When an event or series of events acquires the moniker of “a movement,” often it’s not because of the flash of the event itself but because of the ripple effect. More often, the movement is small, but profound, perhaps even imperceptible at first… until its impact begins to spread.
Such is the impact of The Porter’s Gate, a sacred arts collective created to identify with and fulfill the most impactful role of the Christian Church: to be its porter, one who looks beyond church doors for guests to welcome. The Porter’s Gate seeks to build an ecumenical community that invites conversation and collaboration in an exploration of faith. To start a movement, a soundtrack for faithful, welcoming presence in our broken world.
“The Church in North America is having an identity crisis,” explains Isaac Wardell, director of worship arts at Trinity Presbyterian in Charlottesville, Virginia, and founder of The Porter’s Gate. “There are all kinds of metaphors for fortress mentality, closed Christian communities segregating from culture. Others are talking about ‘assimilation,’ Christians who don’t want to be called Christians because of the perceived stigma in our culture.”
It’s time, he says, to be an agent of change, to change the way the church engages the community. To reimagine a movement of redeeming love that seeks to welcome those outside its doors. “Of all our particular practices, liturgies and beliefs, the thing that marks us the most is our welcome, our hospitality,” Wardell says. “By becoming the porter at the gate, the Church identifying itself by its welcome/hospitality, it is a renunciation of power…” he says of the organization’s mission. “We give up the power to control the narrative and embrace the community and what it brings to the Church.”
“Unity and understanding, giving up the power to control…” how often do you hear that among church leadership? It’s certainly rare. So what might that look like?
A Conference of Conversation
In June of this year, The Porter’s Gate hosted a two-day consortium in New York City, where a group of 60 songwriters, musicians, scholars, pastors and music industry professionals from a variety of worship traditions and cultural backgrounds gathered for meaningful conversation about worship and vocation.
It was the first of what Wardell envisions as a semi-annual gathering to connect like-minded creatives in conversations about worship designed to engage culture. In other words, he says, worship that welcomes. “What would it look like to have a different sense of who we are, what we do, an understanding that compels us to reach out more explicitly to our neighbors,” he asks. The Porter’s Gate conference — three days of collaboration at St. Bartholomew’s Church and The Swedish Church in Manhattan — set out to answer those questions in community.
Gathering as an exercise in collaboration, the Porter’s Gate conference focused on worship that gives language to and affirms the work of the people. Panel discussions —notably racially, gender and denominationally diverse — centered on vocation, on “bringing our work into worship and taking our worship to work,” with intentional focus on the challenges and opportunities facing those in creative ministry.
“Everybody has something. Nobody has everything. We need each other. And if you don’t play your part, we as a body lose mobility…” says Adam Russell, a Vineyard church pastor from Campbellsville, Kentucky, who spoke at the conference on the importance of music and singing in worship. “Singing is reformational in that it brings the body together.
Aaron Niequist, who leads a Willow Creek community known as “The Practice Tribe” in Chicago, Illinois reflects on his experience at Porter’s Gate 2017: “I’ve been a worship leader for 20 years, serving the same meal every Sunday: four pop songs and a hymn. We realized that eating the same meal every week didn’t make us as healthy as we hoped to be…. I grew up squarely evangelical, but I’m learning from all these streams that I never knew anything about. When I open up my worship toolbox, all I’ve got is singing.”
“As a Catholic, I’m very familiar with the idea of vocation,” recording artist Audrey Assad, says, “…secondary vocation, your work, what you do in the world. The synthesis of it was new to me, this concept that vocation is, in fact, an identity, not just work and that work flows from that identity… It’s more about who we are to be in the world. I’d never tied it to that word. Made me think about what it means to be a wife and mother but also an artist and how no matter what I do with my art, am I being who I ought to be in this world?”
Perhaps the biggest takeaway of the gathering was found in face-to-face connection, in the sharing of uniquely powerful stories. Brothers and sisters engaged in deep conversations that, hopefully, will inspire musicians and songwriters from disparate traditions coming together where they are to continue the work or worship that welcomes.
As Christians, we are products of our parents’ narratives, the people of Jesus’ story, people who serve by using story,” says Christine Evanson, dean of intercultural student development at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, who spoke at the conference on the importance of story and on valuing cultural differences as we encounter them.
“We are bound together by listening to one another stories and sharing in one another's griefs,” Wardell says. “This conviction is especially valuable as we look out at the people we are to care for, and remember that we cannot talk about calling and vocation without also talking about pain.”
“The value of a gathering like this is more than the ideas of visionaries shared,” says Adam Russell. “The real value is getting to know those people. Sitting at the same table. I was instantly encouraged by just being with them… people who deeply love Jesus and care about the same things I care about.”
Music for a New Movement
The afternoon sessions gave attendees the opportunity to contribute, vocally, to the video recording of The Porter’s Gate Volume 1: Work Songs, set to release Oct. 6. Produced by Isaac Wardell (Co-founder of Bifrost Arts) the project features 13 modern hymns centered on affirming vocation as an integral part of a life of worship. The joy, energy and reverence of the live recording was captured on video by Mason Jar Music, known for their work with Bela Fleck, Feist, YoYo Ma and others.
Ministry-based singer/songwriters like Paul Zach (Portico Church, Charlottesville, VA), Latifah Alattas (Moda Spira, Lafayette, CO), Aaron Keyes (10,000 Fathers School, Atlanta, Ga.) and Joy Ike (Philadelphia, PA, Nigeria) were joined by independent recording artists Will Reagan (United Pursuit), Liz Vice, Josh Garrells, Stuart Townend, Audrey Assad and Sarah Hart among others.
Urban Doxology, a collective of artists committed to racial reconciliation and urban ministry in Richmond, Virginia’s highly gentrifying Church Hill neighborhood, lent its rich, soulful harmonies and musicianship throughout the event.
Together these artists collaborated on songs like “Little Things With Great Love,” “Christ Has No Body Now But Yours,” “Establish the Work of Our Hands” and “Every Mother, Every Father.” Spiritually organic and stylistically a melting pot, every track on Work Songs affirms the importance of serving God by serving others.
“The spirit of collaboration, musically and with our perspectives, has been so life-giving and a lot of fun,” Audrey Assad says. “The people who are here are world class talented, making a live record, with no overdubbing, and these people sound so incredible and bring so much joy and heart to it. I’ve been inspired by watching musicians who love their craft, being part of something bigger than our own careers.”
In this recording, as in the mission itself, The Porter’s Gate seeks to provide an environment in which artists can reimagine the vocation behind their gifts and create music that sets a light at the door of our churches, a light that beckons world-weary strangers to come in and find rest. To take on, as Greg Thompson says in his podcast, “A Way Forward: Six Practices of the Church,” the “burdensome and beautiful work of reimaging faithful Christian presence in our own time,” to create a space and a sound that is “light in the darkness, a rest for the restless, a presence in all the absences of the world.”