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‘Sing No Empty Alleluias’

A collection of 50 hymns by New York City pastor Chris Shelton is published

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Chris Shelton is pictured during a recent livestream worship service at Broadway Presbyterian Church in New York City. (Screenshot)

LOUISVILLE — As one who is always hoping to have the right words at the right time, and the right feel in music at the right moment, the Rev. Chris Shelton says he is “almost neurotic” as a worship leader.

For many years the pastor of Broadway Presbyterian Church in New York City would turn to the hymnal, coming up empty on many occasions. So, he felt compelled to write the hymns he was looking for — like this one, which was first sung as a prayer following the November 2016 election:

Sing No Empty Alleluias

“Sing no empty alleluias. Sing no vapid songs of praise.

Sing instead the song of justice, let it roll through all our days:

God has called us to act justly; God has called us to be kind;

God has called us to be humble, loving all — heart, soul, and mind.”

In 2019, a friend of his and fellow composer, Paul Vasile, mentioned the Mennonite Church USA was open to receiving submissions for a new hymnal. Shelton sent a half-dozen to the hymnal search committee. He didn’t hear anything until he received an email from Adam Tice, asking if the Mennonites could use one of his hymns as a sampler for the new hymnal, “Voices Together.” In addition, Tice suggested that if Shelton had more hymn material, he could send them to GIA editor Randy Sensmeier.

“I sent 15 pieces which were warmly received by Randy,” Shelton said. “We exchanged notes and edits, but I didn’t hear anything for six months.”

And then an email arrived from Sensmeier which said, “Hey, sorry to be so long but we’d like to run a collection of your hymn texts for GIA Publications.”

The cover image for Chris Shelton’s collection of 50 hymns for GIA’s “Sing No Empty Alleluias.” (Contributed photo)

Shelton signed a contract in November 2019, just as COVID-19 was beginning to spread in Wuhan, China. He began working with Sensmeier and then Tice, who became hymn text editor for GIA, to bring “Sing No Empty Alleluias” to fruition.  GIA has been publishing one Shelton hymn at a time over the last year. Now all of Shelton’s 50 hymns can be purchased as one collection or individually.

“In many ways my creative outlet during the pandemic season was this work,” Shelton said. “It certainly was informed by this particular season. The church is called to sing in different ways at different times, singing about the living truth that we confess as followers of Jesus.”

The pandemic became a creative time not only for Shelton, but for the entire Broadway Presbyterian Church congregation. Always open to singing new hymns and experimenting, Shelton said, Broadway became a laboratory for thinking about how to worship together.

“It was extraordinary,” he said. “In our livestream worship services we tried to bridge the space between the home viewer and those of us in the sanctuary, which became more like a studio. We hosted worship from a dining room table.”

And while Shelton was working on “Sing No Empty Alleluias,” Broadway began renovations to its sanctuary space, preparing for when the church would reopen. On Sunday, July 18, in-person worshipers will see for the first time their renovated sanctuary, which has been reoriented into circular space, with fewer pews and a 24-foot labyrinth on the floor at the center of their worship space.

Broadway Presbyterian Church’s sanctuary renovation includes a new labyrinth on the floor, a worship feature Broadway will share within its interfaith community, and a circular arrangement of pews. (Photo by Chris Shelton)

“I’ve always been drawn to a worship environment where the community can see one another,” Shelton said. “The preacher and worship leaders will no longer be at the dominant position in the room. Our Reformed tradition tells us that together we are the community of Christ. We need one another to encounter the Spirit and discern the Word of God.”

For Shelton, a big step forward for recreating Broadway’s sanctuary space came when it hosted Scouting Sunday in 2019. One of the readers, a 10-year-old boy, had arrived before worship to practice his reading. As he stepped into the wooden pulpit, he saw the room lined with pews and shouted, “This court will come to order.”

“He saw our sanctuary as a hall of judgment,” Shelton said. “But we were the ones being indicted. Every child, every family, everyone who comes into our church should feel, not judgement, but a community of trust, kindness, engagement, and support. How many of our churches feel like courtrooms?”

Calling himself a “Presbyterian driven by worship content,” Shelton is aware that people will walk out of worship humming hymns rather than humming a sermon. They will go out into the world reflecting on the experience of community they have shared, Shelton said. For those reasons, a sense of experience on all levels is central.

“Personally, I have a theatre background. I thought I was going to be a theatre teacher,” he said. “I look at the art of worship in the same way I look at putting together a musical. The many parts of a musical should all be coherent — and carry the community through the experience. In the same way, the music, the space, the imagery we use in worship should convey a sense of who God is.”

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