The beginning of high school was the time I truly started to take my faith seriously. Somehow I instinctively knew that music can have a profound way of shaping heart, mind, and soul, and I made the personal decision to begin listening solely to Christian music. I wouldn’t prescribe that direction for everyone (including my own children), but my immersion in faith-inspired music during those years was life-changing. It even led me on a path to serving God through Christian media for my entire career. The non-profit ministry I founded, UTR Media, cares deeply about authentic worship and honoring God through beautiful art.
When Worship Leader magazine contacted me to consider interviewing an artist on the theme of “the beauty of worship,” I knew the top artist on my list. Sara Groves has been a household name for lovers of thoughtful music for the better part of two decades. Several critics called her 2005 release Add To The Beauty the best album of that year. Since then, she keeps raising the bar of musical craftsmanship while also raising three children. She and husband Troy run “Art House North” in their hometown of St. Paul, MN – a place described as “creative community for the common good.” Sara’s album Abide With Me released in November 2017. It is her 13th career studio album, and was fittingly recorded inside Art House North, a 105 year old church in St. Paul, MN.
WORSHIP LEADER (WL): So many songs in your catalog share about the value of beauty in the Kingdom. Why do you think the concept of beauty has been so close to your heart?
SARA GROVES: Because I’m a lover, not a fighter! Ha ha! Like most of us, I run through cycles of belief and despair, and sometimes those things are concurrent, running right alongside each other. When I pay attention, I see that what calls me back to faith over and over again is beauty. Of course what I mean by beauty here is not just aesthetic. By beauty, I mean a summation of all of the things listed in Philippians 4 – noble, lovely, good, righteous, true things. A mentor once said to me that it is easy to stand around a hole and talk about the hole – how it got there, who is to blame for it, etc. It takes a different kind of frame of mind to look at the hole and ask, “What would I put there?” And then to set about filling it – this is the Kingdom life. The dream of God is the reconciliation of all things. If we see the Good News as minimum requirements to get into heaven, we will bear pragmatic, utilitarian fruit. But if we see that the Good News is an invitation into a partnership with God in the renewal of all things, that is a different motivation, and I think it bears good fruit.
WL: In what ways does beauty play an important role in your personal times of worship?
SARA: When I think on these things, or pay attention to noble pursuits, a lovely word of encouragement, a good thing God has made, my response is worship. And of course, these things are not just found in encouraging stories, but in stories of suffering as well, and in lament. When I worship in church or anywhere, I remember who God is. I remember that He is not like us and that he has good intentions for us, and for all things. Sometimes the beauty of that Kingdom promise is heartbreaking compared to our reality, and that calls for a lament. I guess in the way that I use it, the word beauty comes to mean all that is good about the first Garden and the final City, and anything we do in this life, by the grace of God, that echoes that.
WL: Much of your music is story based. Yet your latest release Abide With Me is a hymns album. Why was now the right time to go that direction?
SARA: My husband had wanted me to record an album of hymns for 15 years. I had always had other themes and thoughts on my mind, but this season, post-Floodplain, felt like the right time to sing about the friendship that God is extending to us. The record Floodplain was about my journey with depression, and these songs were boats to me in that underwater place. I prayed like crazy to have relief from what I was feeling, and it did not resolve quickly, but in that time I did not feel the judgment of God. I felt his empathy, and I wanted to sing about that.
WL: How important do you feel it is for the Church today to not abandon the classic hymns of the faith?
SARA: I am a very emotional person, but not always very sentimental. I think sentimentality can cause a particular kind of blindness. In every era, there are songs that have lasted, and I think there must be a good reason for that – if a song is shared that many times, for that many years, it must be compelling! To me, there are good songs in every era, and they help us understand the character of God.
WL: What are some practical ways Christian songwriters can be more thoughtful about beauty in their work?
SARA: Well, it makes a difference if you are writing congregational songs to be sung by large groups, or if you are a troubadour writing a story/song. They both have a craft to them. The best songwriting advice I ever got was not to edit myself. Get it all down, and don’t shut things down before they have had time to develop. This advice has helped me come as close as I can to tell the truth.
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Dave Trout is the founder and president of UTR Media, a non-profit media ministry that produces podcasts, videos, albums, and articles that cultivate community around well-crafted, faith-inspired music. UTRmedia.org