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Reflections on The Porter’s Gate Songwriting Retreat

Blogger Rylan A. Harris is Minister of Worship & Arts at Ray of Hope Christian Church in Atlanta, Georgia while he pursues a Master of Religious Leadership with a concentration in Music and Worship at Candler School of Theology. He is a graduate of Hampton University in Virginia.


…sitting around the table music sounds so sweet, ‘til one day I heard the call saying, ‘get up on your feet! –Ken Medema


From the soulful sounds from the house band, Seaux Chill to the radical stylings of keyboardist, Colette “CC” Coward. Or perhaps, it was the timely shared messages from Drs. Christina and Mika Edmondson of Grand Rapids, MI or the impromptu story telling by Urban Doxology’s, David Bailey brilliantly set to music by songwriter extraordinaire, Ken Medema. Or maybe even the intentional yet necessary message of love and hospitality from Professor John Swinton. From the songs to the fellowship, the words of faith, hope, love and joy to the amazing periods of worship down to the quiet moments of reflection, the 2019 Porter’s Gate Worship Project was definitely a record-breaking weekend that no one will ever forget!

There was singing! There was dancing! There was clapping! There was camaraderie! There was study! There was practice! There was the Gospel message! There was prayer! There was unparalleled musicianship! There was community! There were tears! There was—worship!  I do not think that I am qualified to voice the vision of conveners, Isaac & Megan Wardell, of Charlottesville, VA., but I can say

Porter's Gate, Rylan Harris, Praise and Worship, Center for Congregational Song

that I am humbled and tremendously honored to have been invited to participate in perhaps one of the most eye-opening and life-changing weekends of my life.

It is hard to believe that just a few weeks ago, I stepped foot onto an airplane headed in a direction that I have never traveled to before to join my brothers and sisters whom I have never seen or met all for the sole purpose of sitting around the table in total celebration of the gifts, talents, voices and stories that each of us possess. I do not think that time and space will permit me to adequately put into words the incredible time that we all spent together but it is my sincere hope that in reading these reflections, you are enlightened, intrigued and most importantly blessed by our unforgettable experience.

Far too long, the table of fellowship has been segregated. Typically, whenever one writes or reads the word “segregated,” they immediately think of the relationship (or lack thereof) between ethnic groups and genders. However, I would like us to stretch our thoughts to thinking about the ways in which we have disassociated and disconnected ourselves from so many others because our songs sound different or because our expressions of and in worship may not match another. Or because our life experiences cannot be compared, side by side—parallel or horizontal. The vision and the mission carried out by the Porter’s Gate Worship Project changes this philosophy completely by selecting and inviting fifty persons from all over the United States and abroad to come to the meeting table to engage in intense conversation, practical and spiritual formation and reflection.

Brian Hehn, Joslyn Henderson, Rylan Harris, Porters Gate, Center for Congregational Song

After the preliminary work is done, the hands on practicum of each of the participants yields itself to an utterly remarkable three and a half hour collaborative song share that leaves witnesses and listeners in total awe of the unique power of music. Albeit by bus, train, plane, van or car, each of the participants of the project began to arrive on a chilly and rainy Thursday afternoon for what would be one of the greatest culminations of music and word that anyone could ever begin to imagine.

I would like us to stretch our thoughts to thinking about the ways in which we have disassociated and disconnected ourselves from so many others because our songs sound different or because our expressions of and in worship may not match another. – Rylan A. Harris

Dr. Tony McNeil, noted scholar, professor, and director of worship arts; musician, singer, songwriter and composer in a breakout session during the weekend stressed the importance of two vital components that are needed but often sacrificed within our various worship experiences: Proclamation and Response. As pastors, church leaders, musicians, songwriters, composers and most importantly as Christians, we are called to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all whom will hear it (proclamation) and in turn listen to not only the voices of the people but also watch their actions (response) to the message that they have just heard and received. If I were to coin the overall purpose of the Porter’s Gate Worship Project, I would say that its two biggest initiatives are for Proclamation and Response. It was not until the conclusion of Dr. McNeil’s plenary where those of us who listened were able to have a better understanding of our mission when we are praying and listening to God as He guides us in our writing and composing but more importantly, in our own private worship and meditation time with God.

Unlike other conferences, conventions, and workshops, Porter’s Gate chose a very simple but intentional approach to starting our time together. Instead of an informal mixer or meet and greet, so to speak, the weekend started with Praise & Worship. We gathered in a uniquely remodeled and renovated home that was formally a church situated perfectly on a hill and offered songs of adoration, exhortation, faith and preparation to Our God; that’s right—Our God! While we sang, prayed and worshipped together, denominational and cultural barriers were cast down. While we sat together and listened to the Message of Christ from the preachers and teachers among us and the untold stories of those who sat to our left and to our right, the fear of expressing ourselves in unfamiliar territory and the discouraging thoughts of inadequacy and ineffectiveness were dismissed and eliminated from our minds! In that moment, it no longer mattered who we were or where we were from and what brought us individually and collectively to the table. No, at that moment, we were seated in front of an audience of one and that, to me was the greatest display of intentionality that could have ever been displayed.

Professor John Swinton, of Aberdeen, Scotland focused our attention on the words spoken by God as recorded by the Prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 43:18-19, “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” I cannot think of a more befitting focus scripture to begin the weekend with than, “…forget the former things…!” I think that it was extremely important for us as ministers, musicians, singers, scholars, writers and parish leaders to understand and to learn firsthand that there is no room for closedmindedness at the table at which we sit both literally and figuratively. Yes, the past is real but we cannot dwell in it. Yes, we have experienced many different levels of hurt, Wendell Kimbrough, Centered in Song, Center for Congregational, Porters Gate, Songwriting Retreatpain and disappointment along the journey, but the important thing is to acknowledge it and move pass it without allowing the residue of it to determine how we interact with others. Swinton admonished us in his teaching that “…there is no such thing as a dislocated soul.” We will never be effective in our ministries if we are not first honest with ourselves that God loved us first and that love is meant to be shared and displayed in every way at all times to any and every one who comes in our pathway.

We are living in a day and time where hate and fear of change surrounds us and meets us at our doorsteps every day of the week. No one wants to participate in having the tough conversations that would probably make us angry or even mad before they make us happy. For many, it is totally okay to remain “separate but equal.” However, this experience in Nashville reshaped that theory altogether by making worship the centerpiece for our discussions and our interactions with one another. We were reminded at every turning point during that weekend that worship is not a sound, it is not a fancy lyric, and it is not a gender, a race, a creed, or a denomination. Worship, is a lifestyle! How I see, relate to and fellowship with my brothers and my sisters whom I do not even know is an act of worship because I do not see strangers but rather extensions of myself.Rylan Harris, Porters Gate, Center for Congregational Song, Nashville, Retreat, Songwriters

I had the opportunity to get to know many people while I was there and the connections formed are invaluable! I remarked at the end of our time together exactly what the atmosphere and the spirit of the entire weekend felt like to me—not a competitive bone in the room! I wholeheartedly believe that God was glorified the way He was because there was no one there seeking glory for themselves! Each of the guests had something to bring to the table; I needed my brother and my sister just as much as they needed me. This spirit hovered over the Art House. This spirit met us in our breakout sessions. This spirit awaited us every time we met for worship and the Word. This spirit carried us back to our homes and various assignments safely and better than we left them. This spirit was indicative of God’s grace—His amazing grace! I am tremendously grateful for the bountiful table set by the generous hosts of the 2019 Porter’s Gate Worship Project!