Songs of the People… Capturing the Heart of a Church
Songs of the People… Capturing the Heart of a Church
by Michael E. Young
The songs grew from a single conversation, a shared vision.
Michael Neale had just arrived from Florida late last summer when he sat down with Pastor Jack Graham for a forward-looking conversation about the worship ministry at Prestonwood.
“I asked Pastor what God was putting on his heart. ‘Where do you want this to go?’ He wanted the music to be new. He really wanted to push us forward,” said Neale, Prestonwood’s lead worship pastor. “We were talking about new songs that lift up out of the stories of the people of Prestonwood, bringing the songs from the platform to the people so their songs are being sung.”
The resulting Songs of the People were exactly what Pastor Graham hoped they’d be—“songs birthed in the heart of this church.”
“We’d been talking about writing music here at Prestonwood for a while,” Pastor Graham said. “But when Michael came, that was his sweet spot.”
Songs of praise and thanksgiving have been part of the faith since the beginning. “One generation shall commend Your works to another, and shall declare Your mighty acts,” he said, quoting Psalm 145. “They shall pour forth the fame of Your abundant goodness and shall sing aloud of Your righteousness.”
Handing down those truths, generation to generation, is at the core of praise and worship and the focus of Songs of the People—music for the entire congregation of Prestonwood and many other churches as well, he said.
From that conversation, the songs began.
Praise and worship leaders and musicians began writing music that “really represents what God is doing among us,” Neale said. Over the months, friends joined in, and the collaborations among the 14 writers yielded more than 40 songs, “all representing this great narrative—the story of God unfolding before us.”
“We wanted to be a part of that because God is doing something extraordinary, right here, right now. Whether these songs are for here or will spill out to the world, that’s the Lord’s work,” he said.
In January, the writers spent a few days at the church writing and shaping the music for Songs of the People. Some, like Paul Baloche—“arguably one of the most influential worship leaders in the world,” Neale said—were old hands at this. But for others, it was all new, a revelation.
“When I came here (six years ago) I had a deep desire to write original songs for the church,” said Associate Pastor of Worship Jordan Grizzard, “but it really wasn’t part of the DNA then.
“But when they brought in Michael… that’s who he is.”
Associate Pastor of Worship Rick Briscoe knew the transition from impeccably performed songs of the faith to something new and different might hit a few bumps, but would forever change the way the church worships.
“The Lord has us moving toward breaking down the wall between the audience and the choir,” he said. “These songs come from our hearts.”
And it all began with a writers’ retreat.
Some on the team were tentative about presenting their songs—“It’s like you’re carrying your baby,” Grizzard said—and they wondered about the reception they’d receive.
Neale laid out the ground rules. In a collaborative project, there has to be give and take, he told them. Suggested changes are for the greater good. Critiques aren’t personal. And the process will improve the songs, all for God’s glory.
“You need to have the team’s best interests at heart, and you have to have a vulnerability, watching how God molds and shapes a song,” Grizzard said. “It’s incredible.”
By mid-May, the work reached its final form.
On a quiet Friday night in an otherwise empty Worship Center, the combined choirs of Prestonwood walked softly across the loft while members of the praise team, band and orchestra emerged from the back stage darkness for the final rehearsal for Songs of the People.
The next 24 hours would be the culmination of months of creativity and provide the soundtrack for a church in love with its Creator and Savior.
Stephen Miller, Associate Pastor of Worship at Prestonwood’s North Campus, sat down at the end of a pew before the rehearsal began and tried to succinctly define what Songs meant to him.
“I love it, I absolutely love it,” Miller said finally. “This is a great representation of Prestonwood: songs for our church sung by our church.”
But with the live recording just a day away and new songs added at the last minute, the writers, musicians and choirs waited nervously. Crews nudged cameras into position and photographers and videographers skittered between light and darkness, preparing to capture every moment.
Neale took his spot at the center of the stage, turned to face the musicians and singers and offered last-minute words of assurance to news that a couple of new songs had been added.
“So you have a few more things on your plate,” Neale said, his voice full of confidence. “Piece of cake.”
“Put your tray tables up and your seats in the upright position,” Briscoe advised because Songs of the People was about to soar into the stratosphere.
The next evening, members of the congregation flowed into the Worship Center like a rising tide, filling the lower tier and terrace, quietly waiting to join with the choirs and orchestra as a key part of this live recording—their voices, their songs.
The lights dimmed, stars appeared in the background and Neale began to speak, tracing the history of song and praise back to the beginning, from the rumble of mountains pushing skyward to the shifting sounds of water—softly falling rain and the crash-and-sigh of waves along the shore. That led to a brief history of Prestonwood, its growth, its faithfulness to God and His vision, its hard times and its revival under Pastor Graham’s leadership.
And then, like a sonic boom, music exploded through the Worship Center and the people rose as one, adding their voices to the assembled choirs, singing “Songs of the People” with all their hearts.
The songs came—joyful, reverent, exuberant, worshipful—punctuated by powerful stories from Prestonwood members and staff that mirrored the music to come.
Chase Sims, Minister to Young Singles, spoke of his battle with a brain tumor. That led to “Still My Soul Sings” and “Our Story, Our Song.”
Bahar, a Middle Eastern woman who came to Christ while working in the U.S., told how she can’t go home again, to her husband, her parents. That’s the price of her faith. And the songs that followed spoke of God’s comfort: “Grace So Marvelous” and “Waves of Grace.”
Minister to Adults Jason Snyder recounted a harrowing story from his last visit to Africa when a man armed with a heavy stick threatened to kill him if he continued praying. With the man still behind him, Snyder said he felt God’s assurance that he’d be protected, and he was. The man, whose threats hadn’t ceased, was suddenly quiet and Snyder’s prayer continued. That led to the song, “You Cover Me.”
The final story, from longtime Prestonwood members Keena and Daryl Pratt, centered on Daryl’s collapse while lunching with a friend. His heart stopped and he quickly turned blue from lack of oxygen as the restaurant manager frantically administered CPR. In the following weeks, Pratt’s condition teetered and then spiraled down. At one point, doctors told Keena that Daryl’s brain was wasn’t functioning properly. A short time later, it seemed he wouldn’t survive the night. He did, though, and the choir followed with “See You Again” and “Let the Redeemed.”
The finale, featuring multiple Dove Award winner Michael W. Smith, included the new song “We Are Alive”—one of the last-minute additions to Songs of the People.
“Michael had this idea,” Neale said, “and he brought it to me and producer Michael Farren and we all wrote it together,” finishing shortly before the final rehearsal.
It served as the exclamation point to an incredible evening of worship, leaving the choirs, musicians and the thousands in the crowd emotionally drained.
With the music over, the recording complete and its release to the world fast approaching, people might think these would be quiet days within the Music & Worship Ministry at Prestonwood. Not so.
Neale and his team are already planning the next writers retreat, anticipating a new batch of songs for Prestonwood and other churches around the globe.
Pastor Graham senses a particular need among Baptist and evangelical churches for songs that reflect the deep faith of those congregations and serve as a cross-generational bridge for worshippers from oldest to youngest.
“We don’t know where the Lord is going to take this, but we know we’re on the path to providing music for Prestonwood and other churches,” Pastor said.
“Songs of the People is something we pray will be part of the culture of the Church—a growing movement in the Church.”