A collection of 50 hymns by New York City pastor Chris Shelton is published
December 14, 2021
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, 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.”
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 saw 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.
“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.”
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.”
Paul Seebeck, Communications Strategist, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Today’s Focus: “Voices Together” Hymnal
Let us join in prayer for:
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Let us pray
Dear God, we thank you for the gift of your Son, Jesus, who loves everyone in a special way. We pray that you give us the opportunity of doing the same to the people around us. Amen!