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Coral Ridge Music Releases - Chelsea Chen Live at Coral Ridge

Friends, I'm so excited to let you know about the release of a live concert recording that our young organist, Chelsea Chen, performed last year on our 7,000-pipe Ruffatti organ. There's a lot of off thinking out there when it comes to musical style in the church these days. One of those skewed ideas is that the pipe organ has no place in the modern church music paradigm. A year ago I engaged an experimental thought project about what the future of the pipe organ might be because of the shifting of the guard in old downtown historic churches, and only a few months ago, I sat at a conference table at Wheaton College with a selected handful of faculty, publishers, and artists who were all asking the question about how the pipe organ fits in the present and the future of church music. I'm thrilled to be a part of a church that is asking that question and seeking answers through generous practices like melding rock music with all of the wonderful aesthetics a pipe organ has to offer.

As we go about those explorations, we continue to be committed to supporting local, national, and international organists who are at the top of their field in our annual concert series.

When I sat through Chelsea's concert last year, I witnessed several in the audience whose preconceptions about the organ were blown away by the sounds, colors, styles, and expressions that an organ can offer when commanded by the hands, feet, intellect, and artistry of a great organist. Chelsea Chen Live at Coral Ridge is a time-stamped testimony to the continued relevance and power of an enduring instrument in the history of church music. 

The whole concert was glorious. My favorite moment was the surprising color that came from "Miroir," by modern composer Ad Wammes. Its minimalist feel with its salsa-like groove struck a particular chord with me.

Please tell all your friends about this project! It's available on iTunes and bandcamp.


Christmas Eve Lessons & Carols at Coral Ridge (2014)

I always value seeing and hearing what others are doing in worship services, especially around "unifying" times of year when much of the Church focuses on pinnacle, earth-altering events like the incarnation of the Son of God. (That's one of the reasons I love being a part of the best, most thoughtful, most collaborative worship leader group on Facebook, Liturgy Fellowship.)

One of the things I LOVE about being at Coral Ridge is their strong heritage of pouring resources into the musical arts. Because of this, I can stand on the shoulders of my predecessors and help put together amazing, diverse, expressive, and beautiful services, like our annual Christmas Eve Lessons & Carols Services, with some of South Florida's best artists. (And, this year, we're pulling in folks from New York and Germany!) For those unfamiliar, "Lessons & Carols" is nothing more (and nothing less) than a Scripture-and-song-response service format. It's a simple yet compelling structure that has a lot of flexibility to fit a lot of different styles and traditions. Here's what we're doing tomorrow night. Here's the service, with some commentary:

Gathering of God's People

Jazz Prelude

O Come, O Come Emmanuel - arr. Gasior
Little Drummer Boy - arr. Gasior

Jim Gasior is on the faculty of New World School of the Arts in Miami, and he is an amazing pianist and arranger. He arranged "O Come" for a jazz trio/quartet and "Little Drummer Boy" for full band with horns. Coral Ridge Music commissioned Jim to write these pieces and hopes to release his live Christmas jazz preludes sometime in the next year or two. 

Welcome & Opening Prayer

I pulled a simple prayer from Thomas Cranmer's 1549 Prayer Book--a collect for Christmas Day.

Almighty God,
You've given us your only begotten Son
to take our nature upon him,
and this day to be born of a pure virgin;
Grant that we, being made new by You,
and made children by adoption and grace,
may daily be renewed by the Holy Spirit,
through this very One: Jesus Christ,
our Lord and Savior,
who rules and reigns forever and ever. Amen.

Gathering Carol

O Come All Ye Faithful - arr. Willcocks, Chen, 2013

David Willcocks' arrangement has been adapted by our Artist in Residence, Chelsea Chen, for orchestra and organ. Simple, majestic, fabulous.

Lessons & Carols

Lesson 1

John 1:1-17
The Unbelievable - Sovereign Grace Music 

This year, we wanted to open the lessons with John 1 and respond with this beautiful new song from Sovereign Grace Music. It's an invitation to "believe the unbelievable." The song is filled with similar paradoxes, including my favorite lines, "He will heal the unhealable / he will save the unsaveable"...A perfect thought to begin the night. It's orchestrated much like the recording, for acoustic guitar, piano, strings, winds, horns, and glockenspiel.

Lesson 2

Genesis 3:8-19
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen - arr. Hillsong 

We wanted to pair the dark but hopeful passage about the fall of Adam and Eve with a congregational song that matched the depth and height of the text. "God Rest Ye" does that. This Hillsong arrangement for folk band (incl. banjo) and strings is an accessible and elegant, yet passionate setting.

Lesson 3

Isaiah 9:2-7
"Puer Natus Est," from Four Improvisations on Gregorian Themes (No. 1) - Everett Titcomb

A beautiful, meditative, slowly growing piece for organ that Chelsea will play. I can't wait to hear her registration choices and colors in our sanctuary and on our organ.

Lesson 4

Isaiah 11:1-9
There Blooms a Rose in Bethlehem - Sovereign Grace Music

I transcribed and arranged this wonderful modernization (in both text and tune) of "Lo How a Rose." Our choir will be singing it in a very simple SAB setting.

Lesson 5

Luke 1:26-38
A Hallelujah Christmas - Leonard Cohen / Cloverton / arr. Mortilla 

The viral video of this re-text of Leonard Cohen's classic "Hallelujah" is a telling of the Christmas story that plays with Cohen's original text and juxtaposition of earthy and lofty language...a perfect tension to explore the wonder of the Incarnation. My friend and composition student at Indiana University, Paul Mortilla, came up with a creative, complex, and beautiful orchestration for strings, organ, horns, winds, choir, percussion, and soloist. This will be a special moment.

Lesson 6

Luke 2:1-7
Hark the Herald Angels Sing - City Church Little Big Band

A terrific jazz arrangement with an Afro-Cuban feel was written by Adam Shulman, an artist connected with Karl Digerness over at City Church San Francisco. I have no doubt that some won't appreciate the setting ("Just give us the original!"), but I find the spirit and groove of the song to be refreshing, offering some new shades on the text we might otherwise miss. It's gorgeous and lively. To my ear, it sounds like heralding angels.


This is Our God (with What Child is This) - arr. Cottrell

A beautiful, lush, contemporary arrangement of a modern Christmas song woven into a classic Christmas tune. It's a tradition at Coral Ridge to do this piece, well predating me. It's powerful and climactic, with full band and orchestra.

Lesson 7

Luke 2:8-16
Meditation - Tullian Tchividjian, Senior Pastor 

Silent Night - arr. Hicks, 2012

A simple arrangment for harp and strings. We sing it as the room goes dark and the choir lights candles.

Sending of God's People

Prayer & Blessing

Joy to the World - arr. Rutter, Chen, 2013

This arrangement is our glorious finale--Chelsea Chen's adaptation of John Rutter's wonderful arrangement.


Four Exciting Projects in the Hopper for Coral Ridge Music

Coral Ridge is a busy place. With my own eyes, I'm witnessing a movement, a kind of new reformation, taking place in our walls, in our community, and around our region. And I'm witnessing a gospel revolution continue in my own heart and family. It's the reason I moved down here in the first place.

Coral Ridge Music is a kind of subset of the larger vision and mission of both Coral Ridge and Liberate (read my thoughts on why you should come to the conference). Its goal is to provide gospel-saturated music and worship resources for the broader church and to be a part of the culture-making that happens through the arts in South Florida. The first few projects out of the gate were our six-song EP, His Be the Victor's Name and our fabulous summer interns' EP, Faith and Love and Every Grace. Within the next six months, we're looking to roll out four more things--three albums and a concert series.

Beginning in Two Weeks: Coral Ridge Concert Series

Coral Ridge is launching our new and improved concert series in a few weeks. The aim of the series is to be a part of how the arts make and bless culture in South Florida. CRPC has had a rich past of fabulous concerts over the years, and we're continuing that legacy with our own twists. It will host everything from killer local blues-funk acts, to an organ festival, to the Naval Academy Glee Club.  It promises to be an exciting year! If you're a local South Floridian, check out the website and get your tickets. Oh yeah, and we've got Keith & Kristyn Getty coming this Christmas. :)

November 2014: The Magnificent Three EP

Several years ago, I caught the Trinity bug. Upon reading a compelling article by Lester Ruth in this book, I became pretty obsessed with helping encourage a greater overt Trinitarianism in modern worship, which led to my own chapter in this book. I also began writing songs for our congregation about the Trinity. I wrote Trinitarian songs of confession, songs of gathering, Communion songs, and on and on. The Magnificent Three is a collection of what I think are the six best songs. The album is stylistically diverse and musically quite un-cohesive. And I love it. We've got a dance-tronica track, a couple of more typical-sounding pop worship songs, a groovy, bluesy sing songy number, and a Petty-with-a-dash-of-Hendrix song produced by an amazing local talent, all headed your way. If you come to the Doxology & Theology Conference this year, you will get the album for FREE! Here are the full lyrics to the first song, a Trinitarian hymn of gathering (but it won't sound like a hymn):

1. Father, how great Your delight in the Son
Infinite joy ere the worlds were begun
The fullness of Love found in Him, with You one
Father, how great Your delight in the Son

2. Jesus, You reign at the Father’s right hand
In pleasure You rule o’er His sovereignty’s span
You joyfully follow the Father’s commands
Jesus, You reign at the Father’s right hand

And, now called into Your delight
As we strain to gaze at Your light
With the hosts of the heavens all veiling their sight,
We cry,”Holy, holy, holy”...

3. Spirit, You light up the Father and Son
With pleasure You join their affections in One
So pour out their glory as we humbly come
Spirit, You light up the Father and Son

So we join Your myst’ry divine
As we sing Your Love before time
And we lift up our voices midst glory sublime
And cry,”Holy, holy, holy”...

4. O worship the Father, immortal, in light
O worship the Son, at His right hand of might
O worship the Spirit, eternally bright
With saints, angels, elders, and martyrs in white

So we join the great One in Three
In the praise that ever shall be
And in Christ, through the Spirit, our Father we seek.
And cry,”Holy, holy, holy”...

Winter/Spring: Chelsea Chen, Live at Coral Ridge

Back in March, our organist, Chelsea Chen, played a fabulous concert of diverse music. She made the organ at Coral Ridge sound more brilliant and complex, and her repertoire spanned everything from Bach to rhythmic contemporary arrangements, to her fun montage of classic Super Mario Brothers music. We recorded the concert and are working on sweetening up the sound before we press it and give it out for the world to enjoy. 

February 2015: Come and Make Us Free EP

We'll release another six-track album at the Liberate Conference in February. Many of the songs are current Coral Ridge favorites, including the title track, which is a powerful song of confession, and our remake of an old hymn, which we call, "Christ Surrendered All."

As always, our albums will be accompanied with a host of resources--lead sheets, chord charts, and request-able Finale files. But they'll also always be available, song by song, here on my site.


Behind the Song "Wake Up Sleeper" and Album Giveaway Contest

His Be the Victor's Name (EP) released this week. Here's my post about it. I will be sharing a little about each song, and the first one up is "Wake Up Sleeper."  Listen to it:


lyricslead sheet | chord chart | buy it

Behind the Words

"Wake Up Sleeper" is the only song whose words are 100% original. My readership knows that I'm a big fan of re-setting old hymns to new music, so writing my own material is something I'm starting to do with a bit of fear and trepidation. I was one day last year impressed by the resurrecting, life-giving power of the gospel, contained in Ephesians 5:14, which seems to be Paul's conflation of several passages/ideas from Isaiah and Malachi.

I wanted to take Paul's idea and expand on it in a Call to Worship song that preached the gospel's death-to-life message. Its opening lines explain how living in the struggle of sin is a kind of "living death." I incorporated the Augustinian idea of the human being as incurvatus in se ("curved in on itself"), which I have written about here. A double-meaning is intended in "unforgiving"--it is true that I am an unforgiving person to others and that life is unforgiving to me. And, I wanted to highlight our inability to keep the law while simultaneously exhausting ourselves at our own attempts at self-justification. Here's verse 1:

You summon me up from the death of living
A life bent on itself and unforgiving
Resisting peace and truth, Your law defying
Exhausted by my own self-justifying 

The first pre-chorus highlights the "while we were yet sinners" (Rom 5:8) aspect of salvation and God's call to worship. It also states what I believe is one of the principle purposes of worship--to call the human race to look on Christ:

In my rebellion, You call
To raise me up from the fall
As You gather me
With Your chosen people to
Lift up my eyes to see the Lord 

The second verse and its pre-chorus are my favorite lines, personally. I actually wrote it first...not sure why. The second set of lines are really potent and have personally affected me. A pastor-friend once imparted the idea to me that God even turns our sin into something good, right then and there. When we sin, it becomes a gracious gift of God to show us our need for Jesus. When we sin, we're forced to reckon with our inability to keep God's law, causing us to flee to Christ for mercy. In this sense, God even uses the accusations of the enemy for our good, because it drives us to our Savior. Wow.

I stand condemned, a sinner poor and needy
I come with empty hands, my heart is bleeding
My soul recounts the sins that ever plague me
The enemy reminds me of them daily 

But when he shows me my sin
It’s a blessing within
For I flee to my
Lord and see, the wounded hands,
In risen power he says to me

Behind the Music

I'd describe "Wake Up Sleeper," with a bit of a wink, as "pipe punk." (Organ purists will find that incredibly blasphemous. Oh well.) The song is, in some respects, an exposition of what it means to be the "new Coral Ridge," for us. I wanted this song and the entire album to begin with what has characterized our church for so many years--our 6600-pipe Ruffatti organ. But I wanted our band to quickly join its ranks (pun intended) and fuse this new sound together (check out my post musing about the organ's future). We're experiementing with the organ-and-band sound each Sunday, and we're learning as we go. The two weren't necessarily designed to go together, but we're figuring out a path, sensing God's providential convergence of these two usually distinct textures of church music. It's not necessarily apparent in the recording, but organist Chelsea Chen and I labored over the stops and mixtures of the organ sound to get what we thought was just the right balance and intensity. We ran through probably twenty takes before we were satisfied. 

The song's intro and pre-chorus progressions push and pull meter and count. It feels like shifting between 3/4 and 5/4. This is meant to jolt, to "wake up." The chorus is meant to be in the upper vocal range, with repeated tonics, so that it sounds like shout. 

There is one fun, covert musical reference that I would now like to draw your attention to...along with a free album to the first two people to figure it out.

Free Giveaway if Your Guess is Right

The organ isn't just playing randomly. Embedded in the moments where it comes to the fore is a reference, a musical nod, to a historic melody in church music. I'll be even more specific...the first 8 notes.  If you can correctly name the reference in the comment section below, we'll mail you an album (or get you a digital one, if you prefer).  Once people get it, I'll explain below what we did and why we did it, but chances are if you know the answer, you already get it. :)



How the Organ Could Make a Comeback in Modern Church Music

Yesterday, Coral Ridge announced our official partnership with our new Organist and Artist in Residence, Chelsea Chen. You can read all about it here. She's remarkable from top to bottom, and she's the right person to help us steward our 6600-pipe Ruffatti organ. It's a stunning instrument, and it's especially remarkable when it's in capable hands. Coral Ridge has had a rich history of such capable hands, and Chelsea will be able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in that line.

I have a theory...or a hunch...or at least a vision of a possible future. I don't know whether it will come to fruition, but I hope and dream that it is so. I believe several things in church music are converging in a timely manner that will help see the organ into the future of church music. But before I talk about that, I want to offer my vantage point of where we are.

The Organ is Doing Fine vs. What's An Organ?

Many can attest that the organ is alive and well and doing just fine. The American Guild of Organists is 300+ chapters strong, representing the full breadth of the United States along with a few places abroad. Young organists (like Chelsea) are still rising up in the ranks of fine musical institutions and are able to find jobs in various churches across the world. Organ builders still have new, exciting work. The organ has weathered over half a millennium of musical evolution, adapting to musical twists and turns. Modern organ giant, Marcel Dupré (1886-1971), is one fine example of such adaptation. Dupré was accomplished and fully-studied in the organ's past, having performed the complete works of Bach from memory, yet when you hear some of his glorious music (like his "The World Awaiting a Savior" from his Symphonie Passion [below], which was performed at our Christmas Eve services) it sounds nothing like Bach--a testament to adaptation and progression.

But then in church music there exists a "wholly other" dimension, which now knows nothing of the organ. Contemporary/modern worship has run its course, and, especially in evangelical circles, it is increasingly common that no one has even heard a pipe organ played, much less played well, much less played well as an accompanying instrument in worship. This generation is not hostile to the organ. It is indifferent, because it doesn't know it. Such people might have some vague, third-party understanding that the organ is something old, stuffy, and for church music's yesteryear, but that's about it.

When Church Planting and the Dying Mainline Collide

So now to my theory (and obviously this is pertinent to Protestant Christianity). Two currents are coalescing. The first is that mainline Protestantism is continuing to decline, with its membership literally dying without sizeable replacement from the generations beneath them. The second is that we are continuing to witness a crescendo of young church plants centered around the major urban areas of the United States. The mainline churches are often the gatekeepers of their large, historic church buildings...many of which have pipe organs. In their decline, these churches are looking to the future of their space and making decisions about how and where it goes. Certainly, some of those churches have plans to see it into the future within their own fold. Others, though, not wanting their building to be razed and replaced by a shopping mall, are thinking more kingdom-oriented thoughts as they look around in their city and observe the emerging church plants. In short, there's at least one possible future here where in the next 20 years we'll see church plants come of age and inhabit historic urban church buildings.

Rock Bands..."What Does This Thing Do?"

These church plants are likely to be, when it comes to church music, pretty neutral to pipe organs. If anything, they're intrigued by the "ancient, rooted, historic" feel of both the organ's look and sound. You hear it, for instance, in how Mars Hill's Ghost Ship incorporated cathedral organ sounds into their latest album, The Good King, on tracks like "Holy Holy Holy" and "Where Were You." Something in them stirs when they hear it cranked up for the first time, overwhelming the loudest tube amps and drum kits with its colorful, symphonic grandeur. These bands are already made up of "artsy" thinkers, poised for musical eclecticism, who, if anything, will view it as a challenge to figure out how to get their keyboardist on the console during worship so they can meld organ with band. And the organ (and organists) will adapt.

Of course, this will go on in parallel existence with the established organ world that desires to preserve its literature and maintain its roots while seeking its own form of adaptation. Nevertheless, I wonder whether the fusion of new churches in old buildings will not be the greenhouse out of which the most fruitful future of the organ will eventually grow.

My hope is that, if this is the case, Coral Ridge can be uniquely poised to serve the broader church in this arena. We've been experimenting and thinking through what such fusion looks like (check out the first track on our upcoming EP, His Be the Victor's Name as a foretaste), and God is developing the team here to journey well on this course.


How One Worship Pastor Prepares for a Performance of Handel's Messiah

This Friday, at Coral Ridge, choirs from our church and and school (Westminster Academy) will join some of South Florida's finest soloists, some of the best players from Miami's musical scene, and organist Chelsea Chen to perform what will no doubt be a stellar interpretation of G. F. Handel's Messiah. They will be conducted by Renee Costanzo, director of the choral program at Westminster Academy.

The longer I dabble in this field of "Worship & Arts," the clearer sense I get of the kinds of things that go into being uniquely called as a worship leader who functions in a pastoral manner. One of my most viral posts ever was my comparison of the difference between a "lead musician" and a "worship pastor."...and for good reason. New and rising worship leaders are hungry for a model that transcends the relatively thin and non-lasting allure of rock-star-dom (just ask my friend, Stephen Miller). 

Our church's preparation of Handel's Messiah has given me a chance to stretch my wings when it comes to be what some call an "Arts Pastor," and here are three things I have learned and am attempting to do to be pastorally engaged in this moment.

1. A Worship Pastor Can Be a Cheerleader for Artists

When our choir director and choir began preparing for Messiah this Summer, I wanted part of my role to be supporter and encourager. Throughout the journey, I tried to send texts and emails as well as offer words of encouragement to everyone involved. As any artist knows, the emotional, physical, spiritual, and psychological labor and trauma that goes along with engaging, preparing, and presenting a piece of art is off the charts, and the last thing artists need is a whip-cracking dictator reminding them of deadlines and obligations. Part of my job was to attempt to be a pressure-valve operator, releasing angsty expanding gasses of stress with words of affirmation and encouragement. There have been moments along the journey where artists have been at near burn-out, and my job was at least in part to stand in the gap for them, help them solutionize creative ways to relieve their burdens, and even provide emergency-room-style moments of triage and respite.

2. A Worship Pastor Can Intercede for Artists and Encourage Them to Pray as Well

In quiet moments, when my thick skull was broken into by the Holy Spirit, I was reminded to pray for the artists involved and for the audience God would gather. It is so counter-intuitive to hard-working, do-more-try-harder, efficiency-addicted Americans like me to think that our chief work is the surprisingly passive activity of prayer. Yet releasing art-making and art-receiving into the hands of God is one of the most important things we can do.

At the same time, when we started on this journey, I reminded the choir that performing Handel's Messiah is oddly one of the most opportune moments to reach out to the city with the raw message of the gospel. When else would non-Christians voluntarily submit themselves to a barrage of musical meditations on pure Scriptural texts, hand-picked by the compiler to tell the story of Jesus throughout the whole Bible?  Then, as we were nearing the home stretch of the performance last week, I shot an email to the choir, again reminding them to pray. From personal experience, I know that it actually blesses the artists and the art-making when they themselves pray for all of that. Part of my job, when the artist is a Christian, is to remind them of this sacred joy of their art-making. It's a perennial problem for us artists that, in the frenzy and fervor of the process, we forget to pray and minimize its importance. The pastor in this moment graciously stands in that gap.

3. A Worship Pastor Can "Spiritually Curate" Artists' Work for Their Flock and City

Honestly, this has been the most exciting part of this process. I've chosen to do something for the performance which I think, though not unheard of, is quite unique. I've chosen to attempt to pastorally "curate," in a non-invasive kind of way, the experience of the art. It started, for me, with some research into Messiah--its context, origins, libretto, and composer--and then engaging in some consulting with people far more experienced than I am. Shortly after procuring Calvin Stapert's great book, Handel's Messiah: Comfort for God's People, I sat down for coffee and French pastries with two friends who live in this world of art- and theological-reflection far more than I--Dan Siedell, Art Historian and Residence at the King's College, NYC, and Jono Linebaugh, Professor of New Testament at Knox Seminary. My simple questions to them were along the lines of, "How do I make the listeners' experience of Messiah both purposeful for the mission of our church and honoring to the work of art?" Their insights were profound, yet simple. They encouraged me to not turn the experience into an intellectual and historical enterprise of "educating" the people about the piece. Instead, they advised me to do some simple things to help "aim" people's affections at both the intentions of Handel and his librettist (Charles Jennens) and our church's mission to "declare and demonstrate the liberating power of the gospel" so that the people would feel, through the art, the story of Jesus.

The fruit of this was to create simple "column notes" in our program which connected to various sections of the libretto, encouraging people with action verbs to "listen for," to "feel," to "hear," to "remember" various aspects of the piece's music as it connected with the text and their lives.  So, for example:


The repeated long notes followed by short notes were a Baroque device used to signify the pomp and splendor of a king. Hear His entrance, filled with glory and pain. The overture’s second half summons us to dance to its rhythms, giving a foretaste of the joy Christ will one day bring to His people.

CHORUS ("And He Shall Purify")

Following the ARIA, the CHORUS is relaxed in tempo and key. Hear how the “purification” is comforting, yet not without pain.

CHORUS ("Surely He Hath Borne")

Notice how the strings are rhythmic throughout the first section about our griefs and sorrows but contrastingly elongate with the voices in uncomfortable dissonances when the text speaks of His wounding and bruising. Pause over the injustice the Perfect One being punished for our imperfections.

The notes are meant to be simple, so that people don't tarry too long on them. They are a waymark, a pointer. They are intended to start people on the track so that they listen well with right intentions while not getting bogged down in "artistic analysis." In this way, I'm trying to "spiritually curate" the art. I have no doubt it could be better, but this is my broken attempt at being faithful to this call in this moment. 

The Hope in All of This

The hope in all of this is not for an "enhanced artistic experience." It is for people to do what I think the librettist and maybe Handel intended--to provoke awe at the story of the Baby for whom "nails, spear shall pierce Him through, the cross be borne for me, for you." It is to promote (in the language of James K. A. Smith) the aiming of our affections toward the ends humanity was created for--adoration of the Son, to the Father, by the Spirit.