Create songs of worship for a welcoming community

May all the guests who arrive be received like Christ, for he will say: “I have come as a guest, and you have received me. And to all that the honor be returned, especially to the servants of the faith and to the pilgrims. … Whether the head is bowed or the whole body prostrates itself to the ground in worship of Christ, who indeed is received in their persons.
– The Holy Rule of Saint Benedict, chapter 53, “On welcoming guests”

IImagine this: you are visiting a church for the first time. As you approach the entrance, you spot the designated host, who wears a badge and a warm smile.

You expect the usual handshake and hello. Instead, the host suddenly falls to the ground, lies face down on the ground at your feet, and speaks a blessing of peace over you.

If you were a medieval traveler, traveling through what is now Europe, you would be used to it. Anytime you stop to spend the night at a monastery on your trip, you would be greeted that way.

There has perhaps been no more welcoming place than the monasteries of the Middle Ages. They took hospitality seriously, treating each guest as if they were Christ himself.

Isaac Wardell would like to see a little more of this in modern churches. Perhaps not to the point of bowing down to every visitor, but at least in the spirit of such Benedictine hospitality.

That’s why Wardell, Director of Worship Arts at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Va., Launched The Porter’s Gate Worship Project, a “self-proclaimed creative movement to reimagine and recreate a cult that welcomes, reflects and impacts upon. both the community and the Church. . “

When Christianity today recently sat down with Wardell after a Sunday morning worship service at Trinity, he was especially excited to discuss the “welcome” element of this mission statement.

“[As the church], we have lost a vision of ourselves as a place where people come to be welcomed, ”he says. “But this is a great opportunity for us: when a stranger walks through our doors, that stranger is Jesus for us.”

Concretely, The Porter’s Gate is an ever-evolving collective of singers, songwriters, musicians, pastors, scholars and others from a variety of traditions and backgrounds. They recently reunited in New York City to record a live album and a series of accompanying videos, bundled together as the project’s debut album, Work songs, modern hymns affirming the vocation as an integral part of a life of worship.

The album features musicians such as Josh Garrels, Audrey Assad, Liz Vice, Stuart Townend, Will Reagan and Sarah Hart.

Wardell, who also co-founded Bifrost Arts (with Joseph Pensak) and oversaw the collective’s three releases, spoke to CT about Bifrost’s transition to The Porter’s Gate – including the story behind the name, which has it all. to do with being a more hospitable church.

Let’s start with a bit of your background.

I have led Sunday morning worship for 25 years, starting with my youth group at age 13. I had a Christian rock band in the 90s, The Eleventh Hour; we played at the Cornerstone Festival. By the time I got to college [Covenant College, where he studied music composition], I had avoided contemporary Christian music.

After college, I led worship in a few churches in Tennessee, Georgia, and Brooklyn. Because I didn’t listen to modern worship music, I tried to apply the principles of the hymn in these churches. The worship we used to do in this Brooklyn church [Resurrection Williamsburg, founded by Vito Aiuto of The Welcome Wagon] began to have its own sound and feel. We decided to record the songs, and it became Bifrost Arts.

Lately, I recognize that this largely Reformed Presbyterian tradition here in Trinity is like a part of what God is doing all over the world, especially in worship. As I spent more time with cult leaders in other traditions – the Roman Catholic Church, African American churches, main churches – I realized how impoverished some of the Bifrost Arts stuff was. , when they were just going out of my sight, because I wrote all the songs. I realized that Bifrost had taken its course.

Was that when the idea for The Porter’s Gate was born?

Yes. And here is the story behind the name. Greg Thompson, our pastor in Trinity at the time, did a Book of Ruth series, with the topic of missionary hospitality. He gave us a metaphor of a medieval monastery. He said: “Imagine living anytime between the 6th and 17th centuries, anywhere as far east as the Middle East, west to Spain, north to in Ireland and south to North Africa. If you were traveling alone, your eyes would search the horizon for one of these monasteries, as they were known to be places that would welcome you. a person at the door, and that person was called the porter. It is supposed to represent the church to the world, to offer hospitality, to provide the visitor with everything he needs. He lets the whole monastery know that there is a guest, so the monks and even the abbot come out, bow down to the guest, kiss his feet and say: “You are the Christ for us, Jesus incarnate for us. we.

This image is powerful. It is beautiful to think of this kind of opportunity that we have as a church: when a stranger comes through our doors, it is Jesus for us. But it’s also a pretty haunting image, because people are always lost, still wandering, always looking, but they don’t seek hospitality in churches.

What is even sadder is that we are not looking for them. We don’t have a doorman at the door who says, “How can I serve you? What can I do for you? ”So we shouldn’t be surprised when people say,“ Oh, the church, they hate gay people, they don’t care about the marginalized, or this isn’t a welcoming place. for people with disabilities. ”Because we have lost a vision of ourselves as a place where people come to be welcomed.

It’s not a perfect analogy, but I think those of us leading worship on Sunday mornings are in many ways the closest thing to the role of a bearer, in terms of making the people feel. welcome.

How did you choose vocation as the theme for this album?

Greg Thompson has produced a series of videos outlining six virtues of what a welcoming church looks like: identity, community, denomination, vocation, training and context. We just decided that for the first album we would focus on vocation. They are songs of worship. Some are much better suited for congregation singing, while others are more like offerings to the Lord.

About a year ago, I contacted musician friends from a wide range of traditions – Calvary Chapel, Vineyard, Roman Catholic, Episcopal – for a collaborative project. But instead of bringing them at the end of the creative process, I invited them right from the start. I said, “We have a shortage of vocation resources.” I first noticed this when I was worshiping for the Faith and Work of the Redeemer conference a few years ago, when they asked me, “Can you sing songs about calling and calling?” (laughs) I opened the hymnbook and thought, “Alright, ‘Take my life and let it be’ and … nothing else.”

So I approached all these different writers and pastors to ask if they had anything to contribute. Then we had a songwriting contest, with 400 people writing song ideas about calling and calling. We did three different songwriting retreats.

Finally, we had an invitation-only gathering of about 50 people in New York City in June. By that time we had written all the songs, so that’s when we performed all the songs. We taught them to everyone, and everyone, even non-musicians, sings on the album. We also invited a videographer, who set up three cameras and audio recording equipment, and we recorded these clips live while we performed the songs.

What happens next?

I intend to do a series of five more over a decade. We can probably do one every 18 months. Some of the same people, and depending on the content of the next recording, there will also be different interlocutors.

The next album will be on the community. I would like to include people like Barb Newman, who has spent her whole life equipping churches to accommodate people of varying abilities. I want to bring someone to help us think about aging and death in the context of the community. I would like to invite Wes Hill or someone from the Spiritual Friendship community to talk about celibacy and gender identity in the community. And then a few people help us think about education, race, and class in the community.

We will ask the questions about the type of songs that will help us better understand the topic of the community. We don’t even know the questions yet! But we can’t wait to ask them.

Watch Josh Garrels and other Porter’s Gate performers sing “Christ Has No Body Now But Yours”. The words are taken from a prayer by Teresa of Avila, circa 1571.

CT editor in general Mark Moring is editor-in-chief of Orbiter, a magazine exploring the intersection of science and meaning. He is also editor-in-chief for Polymath, a creative agency.


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