This blog is co-authored by David Bjorlin and Adam Perez. David is a worship pastor at Resurrection Covenant Church (Chicago), a lecturer in worship at North Park Theological Seminary (Chicago), and a published hymnwriter. Adam is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at Duke Divinity School.
It didn’t take long for The Porter’s Gate’s first two albums, Work Songs (2017) and Neighbor Songs (2019), to become a mainstay of my (Adam’s) listening and song leading repertoire. Those albums gave voice to themes not often found—or easily captured—in a worship song world dominated by positivity and recycled tropes. For the same reasons, I expect The Porter’s Gate’s two new albums, Justice Songs and Lament Songs to likewise become part of my standby repertoire.
The Porter’s Gate (TPG) is a collective co-founded by Isaac and Megan Wardell. I (Adam) first encountered them at the Calvin Symposium on Worship after the release of Work Songs in 2017. Across their discography, they’ve featured some new and well-known singers and songwriters among their collaborators: Latifa Alattas (Page CXVI), Audrey Assad, Urban Doxology, Sandra McCracken, Liz Vice, Paul Zach, and others. A quick look at these two new releases shows the majority of songs are co-written with often four and up to seven(!) collaborators. TPG is unlike the big box collaborations (Hillsong, Bethel, etc.) that have a roster of writers within their team that co-author the majority of their songs. Admittedly, there are some TPG pairings that have become familiar, but new names and contributors have been added on each successive album.
The Porter’s Gate was founded to help worship leaders respond theologically to the pressing questions of our times through the writing of new worship songs and the creation of new liturgical resources.” – theportersgate.com
TPG places a strong emphasis on the benefits that come from sharing time and space in the process of producing songs. I (Adam) had the pleasure of being invited to the weekend gathering that resulted in the Neighbor Songs album, alongside other theologians, text writers, pastors, industry leaders, worship musicians, and tunesmiths. I love that TPG is invested in creating a formational space that feeds into the songwriting process that then feeds back into the church’s formation through song. That level of dedication and collaboration is all-but-unheard-of in the worship music scene, and it shows in the depth and quality of the texts coming out of TPG Worship Project. It’s almost a coup d’etat that TPG is now being distributed by Integrity Music, a giant in the worship music industry.
Justice Songs and Lament Songs
If the previous two albums were built around particular themes, Justice Songs and Lament Songs are a direct and forceful response to the ongoing injustices on full display in 2020, particularly those perpetrated against people of color. With the Bible in one hand and the heartbreaking headlines in the other (to paraphrase Barth), the songs on these albums use the prophetic tradition of scripture to address the murder of George Floyd (“O sacred neck now wounded, / pressed down by blows and knees”); police brutality (“They’re meant to protect us but kill us instead…/ and they’re meant to defend us, but step on our necks”); mass incarceration (“we will turn away from destructive politicians, overflowing prisons, corruption in our system”); and the case for reparations (“Much I have gained, but I’ll give even more, / half of my wealth it was robbed from the poor. / Oh this injustice, help me restore…”). Even the chants heard at protests around the country—“Say his name!”; “No justice, no peace!”; “What do we want! Justice! When do we want it? Now!”—are deftly woven into the lyrics.
For those who have wondered whether contemporary praise and worship music could directly address weighty themes of injustice and inequality, these albums are an unequivocal and affirmative response.
As the titles suggest, Justice Songs tends toward an explicit response to oppression with songs of protest, anger, and hope, while Lament Songs is often more plaintive in tone, singing both its grief and consolation in a minor key. Yet, both share a common commitment to naming the present injustices in our world and proclaiming the hope of God’s coming reign, which calls us to the work of justice and peace now.
Indeed, after I (Dave) reviewed the album several times, I looked through my notes and realized how many times I had written some derivation of “Good song for Advent” in the margins. Some songs have obvious connections to Advent, like the lament “How Long?” that closes with the repeated refrain, “Amen, Jesus come!” But more generally, these are Advent songs because they are apocalyptic, uncovering injustices like white supremacy that many, especially those of us in white evangelical churches, have tried to hide. These are Advent songs because they lament how far we now are from the vision of God’s kingdom where swords will be beaten into plowshares and we will study war no more. They are Advent songs because they hope and long and pray and sing for that kingdom where justice and peace will finally reign, and we’ll sing, “Behold! Behold! His kingdom now has come!”
Moreover, for any who still believe that justice is an addendum to the “true” message of the gospel, these albums root their call deeply within the biblical narrative. Drawing particularly on the Psalms, the Prophets (particularly Isaiah), and the Gospels, many songs are veritable pastiches of scriptural references and allusions. For example, on the opening track of Justice Songs, the “His Kingdom Now Is Come (Behold! Behold!),” every line is taken almost directly from scripture (not to mention it’s all sung to an infectious groove reminiscent of the Tony Award-winning Hadestown):
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness cannot overcome. (John 1:5)
Behold! behold! His kingdom now is come. (Matthew 6:10; Luke 17:21)
The valleys will be lifted
and the mountains will be brought down low. (Isaiah 40:4; Luke 3:5)
Hear the voice cry from the highway,
“Make for the Prince of Peace!” (Isaiah 40:3; Luke 3:4; Isaiah 9:6)
God of justice, righteous judge, (Isaiah 30:18; Psalm 7:11; Psalm 50:6)
behold, behold, behold!
Our defender, Price of Peace, (Psalm 18:1-3; Isaiah 9:6)
behold, behold, behold!
Father to the fatherless, (Psalm 68:5)
our strong deliverer, (Psalm 140:7)
behold, behold, behold!
He’s troubling the water (John 5:4)
and we’re marching through. (Exodus 14:21-22)
His kingdom now is come!
While the views on justice and lament expressed by The Porter’s Gate might fall outside the norm of theology expressed in the majority of the “mainstream” evangelical praise and worship genre, their use of scripture clearly demonstrates the biblicism that is purportedly at the heart of evangelicalism.
One of my (Adam) primary concerns when looking at new songs is the question “Where in a worship service could I use this?” For planning special services of lament or justice, there is naturally much to work with here. Songs from these albums would be at home in loud courthouse protests and at quiet, neighborhood vigils. I appreciate deeply that the songs never stray from a particularly Christian witness as they name and confront the injustices of the world.
For the week-in, week-out rhythm of worship planning to accompany lectionary or other themes, using these songs in their entirety may be more challenging. Given the thoroughgoing Advent themes of hope and preparation, I found myself slotting many of the songs as “sending” songs. Indeed, both the lyrical content and the diversity of musical styles felt energizing for “doing the work,” especially on tracks like Justice Songs’s “Justicia.”
Times of prayer, too, seem fitting liturgical homes for the songs on both albums: “We Will Make No Peace,” “Illuminate the Shadows,” “All Your Ways are Peace,” “Drive Out the Darkness,” and “Wake Up, Jesus” all immediately jump out. These are ready-made for pastoral and congregational prayers in a variety of moods.
At least one benefit of popular song genres is clear: great refrains and choruses. In fact, many refrains would work well as standalone pieces. If you’re like me and pull bits and pieces from various sources to plan worship, these albums will be a great resource to adapt from.
On the other hand, songs like “Wake up, Jesus” and “The Zacchaeus Song” are closely tied to the scriptural narratives from which they are drawn and would be best sung in full. Each would make a fitting post-sermon song. Indeed,“The Zacchaeus Song” has the marks of a contemporary, short-form cantata. And though the songs themselves already lend themselves to quick use, the good folks at TPG have also made all the lead sheets publicly available on their website. That fact alone makes me want to sing them.
Yet, when examining these albums through the lens of congregational song, there are a couple issues that might make it difficult to use in particular contexts. First, while the songs are on the whole extremely well crafted, written, and performed, some of them seem better suited for a solo or small group performance than corporate singing. For example, “In Times of Trouble” is hauntingly beautiful, but beyond the refrain, the average congregation would have a hard time joining in (and certainly couldn’t in the current key). Second, for those congregations influenced by postcolonial liturgical theology or Critical Race Theory, the use of gender exclusive language (e.g., kingdom, Father) and light/dark and gender binaries will make it difficult to use a few of the songs where these images and metaphors predominate.
Yet, with that said, there is no doubt that Justice Songs and Lament Songs are not only a much needed Christian response to the events of 2020, they are a gift to the church—especially those churches who desire to sing about justice in a contemporary praise and worship style. These songs were written “for such a time as this,” and our churches should be brave enough—and faithful enough—to sing them.