The Porter’s Gate collective of songwriters is frequently mentioned by the Sing! Blog team, for reasons made evident in work like their recent release, Advent Songs. Just as the Sing! team seeks to be ecumenical and diverse, The Porter’s Gate team cherishes and cultivates a diverse songwriting cohort for each record released. Although Advent Songs is recorded by various artists/songwriters, the production led by Isaac Wardell brings a cohesive, reflective mood to the anticipation of Jesus’ birth and imminent return. Just as in previous Porter’s Gate releases, this album contains songs that are simple in their arrangement yet beautifully performed by artists such as Paul Zach, Liz Vice, Page CXVI, and Lauren Plank Goans.
Overall, this album may be more reflective than participative among the other Porter’s Gate releases (as a side note, consider “Drive Out the Darkness” and “How Long?” from Lament Songs in your Advent planning, too). Piano and acoustic guitar continue to be the foundational instruments for songs, with very clear and strong melodies leading each song, but this album has an intimacy unique to the themes of Advent. For example, you may not be able to find many Advent albums with a lullaby from the perspective of Mary (mesmerizingly performed by Liz Vice).
Musically, this album has a deceptive simplicity. There are many layers (strings, pads, ambience, reverb) that provide part of the mood, and these elements aren’t always reproducible in local church contexts. The oboe that weaves in and out of a couple songs is also an instrument one may be hard-pressed to find in a local church. That said, the available score/charts for these songs illustrate the strength of the melodies and lyrics that may be arranged for smaller contexts.
Lyrically, all of the typical Advent themes are woven into these songs, with a slight edge to Love over Hope, Peace, and Joy. Biblical language shapes every phrase, drawn liberally from both Old Testament prophecy and psalter as well as gospel accounts from the New Testament. I highly recommend reading the lyrics/charts while listening to receive the full weighty effect. The various lyricists of The Porter’s Gate have crafted memorable, poetic hymns.
Notable songs for congregational use include “Make a Way” with its gospel/blues groove, the rearranged hymn “In a Land by Death O’ershadowed,” and the new hymn “The Reign of Mercy.”
Notable songs for reflection include the aforementioned “Mary’s Lullaby,” and the minor-key invocation “Isaiah (O Come).” Both of those songs left a lingering, somber mood in their wake.
This album is a welcome addition to any Christmas/Advent playlist. If you have a reflective or intimate Advent gathering in your liturgical calendar, many of these songs may be very appropriate. In some ways, this album stands in contrast to the bright, flashy, commercial fare readily available on the radio by subtly, softly declaring a different way of being brought about by the birth of Jesus, our Messiah. This Advent record rightly remembers the incarnation and looks forward to the soon-coming return, concerned with a deeper joy and contentment than mere holiday cheer.
Review provided by David Calvert, who is the Creative Arts Director for Grace Community Church in rural North Carolina and a PhD graduate in Theology and Worship from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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.
The Porter’s Gate is a collaborative effort between many songwriters and artists, spearheaded by Isaac Wardell. Their stated goal is “… to build an ecumenical community that invites conversation and collaboration in an exploration of faith.” This “sacred arts collective” desires to provide a welcoming and deeply moving soundtrack for the Church’s presence in the world. This specific album focuses on the labor of God and labor of the Christian, thus the title, “Work Songs.” Participating artists on this project include Audrey Assad, Josh Garrels, Latifah Alattas, Liz Vice, Paul Zach, David Gungor, Joy Ike, Madison Cunningham, Aaron Keyes, and Urban Doxology.
The diverse voices of the participating artists are each given a moment to feature on the album. The joy and lament of the gospel genre of music are manifest in the songs performed by Urban Doxology, the folk genre is well-represented by Paul Zach and others, and classical music shines through in string arrangements and certain moments from the piano. Historically, one of the ways that the world has been invited to consider the gospel is through goodness and beauty. This album seeks to reclaim this invitation through goodness and beauty represented in song. The natural reverb of the church in which this album was recorded is a subtle reminder of the resonance of congregational singing and the organic beauty of musicians worshiping together. Notable songs include “Wood and Nails,” “Establish the Work of Our Hands,” “In the Fields of the Lord,” and “Father Let Your Kingdom Come.” Although songs are generally pitched for the voice of the performing artist, the strong melodies could be easily re-set for congregational singing. Similarly, although arrangements may include instruments not common in some smaller churches, the strong melodic movement and simple yet profound lyrical content could be rearranged for different contexts.
This album is an important resource for personal worship—one would be hard-pressed to listen through this work and not be moved to consider the majesty of our merciful God. The variety of musicians who participated bring a refreshing eclecticism to the flow of the album. Although the arrangement of the songs may limit its use for congregational singing in smaller churches, several strong melodies and some rearrangement may help adapt these powerful songs for the participation of the local church. The focus on vocation and the Christian life is an important supplement to hymnody in the American church, especially.
Review provided by David Calvert, who is the Creative Arts Director for Grace Community Church in rural North Carolina and a PhD graduate in Theology and Worship from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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
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.
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, pain 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.
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!
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