Urban hymns

Tower blocks and concrete streets are a world away from the forest glades and lofty mountain grandeur depicted in hymns. Anglican Priest, church planter, and director of ‘Making Disciples,’ Cris Rogers, yearns for worship songs that reflect the culture of the working class.

Creativity Inspiration
Avatar photo Cris Rogers
1st July 2024 5 minute read

Every Sunday many of our churches will sing worship songs that indirectly tell us something about ourselves. The reality is that many of us don’t even notice, but once we tune in we might see that those of us in the urban setting are singing songs that indirectly tell us that God is somewhere else.

The theology that we read shapes what we do and so does the theology we sing. Our songs create our theology in us. When I became aware of this, I noticed how many songs or hymns promoted God’s presence in the green spacious places of the countryside. For many of my estate-born friends, they have minimal experience with rolling hills, country lanes or farm animals.

While hymns like ‘We Plow the Fields and Scatter’ have an obvious disconnect. So do hymns like How Great Thou Art. I would love singing this hymn until we got to the 3rd verse which goes, 

When through the woods and forest glades I wander
And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees.
When I look down, from lofty mountain grandeur-
And see the brook, and feel the gentle breeze.

I was left thinking, how many in my estate as well as urban churches up and down the country have seen forest glades? Many haven’t even left the estate nor seen a field of sheep. The hymn was subtly telling people that somewhere else there was a place where God’s glory was present. No hymn ever seemed to use inner-city language or celebrate the culture of the working-class. So, we decided to rewrite the hymn. We now sing:

When through the estate and shaded parks I wander
And see the shops and people in the streets-
When I look up and see the tower blocks’ grandeur
And hear the cars and the sound of dancing beats.

Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,

How great Thou art, how great Thou art.

By changing the focus from hills to parks, tower blocks and dancing beats we noticed something happen in our congregation when we sang it. There is an extra level of noise, they sing it with a little more passion because it tells them that where they are can also be seen as the place Jesus is. The same was true when we sang the song Ruins by Maverick City. Although the song depicts the environment as ruins, the line “Emmanuel is here, and He is faithful” has allowed our congregation to connect with the incarnation in the life and streets around them.

So be still my anxious heart-
All that’s gone is never lost,
Emmanuel is here and He is faithful.

So, I won’t let my praises stop-
I’ll sing it from these rubbled rocks,
I know You are good and You are able, whoa 

You rebuild, You restore all that’s broken
From the ruins

Those of us who live on estates recognise that people’s lives are at times in ruins, but songs like this tell us that in the mist, Jesus is present. I also know one church who sing “So I won’t let my praises stop, I’ll sing it from these tower blocks”. My question is how can we shape our worship to celebrate our estates? Not as abandoned places, but as places representing a new Eden where Jesus walks. Can we re-frame songs to announce our estates as places of life, colour, hope and resurrection? Places where God is at work, God is enjoying his people and places where God is walking in the cool of the day.

Isaiah 55:12-13 can be a passage that reminds us of God’s presence in the estate. I warn you; this translation is what I call the Cris Rogers Urban Translation.

You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the tower blocks and maisonettes will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the estate will clap their hands. Instead of the thornbush will grow the conifer, and instead of briers the mother’s day flowers will grow. This will be for the LORD ’s fame, for an everlasting sign, that will endure forever.

I thank God that he is walking the alleyways of my estate.
I thank God that he is sitting in the local green park or car parks.
I thank God that he is resting with people in their front rooms in the tower blocks.
I thank God that he is holding the laughter and the tears.

Can our worship represent this urban sacred space? How could you go about turning your worship into something that celebrates your urban environment? 

Written by

Cris Rogers

Rev Dr Cris Rogers is a church planter, artist, maker and Star Wars fan. Cris and his wife Beki together lead All Hallows Bow, a highly missional church in East London. Cris has a deep passion for discipleship and apprenticeship in the way of Jesus. Cris also hosts a weekly Discipleship Podcast called “Making Disciples with Cris Rogers” and is the Chair of Spring Harvest.

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