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Christian Living

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Highlands Worship Offers Soundtrack for a Digital Prayer Experience

Kimberly Carr - Digital Media Producer

Lacking in powerhouse vocals which could easily snap listeners out of a contemplative mood, Highlands Worship’s new album “Prayers to the King” is a comforting choice for those overwhelming chaotic moments in life. Whether you are stuck in traffic, starting your morning, or drifting off to sleep, the tracks were written to offer both an escape from chaos and a path to prayer.

As effective as “Prayers to the King” is as a standalone work, its existence began with a greater purpose. Along with the album, the home church for Highlands Worship, Church of the Highlands, developed an app for individuals and churches, and they decided it needed a soundtrack.

Prayers to the King is produced and co-written by Chris Griffin, who is also one of the creative directors at Church of the Highlands in Birmingham. A standout addition to the collection is the work of Lynn DeShazo, legendary Hosanna! Music songwriter, who co-wrote nine of the songs on Prayers to the King.

Chris and Lynn spoke with me about the new album, the Pray First app, and how inspired lyrics can span generations.

Chris: An integral part of our church is twice a year we do a 21 days of prayer time. Every morning from 6:00 to 7:00 AM. we have worship, a short word from one of our pastors, and individual prayer. And then we come together for corporate prayer and that's been a pillar of our church for the last 20 years. At the front of the stage at each one of our campuses there's a prayer resource guide that includes most of the main prayers that are in the Bible, the Prayer of Jabez, the Tabernacle Prayer.

We wanted to digitize that, se we created an app. We wanted music for the app but it was going to require you to leave the app to go and sign into your Spotify or Apple music. Well, we said, why don't we create a project on an album that was specifically geared for your personal prayer time? Lynn has been a mentor to me for many years. I looked up to her when I was just a wee lad. She was an established writer with Integrity Music and has been for a long time. And so she graciously agreed to come into the project, into the writing fold of it.

I was reading about Church of the Highlands, and it feels like there's an attitude of invitation that extends to the music, like I can bring this whole album to my church and we could just hit the play button – very easy to integrate your music anywhere.

Chris: There was a very specific focus for this project. We write a lot of songs that are for congregational worship, songs you would sing on a Sunday. This project was more meditative and contemplative. I'm using the analogy of ‘worship white noise.’ You know, when you're ready to go to sleep at night and you're feeling anxious and you need something that just draws you close to the Lord and puts you in that peaceful state. We were very intentional with the production of this album. I mean, you'd laugh at the things - no drummer used an actual drum stick. We recorded with just brushes. And there were no, there were no picks used by the guitar player. The singers, when they would sing, we lowered the volume of sound down so low that there was never any belting of the vocal or a loud vocal – just very soft. The entire project was produced around this idea of creating a peaceful setting, a listening environment for people.

With the Pray First app seems to be trying to reach a new generation with a new type of media. And that's not easy to accomplish with an established church like yours.

Chris: There were several things that we were thinking about here. One is the one-year Bible app that is very popular and we thought an accompaniment would be a great idea. The other thought was just digitizing the prayer resources that our own church uses. The third thing that's really great about our church is we're not too concerned about having our name, likeness, or face on what we're doing. A good example of that is last year we came out with another app that's called the Serve Day app. It’s technology that if your church wants to do a day to go out and serve the communities, anyone can take this app and by location, they can say, well, if I had seven people here to help, you know, mow the grass or clean up the school or whatever.

So, we put the app out but we made it open source so that any church could take it, put their church's name on it, and then use it for their church. It's the same thought with the Pray First app. There is no Church of the Highlands logo or representation. Even the album itself does not have Highlands Worship on it. It's just the title of the album and the songs that are free to listen. The app has already had several hundred thousand downloads in the last week and a half. We're crossing over today a hundred thousand plays on the album and it doesn't release until tomorrow. And so it's been really a great resource for us.

Lynn, which song is lyrically most significant to you?

Lynn: Oh my goodness. I was afraid you were going to ask that question!

I will say there, there are a couple of highlights. One is the title cut ‘Prayer to the King,’ but the whole project is called Prayers to the king. Let me just tell you briefly that Chris has been the idea starter for all the songs on this project. That's how he brought ideas to the small team of writers. And so this is actually one where Chris found a public domain and drew some ideas from it. Then he let me take a look at it and I started writing on it. I used that as a springboard. You have to go from one era to another. There's kind of a certain archaicness that will come across if you just take it straight off the page, when it's 150 years old.

So we work with the theological ideas important to what we were doing were there, but I tell you, it's the chorus in the song that is still right here to me. This is my prayer to the King. He's worthy of glory. The best that I can bring, this is my prayer to the King, my life for his glory, my call and my creed, especially that little line right there, ‘my call and my creed,’ this is my prayer to the King. That resonates very deeply with me personally. And I was just so pleased to be able to direct the song that way.

It struck me that rather than title it ‘Prayers to the LORD,’ you chose KING. How important is it to use that terminology when you're describing Christ?

Lynn: Well, He is Lord. Yes, He is King. He's our great High Priest. We usually think about prayer in terms of Jesus’ priestly role, but he's King. And so it just struck me and seemed to work in this situation.

So Chris, when you have these lyrics come to you and your team, what happens next?

Chris: It's a lot of prayer. It's different from project to project. In this past year, I've really been trying to hone in on what is coming from the stage from our house - the pastor’s sermon. So I'm always just listening for little sentences, little phrases that are coming from the stage, either during a message or a sermon, or sometimes just a prayer. And I'm constantly making little notes in the journal. Sometimes those little notes will turn into a melody or an idea or phrase. I will try to take that and bring that to the larger group. And then you have someone that is such a theologian and so prolific that Lynn is, and she's so fast that a lot of times songs can then take shape very quickly.

The inspiration for this project and actually came very quickly. A lot of times you're striving to write a song or you're constantly searching, but this project was not one of those. It almost seemed like the Lord just kind of handed down the ideas and then put the team together. It was a lot of fun.

Lynn, as you're curating words from centuries ago, words like “bulwark” and “a mighty fortress” come to mind, how can we as artists and content creators translate these words so that they continue to reach the next generation in song and in written form?

Lynn: Ground yourself, ground yourself, ground yourself in the scriptures. Modern day translation is fine. But you know, it's got to start there because that's where the hymn writer started. That's where words like bulwark come out. In their day they started with a scripture and we must do the same – read Old and New Testaments. It's the same story from beginning to fulfillment in the new covenant. It's all connected. Don't be just a New Testament reader. The Psalms are so rich, the imagery is so good. In Isaiah, the imagery is phenomenal. A great song lyric has to paint an image, a picture. And the scripture is full of image and symbols, the body and the blood, the cross, the waters of baptism. Chris actually introduced an idea on this project ‘Into the water.’ And so it was a little unusual, I thought, for a prayer project, but again, the imagery of the waters of baptism became a part of the writing process for that song. So whether you use a word like bulwark or rock, fortress or high tower, the scriptures are so rich and our faith has to rest on Christ in us, the hope of glory, all that He's done for us. And we need to live by the words that are written there for us inspired by the Father.

Check out "Into the Water" below, and click here for more about the Pray First app!

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