Isaac Wardell is the director of Bifrost Arts and the Director of Worship Arts at Trinity Charlottesville (PCA). He’s been involved in church music and church plants in Georgia, Tennessee, and New York. He studied at Covenant College. While serving in New York City he played and performed with the Welcome Wagon, and has produced two Sacred Music anthologies with various musicians under the Bifrost Arts banner (Come O Spirit! & Salvation is Created), with a third due out in April.
I got the chance to chat with Isaac about hymnody, worship, the psalms, what it means to be a contemporary musician serving the church, and the relationship between worship and obedience. Part One of the interview introduces the history of Bifrost Arts, hymnody and praise music. Scroll to the bottom to stream an exclusive preview of “Psalm 46” from the upcoming album. Part Two previews the April 22-24, 2013 conference taking place in Philadelphia titled “The Cry of the Poor.” Scroll to the bottom to stream an exclusive preview of “By His Wounds” from the upcoming album.
Hopeful Realism: What inspired the topic of the conference in April “The Cry of the Poor?” And how does it grow out of last year’s theme and content?
Isaac Wardell: This is really a “Part 2” from our last conference. I hope that the Liturgy, Music and Space (LMS) curriculum and conference will act as a framework for some of the future content that we’re generating. Some people came and used that curriculum and experienced it as being really revolutionary. It’s a pretty basic framework for trying to understand what the bible has to say about a way of approaching worship. But it’s not incredibly pragmatic, it’s the groundwork for churches to work out in their own congregations. We worked pretty hard when we edited to make it accessible and beneficial for a wide variety of churches. Out of that, there is a lot of work to be done and a lot of conversations to be had about the particular challenges of our time in worship. I hope over the next five to ten years that we will produce materials that are about all kinds of more specific worship questions. I’d love for us to have an entire conference and curriculum about children in worship, bilingual worship, church music programs fostering innovation in a Christian-cultural context where that’s been gone for so long…
The reason we decided on this particular one is because it was one of the most common and pronounced questions that emerged from our last conference. LMS just pricked the surface of this major worship question: obedience in worship. We opened the scriptures and talked about the relationship of our obedience and how God responds. Throughout the Old Testament: the Law, the Psalms, where God laments or is angry with his people… “because of the fact that you have not cared for the poor my wrath is on the people” [Ezekiel 22:29-31]. God says that he’s on the side of the poor. God says that he will deliver the poor from all kinds of oppression.
In the New Testament, you see the same convictions continuing. You hear Jesus saying, “I have come to preach good news to the poor, to break the bonds of oppression…” [Luke 4:18]. You see Jesus’s brother James when asked the question about what true religion is, he answers, “True religion is caring for widows and orphans and the distressed” [1:27]. You hear Jesus say “Blessed are the poor” [Luke 6:20]. You hear Jesus answer consistently, “How can I be faithful? How can I follow you?” He says, “Sell all you have and give to the poor’ [Matthew 19:21].
We look for all kinds of ways to make it into a metaphor, but these are the words coming out of Jesus’s mouth. People under forty have a category for that, but often dispel it: “Sure, God wants us to care for the poor, but I’m not sure what that has to do with worship.”
I have a lot of friends that are excited about justice and mercy and community action, and they think that people just don’t get it…what the bible’s really about. Because I’m a musician I also have this whole other set of friends that are excited about liturgy, hymnody, and aesthetics. There’s a whole different sort of self-righteousness going on there; “the purpose of missions is worship.” This topic is a place where we’ve put an incredibly unrighteous rift through what the bible actually has to say about things. We put these emphases in tension with one each other, but when you open up scripture you see that God talks about them together.
HR: How did you personally come to some of these conclusions?
IW: I took a personal challenge about a year ago to open up the Proverbs. I was seeking wisdom from this Wisdom literature. You open up the Proverbs and it’s just all of this stuff about economic injustice, the way you use your money, taking care of the poor. There are passages like Proverbs 21 where God says, “If you close your ear to the cry of the poor, you will call out to God and will not be answered.” You open Isaiah 58 and God is being sarcastic, ‘You’re all excited about your worship and your prayers and your fasts, but I’m not interested in all that. The fast that I’m interested in is your obedience. The worship that I want is your being obedient to break bonds of oppression and care for those in need.’ You actually see God receiving people’s worship based on their actions. It’s a really scary thing for evangelicals. We get really excited about this merciful God. And it’s true. But we don’t have a category for this God that says, ‘I’m not interested in your liturgy or worship practices because you’ve failed to be obedient to me.’
This is the can of worms that we opened at the previous conference. We began to ask: “What does that mean for the way we think about grace?” Within about 24 hours of the last conference we knew this would be the subject of this event. People were asking questions and I realized that I didn’t have a good answer.
HR: Tell us about the format of this year conference in Philly?
IW: This event will be two parts. This first is deeply theological, wrestling in our plenary sessions with Isaiah 58-61 (which takes us into the New Testament because Jesus began his public ministry by quoting and fulfilling Isaiah). We’ll ask this theological question: “what is the relationship between the way God receives our worship and our obedience to him?”
The second is very practical. Right now we have nine workshops about how to meet the needs of particular areas of poverty in our worship. The bible defines the poor as not just economically poor, but aliens, prisoners, widows and orphans, people with diseases and disabilities… We’ll have a workshop on serving families with disabilities and special needs in worship. One about not just the theological necessity but also actually the aesthetic possibilities of bilingual worship. There’s a workshop on prisoners and worship. One by a group in New Jersey that’s been facilitating an afterschool program for at-risk and abused children and teaching them to memorize the Psalms to voice their emotional experiences. And a workshop on appropriating these musical concepts into multicultural settings.
HR: You’ve put together a wonderful list of presenters. Who are you most excited about?
IW: We’re always so excited to have Greg Thompson with us. Greg’s here in Charlottesville. He’s a fellow with James Hunter at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and he’s also a minister. He delivered the summary plenary at the last conference: “The Order of Worship and the Order of Love.”
We’re really excited about John Witvliet. He’s the director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. John’s an amazing scholar on liturgics in general, having studied at Notre Dame, but his particular field of interest is the use of the Psalms in worship. He’ll be talking to us about the core convictions of the Psalms and what they shape us into being.
Personally, I’m excited about Frère Emmanuel from Taizé community. I have a romantic association with the community of Taizé having spent time there studying and praying. One of the core convictions of Taizé is the idea that God calls us to bring worship into the most broken political and social places of the world. Part of how Taizé was founded is that they had political refugees, prisoners, Jews, orphans, French people, and German soldiers who were being beaten and mocked as they made their way back home through the French countryside. They wanted to make a place of refuge where they could all worship together and develop a multilingual way of do it.
At times they’ve been controversial. They’re the only non-Catholic worship site to be worshiped at by a Catholic pope, and not only one but two different popes. They have an emphasis on quietness and meditative prayer. I’m excited about some of the amazing things they have to teach us about worship. Brother Emmanuel is coming over to do a workshop on what it means to bring prayer, silence and song into places of real social and political brokenness.
You can go online to see some of the other workshops.