I recently celebrated my 15th wedding anniversary with my wife, Jessica. We asked a friend who’s a chef to prepare a private meal for us. I also contributed by preparing a fantastic… mix tape. OK, OK. I’m not that cool. It was a Spotify playlist, and good thing it was. I had over 100 songs queued up to serenade us during the meal! But it was more than creating a mood to enhance our candle-lit evening. Each song marked a specific season or experience in our relationship, and stirred us to retell every story as they played.
The Porter’s Gate worship project, founded by Isaac and Megan Wardell, seeks to do that for the church: write songs that connect with our life experiences and communities, and stir up our stories as God’s family. In 2017, they released a collaborative album titled Work Songs that focuses on worship and vocation. Last month, they released their second project titled Neighbor Songs—another collection of songs focused on loving our neighbor as ourselves.
Songs for a troubled world
When age-old questions like what does it means to love my neighbor? and who is my neighbor? have made frequent appearances in our sermons, studies and conversations, Neighbor Songs marks this important time and invites us back into the scriptures and teachings of Jesus on these matters.
The opening track, Blessed are the Merciful, sets the stage with portions of the Sermon on the Mount and the Lord’s Prayer that lifts into a soaring petition for God’s mercy on us and through us. Following is Nothing to Fear, a beautiful duet by Audrey Assad and Paul Zach that carries Jesus’ promise to never leave us nor forsake us as we seek to follow him and make him known in our troubled world.
An unexpected diversity
As the album plays on, you quickly notice the diversity of artists and musical styles. The writing and arrangements express a variety of genres: traditional folk, Americana, indie-pop and Gospel—as well as some unexpected styles like neoclassical and ranchera. The musicians range from established artists such as Leslie Jordan (All Sons & Daughters), Josh Garrels and Audrey Assad to emerging artists like Casey J and Diana Gameros, who sings two of the songs in Spanish.
This diversity goes even deeper. Neighbor Songs was the result of an ecumenical gathering of songwriters, theologians, pastors and music professionals. The same happened for their freshman project Work Songs. It speaks to The Porter’s Gate’s effort to bring diverse voices and perspectives to the same table centered around the good news of Jesus Christ.
When so much of modern worship music is driven by the pursuit of the next congregational hit, centered on one particular artist, worship style or megachurch brand, the community-driven approach of The Porter’s Gate is both refreshing and needed. It serves as a subversive model for our creative endeavors in the church to help cut through our tendency to get stuck in one narrative stream. It begins with a posture of listening, of learning.
Teach us your ways
Maybe this is part of how we answer the question about loving our neighbor: it is the result of practicing it among ourselves. We come to our Lord’s table as sisters and brothers to listen and to learn. The song that struck me the most from Neighbor Songs was the simplest on the album. Here’s the opening verse from Teach Us Your Ways, sung by Leslie Jordan:
Teach us Your ways, teach us Your ways
As we learn from one another
Learn to love each other
Teach us Your ways
These words and songs will serve our communities well as we learn to walk alongside each other in the way of Jesus, responding with our lives to the question what does it mean to love my neighbor? And just like my wife and I retold the stories connected to our playlist of songs, there will be a day when the eternal Song of Grace stirs up the stories of our lives and our neighbors’ lives at the banquet feast of our Lord.
Also: See our early Christmas music recommendations titled Christmas music: candy canes and lumps of coal.
Nathan McDonald is a graphic designer, illustrator, songwriter and aspiring Bible and Enneagram nerd. He lives with his family in Rockford and leads the communications team at First Free Rockford.