Writing Worship Music on Social Justice and Privilege


Writing Worship Music on Social Justice and Privilege
By Marissa Miller, Director of Alumni Relations
(reprinted from Chimes Magazine, Winter 2017)

For many, Sunday morning worship is simply a time to come together to hear joyful songs and a replenishing message before we go back into our busy lives. But for John Lyzenga, a second year MDiv student at San Francisco Theological Seminary, there is a disconnect between our joyful gathering and the injustice and sorrow we see in the world.

A lifelong musician passionate about social justice, John decided it was time to offer his musical voice and theological education to the conversation. Wanting to create congregational worship songs that discussed issues of social justice, but with theologically considerate lyrics, he approached SFTS Assistant Professor of Old Testament, Rev. Yolanda Norton, for help.

While creating a summer reading course for academic credit, they designed a syllabus, met regularly, and worked together to create lyrics that sensitively engaged issues of race, privilege, sexuality, gender, immigration, and climate change, while considering the Biblical witness. Professor Norton assigned John a reading list, as well as multiple musical playlists that included Gospel songs, the Hamilton soundtrack, and recordings from modern hip hop artists and social activists, such as Common, Kendrick Lamar, and Beyoncé.

Professor Norton commented, “One of the great gifts of being faculty [at SFTS] is the opportunity to help students find their vocational voice. I always love those moments when I can stretch myself and do something creative with students.”

In John’s favorite song, To See the Bound Made Free, he reinterprets Zaccheus’ story from Luke 19:1-10, where Zaccheus is portrayed as a person of privilege who sacrifices of himself to help the marginalized. The song asks us to imagine living like Zaccheus, and thus, like Jesus. It forces us to acknowledge our sin of complacency, and confess, “Sisters and brothers/I’m sorry/Forgive me for my silence. Systems maintained by privilege/ not seeing my compliance…How have I held onto my pride/how can I give to you my life?”

The song’s bridge becomes a creedal moment, affirming that Jesus “…gave for all black lives/You gave for refugees/You gave for LGBT/You set pris’ners free/You welcome in the poor/You open every door/You bring down every wall/ You died for everyone.”

John has also included a version of the Magnificat, or Mary’s Song of Praise, commenting that this is one of the more joyful songs on the album. Mary celebrates and praises God for being one that stands on the side of the marginalized, “You have done…great things for us all. My soul magnifies the Lord/My spirit rejoices in my God, my Savior. You break the proud/Dissolve their thrones. You lift the lowly/You feed the poor.”

Now that the lyrics for the album are complete, and the music is on the page, the hard work begins. Recording is scheduled for early 2018, and touring has begun.

John and his band, including fellow SFTS students Ashley Reid, Evan Stanfill, Andy Deeb, and Carolyn Anderson (who lent her Gospel background to the tone of the album) have already played a few live shows in the Bay Area.

Said Professor Norton, “It was a great creative and cultural exchange working with John. I am excited about the work that he is doing, and have great hope that it will leave an impression on a wide range of ecclesial communities.”

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Chimes Magazine. John’s album, In Troubled Times: Songs of Lament and Confession, has since been released and can be found online at johnlyzengamusic.com. Accompanying songbooks for worship are also available. John will be graduating with his Master of Divinity this spring, 2019. 


“One of the great gifts of being faculty [at SFTS] is the opportunity to help students find their vocational voice. I always love those moments when I can stretch myself and do something creative with students.” 

Rev. Yolanda Norton, Assistant Professor of Old Testament, H. Eugene Farlough Chair of Black Church Studies