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On Liturgy: Queering Worship

Derrick McQueen

Derrick McQueen is the pastor of the historic St. James Presbyterian Church in Harlem, New York, and holds an M.Div. in Worship and the Arts and a Ph.D. in Homiletics and New Testament.

There are no new ideas, just new ways of giving those ideas we cherish breath and power in our living. Audre Lorde

This writing comes at a particular time when, at least in the American landscape, exploring the idea of queerness in familiar, some would say normative, sacred spaces can be seen as a political act. This conflation of politics and theological aspiration is not the focus of my thoughts around queering worship.

Setting the stage, worship as a form of holy hospitality is the lens through which I imagine and realize these ideas. To be clear, I think of hospitality as more than an encounter of welcome in a church. Holy hospitality invites all to see themselves as loved by God, personally gifted by Christ with grace and mercy, and to feel the Holy Spirit in their lives. In worship, the church strives to be a place where all who come are free to see themselves as God sees us, the beloved.

The idea of “queering worship” is first an application of queer theory to church community life. Queer theory helps critique what is often thought of as essentialist views on sexuality and gender.1 The PC(USA), in its approved resolution of the 221st General Assembly, agreed upon compromised language to affirm marriage as a “unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman.” It expresses the expanded notion of an “essentialist” understanding of marriage. And true to the application of queer theory, it recognized that “queering” is not always about imposing queerness but about utilizing the lenses of queer theory to imagine new, previously unidentified possibilities.2

Queer theory relates to worship because in it we can hear echoes of our understanding of the Holy Spirit to inspire new possibilities for worship and reach the hearts and souls of people. In essence, it affirms our Reformed tradition and embraces the idea that God is still speaking to people who yearn to be touched, moved, and even changed by the worship experience. Another way that queer theory can be applied to worship is found in the particular theological work of reclaiming the relationship with the imago Dei and our understanding of God, recognizing that the image of the Trinitarian God cannot be reduced to binaries, that LGBTQIA+ identity exists within the image of God.

We can more clearly imagine worship as an opportunity to provide and encounter holy hospitality. Queering worship is the joy of hearing the Spirit’s guidance toward new possibilities to reclaim our relationship within the image of God. This practice is inclusive of everyone because it is expansive. This is a lens by which to create the elements of the liturgy. And yet, it is quite a basic foundation of worship that we seek to be in relationship with the Divine in the community. Looking for new ways to inspire worship does not mean abandoning tradition, formality, or structure. One of the more exciting aspects of worship planning is infusing the form of a given community’s worship pattern with the Spirit. Jazz aficionados know that the musician’s skill in that genre is to know the form of the song and composition and improvise within it. In most jam sessions, every musician has at least sixteen bars to include their voice and express their gift with that song. This artistic model is a way to think about what it means to engage worship actively and creatively.

Liturgy and the arc of a worship service in its most basic form is the composition of prayers, music, and Scripture. Perhaps one question to start with as we ask how to queer worship is to look at the composition of the service and ask how to open it up for others to find themselves within it. Let’s take a look at a few practical applications.


We can start with language, since it is at the core of much of the liturgical framework of worship. For instance, the language for God has traditionally been represented as masculine. The natural inclination to be more inclusive may involve representing God in the feminine. Queering language for God would move us beyond the binary that God must be either masculine or feminine. An expansive notion of God might lead us to think of the qualities God represents in our lives, like healing, liberation, and so forth, without assigning gender to those qualities. In the First Testament and the Psalms, God the shepherd evokes dedication, care, love, safety, and provision among other things. Thinking expansively about how we name God shifts us away from reducing God to the binary of gender. God is our rock and the canopy of treetops that shelter us from the sun and rain. We might even blur the boundaries between binary expectations of gender by claiming the fierce protection of our mothering God or the tender care of our fathering God. We can even be grateful that God defies all binaries as we lift up who they are in the Trinity.


There are many ways to reimagine the possibilities for music in worship. However, exploring music, like exploring language, may challenge the familiar sensibilities of a worship community. The classic hymn “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee” is set to a tune labeled “Hymn to Joy,” more commonly known as Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” The hymn was written by Henry Van Dyke in 1907, and it is an entirely separate piece of writing from Beethoven’s, inspired by a sense of jubilation. It should also be noted that Beethoven changed the words to the ode or poem that inspired his piece, which can be considered a process of queering based on a personal encounter with the piece. In most hymnbooks, there is an index of tunes. It is a wonderful tool for helping a community hear the message of a song in new ways. “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee” can also be sung to several different tunes, as listed in these indices. It is a totally different experience to sing “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee” to the tune of “Beecher” (commonly known as “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”) or the hymn tune of “Abbott’s Leigh” (“God Is Here.”) Of course, the introduction of other genres of music, instruments, and other variables is also a way to expand the vocabulary of music. But the act of queering music may involve simple juxtapositions from within what we already know. 


Who do we pray for and with? Who do we leave out? Neither of these questions presupposes intentional inclusion or exclusion. However, we can shift the language in the questions to ask: “What are the prayer needs of those we know? What are the prayer needs of those we do not know?” These two prompts help shift us to, as the hymn writer Dottie Rambo suggests, “look beyond the fault and see the need.” Sometimes in the prayers of the people, we lift the prisoner.

If we were to empathize with the prisoner who is a parent separated from their child, we would work towards being a people who see the complicated human experience and, no matter what the offense, give love. This brings us closer to encountering one another how God encounters us, praying that all may reclaim and embrace a relationship with the imago Dei.

Preaching Moment

The preaching moment in worship is perhaps one of the most focused opportunities to queer worship. Yes, that can include expanding sermonic moments to include LGBTQIA+ experience or perspective. It will always mean engaging with sacred texts to share the gospel’s good news with all, and there are several ways to bring this about in the preaching moment. Imagining ways toward inclusion is a creative exercise, but it is most important that the preaching moment be one in which the community embraces what it means to “do no harm.” Understanding the power dynamics for which one is responsible now means reflecting on the power of words to hurt and exclude, the power of words to heal and include. For many in the LGBTQIA+ community, a commitment to do no harm is the first step in being welcomed in a community to reclaim the imago Dei.

The practice of queering worship offers a liberating gift that includes all the gathered community. Worshiping together gives us an equitable opportunity to learn how God works in our lives, in all our lives. And like many other approaches to worship influenced by liberation theologies, queering, at its best, does not seek to exclude anyone. It is a chance for the community to see new possibilities for building a relationship with God and to recognize the gifts that come from the LGBTQIA+ community for the church at large.


1. “Introduction to Queer Theory,” Libraries of Indiana University Bloomington,, accessed October 30, 2023.

2. “Introduction to Queer Theory.”


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