This weekend was the official release of a new set of songs from my home church, Grace Evangelical Free Church in La Mirada, CA. The album has a website where you can listen to the songs online, buy the album, or buy individual tracks. There’s also a blog there, which includes well-produced videos with interviews about the music.
The standout tracks,I think, are the two that are also most obviously suited for congregational singing: the title song, “Here is Your God,” and “Light of the Lord.” But that’s just my impression; give them a listen and see what stands out to you. Some rock, some roll, some sound like musical theater, some are for singing along, and some are performances to be listened to.
What you can get from these mp3s is good worship music. But I want to point out that these recordings are only a byproduct of what’s going on at this church. They’re the sharable part, the downloadable part, of the life that’s taking place in a congregation in southern California.
What we’re trying to do is get the word of God into our souls in every way possible.
At Grace EvFree, the preaching elders take the congregation through entire books of the Bible, preaching week by week through book after book. Over the past several years, the church has developed some helpful techniques for getting the most out of these expository series. We start with a reading service, where the book we are about to preach is read aloud without any extended commentary. Then we preach through the book for as long as it takes: one week for Second John, a couple of years for Isaiah. Throughout the series, we meet every week in small groups in members’ homes, where we discuss the sermons and apply the word to our lives more personally. Finally, after the last sermon in the series, we gather for a congregational response service, where the people testify about what they have learned through this season of preaching, sharing stories about what has been happening in their lives.
You can see the plan: We grab hold of a book like Isaiah and internalize it any way we can. Dozens of hours of preaching, of small-group discussion, of congregational prayer and personal testimony.
And then there’s the music. How do you sing through Isaiah? Well, there are dozens of hymns on the book, and some of Isaiah’s language has pervaded traditional Christian worship since the book of Revelation.
But there’s also such a thing as “singing to the Lord a new song,” and that’s where this music comes in. We’ve got a lot of creative musicians in our church, and a core member of the elder team who pastors and oversees the extensive music ministry: Walt Harrah. Walt has written about a zillion songs, and has performed two zillion. He’s biblically saturated, theologically informed, and historically aware. He bleeds Spurgeon quotes if you cut him. He’s verbally playful, like Eugene Peterson with the mad lyrical flow, yo. He could whistle Handel’s Messiah backwards, but he doesn’t. This is the guy you’d want in charge of setting Isaiah to music.
So we’re experiencing the blessing of local, homegrown music at Grace. Local music is a great thing, and it’s usually a sign of health if the musicians and artists in a congregation are responding to the preaching by producing images and music. But most local music doesn’t need to be recorded or shared beyond its original setting. Maybe 98% of it doesn’t. With Walt and the team of musicians and technicians at Grace, though, we’re producing music of a quality that others should hear.
And music gets the word into a soul in a unique way. There’s nothing like it. You can preach and teach and argue and explain all you want, but singers can cheat: They can hold a note for three and a half seconds. They can underline, accent, and color a word in a way that speakers can’t. They can take a line you’ve just read in the book, or heard from the preacher, and sing it back to you in a way that makes you sit up and say, “OH! That’s what Isaiah’s getting at.”
How many times have I read or heard “Behold your God” from Isaiah 40? But when Walt paraphrases it to “Here is your God,” and those two strong male and female voices bring it out to us, the words open up rather shockingly. Here is your God. Is that evangelism, presenting the true God to the unsaved? Here is your God: Is that what you say when teaching children their spiritual heritage? Here is your God: Is that the conviction behind the true religion of caring for the orphans and the poor? Here is your God: Is that worship, exhortation, comfort? It’s everything all wrapped up together in one comprehensive word that holds together things we have begun to think of as somehow separate.
That’s how music gets the word into you.
At our church, we’re meeting God in his own word, in the book of Isaiah. An encounter with God will change us, revive us, and remind us what really matters. The people of God will respond with testimony and praise, with obedience and confession. And apparently, they’ll respond with word-smithing, pounding drums, sweeter tones, trickier fretwork, and other art forms. Maybe with architecture, maybe new forms of social organization, maybe new life in a dying culture. Who knows? Down through history, it’s been a vision of God that has called forth the best in the arts. We’re seeking to meet God in the place where he has promised to meet us, in his word. The byproduct is eleven sweet songs, and Grace EVFree is glad to share them beyond our own congregation.