The church’s musical imagination is limited by the vocabulary we use: traditional, contemporary, praise and worship, hymns, old, new. The first time I worshipped at Grace Chicago, I didn’t know what words to use. Although I’m on staff now, I still stutter and pause when someone asks me what the music is like. “You just have to experience it,” I say. I still feel that way, but thankfully, I can now send them to Spotify to listen for themselves.
Last fall, our church raised money through a Kickstarter campaign to produce and record an album. A few Sundays ago, we handed out the vinyl, which you can listen to here. Entitled The Third Thing, the album references the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit. It is a singular contribution to the world of church music—singular, because it originates from a particular community of people wrestling with what it means to be the church in a particular context. It is not a “worship” album in the traditional sense. Rather, it is a blend of original songs and atypical covers that attempts to express the breadth of our congregation’s encounter with God’s Spirit.
The goal of this album was not only to produce something sonically beautiful, but to also tell the story of our church community encountering and being confronted by the totality of the gospel. The art on the album cover is done by an artist and member of our congregation. One of the tracks is a story written and read by a woman from the congregation about an interaction she had on her commute in Chicago. The content of the songs—their questions, answers, images and language—has been birthed by this community of people working out their salvation with fear and trembling.
Mystery is one of the themes the album leans into. Davin Youngs, the Director of Music at Grace and the album’s producer, recently said about our approach to music: “We believe that music meant for devotion should reflect the mysteries of God’s love and grace as it works in the world.” For example, one track entitled “To Hold” offers the familiar image of looking up into the night sky, but does not go where you might expect a “Christian” song to go. “There isn’t anything explicit in this song,” Davin said. “The first line is: ‘As I walk out here alone, I consider me, not you.’ You can be out in the wilderness and still be caught up in yourself. Surrounded by creation, you can still be self-absorbed. To be able to say that on a church album is a great gift.”
This album is also a unique contribution in that it was produced by a congregation with just under 100 regular worshippers. Few congregations of such small scale have the human resources needed take on a project like this. Being located in Chicago affords us access to world-class musicians, and the majority of those who lead worship each Sunday at Grace are professionals. Our guitarist and drummer are both well-known Chicago area musicians; for example, Davin is a professional voice-coach as well as a talented song writer (among other things). The embarrassment of hiding such rich talent was one of the reasons Davin felt strongly about recording something we could share publicly with the world.
When I asked Davin how he hoped other churches and worship leaders would receive this album, he said, “My hope is that any church music would feel authentic in that church’s own context, and that their music would honor the tradition from which it comes while not being bound by the confines of culture.” The artistry of the music in this album tells the complex story of how the gospel is shaping our church in this particular moment. We hope that the songs might name something to which your church can relate. We hope that it might encourage other churches to think about how their worship life is telling the story of God’s redemptive promise in their particular context in surprising and honest ways.