in the North Carolina Soil
Hymns From the Gathering Church
Listen to and download the album at
Reviewed by John Jay Alvaro.
The renewal of hymnody in non-traditional churches is both exciting and disorienting. It seems like every week a new album of hymns is being released. Many of these albums filter the hymns through their local worship team. The latest offering from the Gathering Church is not that kind of hymns album.
This is an album of collisions. The musician line up is a who’s-who of local North Carolina artists. The songs themselves come from the worshipping community at the Gathering Church, an interdenominational church plant in Durham/Chapel Hill, who meets at a local elementary school. Many of the singers are not members of the church.
A record such as this, with a rotating cast of musicians, can seem disparate: randomness smashed together. Yet somehow the center holds. If there is an organizing principle, it is Jeff Crawford, the Music Director of the church. He negotiates the space between the local musicians and the local worshipping community. He bookends the album, leading an ensemble in “Church in the Wildwood”, and ending with the “Doxology,” with which the Gathering Church ends each of their worship services. In the middle is the evidence of friendships cultivated between Crawford and these local NC musicians.
The album stays grounded and consistent within this larger narrative of friendship. And maybe that is the point of these old hymns. They get inside of you and bind you to a shared story. They stick to your tongue and to your heart, moving seamlessly from porch to pew to elementary school gym.
I cannot decide who exactly is the giver and receiver with this album. Has the Gathering Church gifted these local musicians with its music, inviting them into a larger story of Jesus and Church? Or maybe it is the musicians, not explicit members of the worshipping community, who are the generous ones.
These old songs are their interpretation of the Church’s story, re-set in a decidedly local voice. If friendship is the narrative arc, then locality is the setting for the story to be told. The songs evidence a sense of place and time. In a culture of displacement and isolation, Hymns from the Gathering Church creates the space for another type of experience. For a church who meets in a cafa-gym-atorium, this album roots their community of worshippers firmly in the North Carolina soil. The songs let the singers join in the the larger singing community throughout time, collapsing the “little brown church in the vale” into the Gathering Church. And all of this is facilitated by local artists operating outside of the church proper. These hymns grow wild in their care, and are offered back to the the church in a new form. They are onto something. We might do well to pay attention.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
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This is a great album, though I have to admit that nostalgia for my own little brown church in the vale might have something to do with that. Thanks for sharing it.