trackback on November 5, 2008 at 1:43 pm
  3. 3 Swinging from the Vine » Zehnder: Going Up, a review Trackback on December 29, 2008 at 4:36 am
  4. 4 Ancient-Future Worship: The Odes Project « zoecarnate Trackback on January 22, 2010 at 2:49 pm

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