“Should my church sing songs by those who have perpetrated abuse? How should we handle resources or songs by, for instance, Hillsong, Bethel, or David Haas?”
These are questions we have frequently received in our roles with Worship Ministry and Safe Church. We know they're asked often because you as church leaders are working to make wise choices for your congregation. You recognize the importance of what you sing and say in worship. We are grateful for this intentionality and hope that the following will serve as a helpful tool in your discernment.
We want to acknowledge upfront that these are hard questions to answer. Because of that, we encourage you to prayerfully discern in community with other leaders in your congregation. This decision should not be made alone. There are pastoral, ethical, financial, and practical concerns that each need to be considered as a piece of a larger conversation.
Our hope is that this article will help you ask good questions as you discern together. We do not intend to provide a “yes” or “no” answer. We offer up these considerations recognizing that every situation, context, and congregation is different and might come to different conclusions. As you engage in the hard and holy work of discernment, we encourage you to consider the following.
#1 Trauma-Informed Worship
When making this decision, we must be mindful of Paul’s words that “when one part of the body suffers, all parts suffer with it.” Corporate worship is meant to be exactly that—corporate and communal. Be mindful of the members of your congregation and their lived-experience and trauma.
Statistics show that at least 25% of your members have experienced some form of abuse. As a leader, you might be aware of some situations but many are kept private. Oftentimes survivors of abuse hold their stories in confidence, struggling to make sense of the pain, harm, and suffering they endured. Silence does not mean these experiences are any less real or painful.
We need to ask how singing songs written by those who have perpetrated abuse might not just distract from worship, but also be damaging to the emotional and spiritual health of survivors. What are we communicating to them about the seriousness and validity of their stories? What messages are we sending about the care and trustworthiness of their spiritual community of faith to hold these stories and walk alongside them? What does this say about how the church responds to allegations and situations of abuse? If the church leadership decides to continue using these songs in worship, how might you communicate this decision in a way that will allow worship to remain a safe and healthy space for all worshippers, particularly those who have experienced abuse?
#2- Trauma-Informed Decision Making: Imperfect Person, Imperfect Worship?
One comment we hear often is that every songwriter has a sinful past and a sinful present. If we start taking songs out of our congregational song diet because they were written by sinful people, we would have nothing left to sing—Psalms included! And that is true. Here are some considerations for using resources from a person who has an abusive history.
Can you receive the necessary data to separate the abuse from the abuser, the sin from the person? Simply separating the person from their work on the grounds that everyone is sinful does not do justice to the people who have been harmed. We need to take into consideration several important factors:
- What is the underlying narrative of a written work or song? Are the words, themes, or sentiments expressed in the song that might be triggering and harmful in light of the allegations of abuse?
- What were the processes of reconciliation taken by the person who caused harm? Were steps taken to hold them accountable? Was there repentance? Or was there continued denial and neglect of responsibility?
- Have steps been taken by the organization or the person to begin the work of reconciliation? What advocacy steps have been taken to protect and promote healing for survivors?
If your leadership team decides that as a congregation you are able to separate the author from their song, what pastoral steps do you need to take to care for victims in your pews?
- Some may be able to separate a song from its author more easily than others. Are you sensitive to re-traumatization from current and future members that might come through your doors? You might consider sharing a playlist in advance of Sunday. This not only prepares your congregation to sing well, but also allows those who might be triggered to make wise and safe choices for themselves.
- What steps might your community take to hear the voices of survivors and people who have been affected by abuse? Will this decision give them safe spaces to continue to share their stories and feel that they are heard, believed, and cared for?
- Making these decisions around singing songs is only one step we as churches need to take. If our sole focus is on *if* we can sing these songs, we fail to address the underlying systems which allowed for the abuse in the first place. What active steps are you as a congregation taking to not only prevent abuse within your walls, but also speak out against it in the communities around you?
#3- Trauma-Informed Decision Making: Where is the Spirit at Work?
One of the reasons many churches choose to continue singing these songs is because they have become congregational heart songs. There are so many songs that are worshipful, solid, and have faithfully led God's people in worship. Praise God for that! God has worked through broken and sinful songwriters for centuries, and they have given us songs to sing that encourage our faith, move us through the Spirit, and help us to worship with the fullest of heart. God works in broken spaces.
For that reason, it can be hard to let go in places where you sense the Holy Spirit at work. Maybe this is the reason you choose to keep them in your rotation right now, recognizing that this is a season where your congregation can and needs to sing these song as a part of their faith formation. Maybe you learned one of these songs before the pandemic, and it held your congregation’s voices together through months—or even years—of separation. Maybe you sang it at a funeral, baptism, or commissioning service. And in those notes and lyrics, your congregation is reminded of God’s faithfulness and presence through both difficult and joyful times.
As you move forward, can you think strategically? Are there other options out there? Are there good substitutes you can start to work in slowly over time with the goal of phasing out some of your current beloveds? New music is released every day. It too will come from broken and sinful songwriters but potentially with less emotional and spiritual baggage. Can you start to be strategic in the long term without making quick decisions in the short term?
#4- Trauma-Informed Stewardship
The royalties question is a real one—and a real concern. If you are paying CCLI (and other) licenses and doing your regular reporting—and we think you should!—the reality is that you are paying into the system. Even if it’s a very small amount, every time you sing a song, there is profit to the organization. And rightly so! Artists deserve to be paid for their work and recognized for their contributions. So yes, you could sing them and not report/pay, but not only are you cheating someone out of what they are rightly due, but you’ve also crossed a legality line in terms of copyright. This is often the deal-breaker for churches so it’s a consideration we encourage you to take seriously.
#5- Integrating a Trauma-Informed Strategy
Appoint a small team to prayerfully discern and come up with a strategy for implementation and pastoral care. Again, we want to stress the importance of involving multiple voices within your church when making these decisions. It should not fall on the worship leader/worship planner alone because there are pastoral, spiritual, and financial considerations that impact the whole church community. Recognize as a team that there is no “one size fits all” answer to this ministry question and you need to prayerfully discern what is the right decision for your congregation.
Communicate clearly about decisions made. Give ample space for conversations and concerns. Be abundantly sensitive to the stories of survivors. Remain open to the work and movement of the Holy Spirit.
As you discern, know that we are grateful for the many ways you are leading your congregation to faithfully gather to worship our Triune God in spirit and truth.