5 Tips and Tricks for being Gender-Inclusive in Worship

Some of the significantly gendered language in Christian hymnody and liturgy bothers folks in the pew and in the pulpit. Whether it refers to God in exclusively masculine pronouns or to the collective body of humanity as “man,” these things permeate the way we worship. I thought I would put together this list of tips and tricks for solving some awkward situations with gendered language in worshipful song and speech.

LogoBWG(1) What do I do with my “brothers”?

Most Bible translations translate what is literally “brothers” in the New Testament to “brothers and sisters” for us. Thus, when we read Scripture, the change is there. However, the change has come more slowly to some liturgical sources for a variety of reasons. Either the hymn is very old in itself or your congregation uses an old hymnal (usually because new ones are expensive!). How can we be more gender inclusive in worship outside of Scripture?

In written liturgy, you can simply change “brothers” to “brothers and sisters.” You could also refer to a “gathered family,” just a “family,” or a “fellowship.” This method (particularly the first two choices) preserves the familiar tone of the word “brothers” (or in some traditional circles, “brethren”) without being gender-exclusive about it.

Changing the words to a song can be a mite trickier. Try experimenting with single words that can replace “brother” or “brothers.” You need to find a two-syllable word in most cases, particularly with classic hymns. If you get “family” or “fellowship” to replace something, let me know. Thankfully, a less complicated alternative exists.

If you had not noticed, “sisters” and “brothers” flow in rather the same way and can be exchanged for one another. Another approach, then, would be to alternate song verses to first refer to “sisters” or “brothers” and then to “brothers” or “sisters.” If the incident of “brothers” does not occur twice in a song, you could perhaps sing it twice.

A good example of this method comes from Christy Nockels. I am skeptical of Contemporary Christian Music most of the time (but there is some good stuff out there for worship — I am thinking of Lisa and Michael Gungor, David Crowder, John Mark MacMillan, Josh Garrells, the Rend Collective Experiment, etc. — gee, that’s a white list of musicians; needs work — any recommendations?). However, I enjoy Nockel’s “By our Love.” We sang it in the service I used to help coordinate in Birmingham.

The first verse of “By our Love” starts with “Brothers, let us come together …” and the second verse starts with “Sisters, we were made for kindness …” Be careful not to appear as if you are exclusively assigning gender roles, however. Otherwise, only brothers can come together and sisters can only show kindness, which is silly.

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(2) What do I do with the divine pronouns and titles? Or, What about God?

People in every church are all across the board referring to God with gendered language. Some people are very intent on only using masculine language to describe God. Occasionally, you meet someone who wants to use the female pronoun exclusively to correct centuries of error. Others would rather use both or neither depending on the setting. Using completely gender-neutral references to God pleases the most people, but how do you do that?

Option A: You can simply refer to God in the second person. Consider “Be Thou My Vision.” You have all the Lordly and Kingly language, yes (see below), but God is technically always “Thou” or “Thee” and not “Him” or “He.”

Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart,

Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art.

Thou my best thought, by day or by night,

Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.

The Rend Collective Experiment has a contemporary version of this song, too, if your church does not like getting stuck with older-sounding English:

You are my vision, O King of my heart,

Nothing else satisfies, only You Lord.

You are my best thought by day or by night,

Waking or sleeping, Your presence my light.

(Again, for those of you struggling with “Lord” and “King,” see below.)

You do not need songs to be ready-made for this kind of gender-neutral language, however. Changing lyrics is relatively simple. Take another contemporary song that is fairly popular right now. Matt Redman’s “10,000 Reasons” goes like this:

Bless the Lord, O my soul,

O my soul,

Worship His holy name.

Sing like never before,

O my soul,

I’ll worship Your holy name.

Which can easily become:

Bless the Lord [or “our God”], O my soul,

O my soul,

[I or I’ll] worship [Your] holy name.

Sing like never before,

O my soul,

I’ll worship Your holy name.

Refer to the next discussion of the Trinity for an example of how an older hymn (indeed, one of the most ancient) can be changed in this way.

Option B: You can refer to God in both male and female senses through repetition. This method is generally a crowd-pleaser for congregations that are more liberal. I saw it done well when I visited Wake Forest Divinity School once. We sang a song first with the classic masculine pronouns, but we also sang it a second time with feminine pronouns. A third rousing chorus was gender neutral.

Some songs actually have this built into them. Consider Hymn No. 66 in the United Methodist Hymnal. We sang “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven” at my opening convocation at Duke Divinity School this week. At first, I thought this song an unlikely candidate for gender-inclusivity because of the title. However, the third verse was fun:

Fatherlike, God tends and spares us;

Well our feeble frame God knows;

Motherlike, God gently bears us,

rescues us from all our foes.

Alleluia! Alleluia!

Widely yet God’s mercy flows.

One might say that it bows to gender stereotypes, but I think that is not entirely true. The Mother rescues and the Father knows the feeble frame … so, I think it is in the eye of the beholder.

Anyway, moving on to a more challenging issue:

LogoBWG(3) What do I do with the Trinity? It is somewhat important to my church …

Well, it should be! Now, I have to admit, I never gave a thought to this issue for a long time, even after I started wanted to be more gender-inclusive in my liturgical compositions and worship. The classic Christian formula of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” is so ingrained in my mind that I never thought of the Trinity as gendered one way or the other. That might have something to do with the fact that Charles Pinnock and others occasionally advocate referring to the Spirit in female terms.

For those of you who have issue with it or serve alongside or for congregations that do, there are some alternatives. Note: please do not go doing this cavalierly on your own without sustained dialog with your congregation!

As far as the image of the “Father” goes, in liturgy, I often refer to “our God,” “Creator God,” or, to retain the familial imagery, “Holy Parent” or “Holy Comforter.” It has never gone over poorly anywhere I have served. It is a nice picture and it  is one that I think does not avoid complicated issues but engages an image of God that is comforting and true.

When it comes to the “Son,” you are in more of a pickle. Jesus was a man on the earth, and there is not much of a way around that. By “not much” I mean none. You should have that conversation: what do we do with the fact that God Incarnate was male? But not right now. Have it in person with people and not anonymously over the Internet. Anyway — on topic: You can refer to Jesus in less gendered ways by simply using the name “Jesus” or the title “Christ” instead of “Son.” You can also use other titles like “Savior” or “Redeemer.”

I did encounter a nice change a church here in Durham did when referring collectively to all Persons of the Trinity. When I go to Watts Street Baptist Church on Sundays, they sing the Doxology with this formula: “Praise Creator, Christ, and Holy Ghost.” The United Methodist Hymnal does something similar: “Creator, Christ, and Spirit, One.”

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(4) What do I do with those pesky words like “King” and “Lord”?

For some reason, I have never thought of “Lord” as an exclusively masculine word, but when I think about it, I have not ever heard it used differently. In light of that revelation, I began a helpful table of suggestions for common masculine nouns used for God and their potential replacements in song or speech. Feel free to submit other suggestions in the comments and I’ll add them for all our benefit!

 

Masculine Phrase/Title

Inclusive Replacement Options

He, Him, His, Himself God, God, God’s, Godself

You, You, Yours, Yourself

S/He, Her/Him, Hers/His, Her/Himself (alternating)

King, Lord Almighty (God)

Creator (God)

Sovereign (God)

Maker, Sustainer (God)

Father Creator (God)

(Holy) Parent

(Holy) Comforter

Father-Mother (one word)

Mother/Father (alternating)

Giver

Maker

Son (of God) Child (of God)

Christ

Jesus

Savior

Redeemer

Lamb

Light (of the World)

Shepherd

Crucified (One)

Risen One

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Before we continue with the last trick, here are some examples of the above suggestions at work in song.

Exhibit A:

In “Thy Mercy, My God” by John Stocker and Sandra McCracken, change in the fourth verse from:

Great Father of mercies, Thy goodness I own,

And the covenant love of Thy crucified Son;

All praise to the Spirit, Whose whisper Divine,

Seals mercy, and pardon, and righteousness mine.

to:

Great [Giver or Maker] of mercies, Thy goodness I own,

And the covenant love of [the Crucified One;]

All praise to the Spirit, Whose whisper Divine,

Seals mercy, and pardon, and righteousness mine.

Exhibit B:

You can render “Holy, Holy, Holy” like this:

Holy, Holy, Holy! Our God Almighty!

Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee;

Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty!

God in three Persons, blessed Trinity!

[no issues in second verse] 

Holy, Holy, Holy! though the darkness hide Thee,

Though the eye of sinful we, Thy glory may not see;

Only Thou art Holy; there is none beside Thee,

Perfect in power, in love, and purity.

[no issues in fourth verse]

Exhibit C:

You can replace the masculine pronouns in David Crowder’s “Oh, the Glory of it All” with second person pronouns. For example, the beginning:

At the start,

You were there, You were there.

In the end,

You’ll be there, You’ll be there.

And after all our hands have wrought,

You forgive,

You forgive …

Consider the modified chorus:

Oh the Glory of it all is:

You came here

For the rescue of us all

that we may live

for the glory of it all

for the glory of it all

I really like the second person, because one of the significant issues people have with referring to God as gender-neutral is that it seems to de-personalize God. I very much think God is three Persons, not some distant cosmic anomaly, so the second person achieves both goals well for me.

LogoBWG(5) Talk about it.

If you change the way your congregation worships, you are not doing all you probably need to do. Don’t make these changes without involving your church family in the conversation. Many people balk at changing things like I mentioned because it is new and changes things that they cherish. However, usually they have not thought about how gendered phrasing affects people other than them. Have congregation members who feel strongly about gender inclusive language tell their stories to the Body. When the issue is not an issue but a compilation of people who have real feelings and affections, the conversation tends to change. This isn’t an argument, it’s a sharing of testimonies.

Changing the gendered language of our traditions cannot come from the top down. That needs to happen at some point, but that is not how change happens. If your denomination demands people change their gendered traditions, congregations will probably ignore them. (As a free church person myself, I also don’t like big national bodies telling congregations what to do.) Change begins in the conversations that Bill and Jane have in the fellowship hall after worship. Change happens with Rev. Rebecca gets lunch with Charlie and Sue and explains how she feels when gender-exclusive language is aggressively defended and employed. Change happens with people, not issues. So, don’t simply make changes. Start conversations.

Also note that all of these examples and the discussion above are things I have learned in the context of my tradition (which happens to be very white, very Southern, and very evangelical, and most specifically Baptist), so there are likely a myriad of songs and liturgies I have no exposure to on a regular basis that are in need of this treatment. If you know of similar treatments to what I did here today in other traditions (e.g., the black church, Roman Catholicism, Pentecostalism, etc.), please make a note of it in the comments.

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So, what ideas do you have for these matters? What are creative expressions of gender-inclusivity that you see work? How does your congregation address gender equity in worship? Do you have other things to add to our table? It can be another problematic title or another helpful suggested replacement. Post a comment below!

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7 thoughts on “5 Tips and Tricks for being Gender-Inclusive in Worship

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  3. Thank you for this very helpful article. I am sure I will refer to it again in the future! For now, I am reassured that perhaps”Brothers, Let Us Come Together” is not as gender-problematic as I at first thought. I’m tempted to switch the Brothers/Sisters on the first two verses though, because I do know people who would read the exhortation to “kindness” as particularly feminine…

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