The Porter’s Gate Worship Project is one of the rising number of songwriting retreats that combine scholars and artists and draw participants across denominations and faith traditions, life experiences, and generations to explore and craft songs around themes deserving wider recognition and greater resonance in our worshiping communities. Isaac Wardell (Bifrost Arts) spearheaded the projects, the first album centered on how vocation and work glorifies God, and the current release Neighbor Songs focuses on hospitality: welcoming the strangers and fashioning a community of worship where people are welcomed not for a day, but to stay. Wardell plans to hold similar Porter’s Gate gatherings over the next eight to ten years, resulting in at least six live worship recordings, each focused on a different biblical theme. Some of those speaking and writing into this album were emigrants. Wardell says, “We wanted to involve the people who are really dealing with the pressing questions and issues of our times. In many cases, we actually paired theologians and songwriters together in the songwriting process.” The songs have a traditional, folk, rootsy feel and because of the many joining in the creative process and singing possess a startling diversity (Josh Garrels, Audrey Assad, Casey J, Leslie Jordan (from All Sons & Daughters), Zach Bolen (of the band Citizens), Urban Doxology, Diana Gameros, Latifah Alattas, Lauren Goans, and Paul Zach, among others). This eclectic group capitalizes on their differences, pairing like and unlike voices together, varying the instrumentation throughout, and probing each and every line and space on the scale to create harmonies that ebb and flow, at the same time addressing the albums theme from every angle. The defining characteristic of this worship collective and this album is its diversity… and it’s unity.. Different ethnic, geographic and cultural influences flavor the songs, complementing the vocal nuances of each artist. But perhaps the real magic and testament to the fine musicianship of the group is the complete absence of moments that feel contrived.
The a cappella opener, “Blessed are the Merciful,” is a delight of harmonic synchronization that needs no accompaniment. As that track dissolves into the second, “Nothing to Fear,” Audrey Assad’s unmatched, pure, beautiful voice is like a warm blanket, wrapping around lyrics directly from Isaiah 43. the following track, “The Earth Shall Know,” featuring Casey J., Leslie Jordan, and Urban Doxology, is such a sonic departure. Reggae-inspired soul colors this declaration of unity: “Let us come on one accord / To lift up praises to our King …Every nation, tribe, creed and color / Put our differences aside / And let our Father be glorified.”
The subsequent tracks effectively express Neighbor Songs theme, with sometimes quirky and always inspired arrangements. One of the most stunning pairings is Josh Garrels and Casey J. on “Daughters of Zion.”
The scripturally-inspired lyrics that comprise the remaining tracks receive the same thoughtful treatment and production effort. The result is rare—profound theological truths, fascinating, captivating musical choices, and performances that come together in a manner that feels and sounds effortless. As natural as breathing, these worshipers offer truth, intention, and great wisdom that defies conventional and tradition respectfully, creatively, and effectively.