Songs and hymns that tell the truths of the gospel are a precious thing, so it’s not surprising that the music of the CityAlight team at St Paul’s, Castle Hill has struck a chord with Christians and congregations – not just here in Sydney, but across the world.
A new 11-track album, There Is One Gospel, has just been released, and as with previous work the songs have a solid biblical foundation, pointing those who sing them to Jesus as Saviour and Lord, and God as our mighty, rescuing father.
A few songs released over the past year or so have been included, such as “It was Finished Upon that Cross” and “This is the Day”. And although it’s been four years since the group’s last album, the writers of CityAlight took each song very seriously and weren’t about to rush the process.
“The writing process isn’t just sitting in a room and going for it – what comes first for us is the theme, or a topic,” says Rich Thompson, one of CityAlight’s founders and songwriters. “For the song ‘Your Will Be Done’, it began with the idea of God’s will rather than ours, and what that means, and what Jesus might have been feeling as he prayed that prayer in the garden.
“We go into writing a song with a mindset of curiosity. We listen to lots of sermons, read books, read through parts of Scripture – it’s filling up the well before we try and draw on it. And even prior to really starting with our melody or lyrics we essentially map out the journey of the song.”
Thompson explains that while, generally, people listen to a sermon once, perhaps twice if they really love it, it’s a very different situation with church songs, “so, consciously or unconsciously, we pick up a large chunk of our theology through music. We would certainly not be happy if our preachers were preparing their sermons glibly, or without proper thought, so we’ve got to take time to prepare our songs.”
It’s an even more interesting proposition given that none of the team work full-time on their music. Writing, recording and touring get squeezed into what are already very full lives.
“We like having day jobs and we think it brings a lot to the songwriting"
“It’s also one of the things that we see as a point of difference, if you will, in terms of our ministry.
“We’re trying not to make our livelihoods dependent on music because we don’t want to push out lots of songs and feel any financial pressure behind it.”
Just how busy they are is reflected in their schedule over the past couple of months, which has included a workshop in the US, the release of the album, and another trip to the US for the Sing Global conference, begun by Keith and Kristyn Getty in 2017 to encourage and equip musicians in theologically sound congregational worship.
CityAlight has also just released a duet with Nashville-based Christian artist Sandra McCracken called “In The Valley (Bless the Lord)”, which was written to coincide with the release of a new book by Canadian pastor Tim Challies about the sudden death of his son in 2020.
Says Thompson: “Sometimes [God] leads you through the valley, and it sucks, and it doesn’t feel like you’re ever going to get out. But in the valley he gives us his strength, his presence and he’s been through that valley himself. I don’t know what the purpose of being in the valley is – I may not even know this side of heaven – but there is, again, this great comfort in saying, ‘Your will be done’. It’s one of the most freeing things to pray. This is what I want but I know what you want is better, so your will be done, not mine.”
Thankful to God
One of the things that gives Thompson the greatest joy is hearing stories about the impact CityAlight songs are having in the lives of believers and congregations. “Honestly, we’re shaking our heads most days,” he says. “It’s unbelievable what God is doing though this. We sat down at the beginning and said, ‘This is what we want this thing to be’ and we didn’t ever dare to think we would have a global impact – especially in the Asian churches.
“One of my favourite stories is about a little church in a women’s prison in an Asian country, where the sound of ‘Yet Not I But Through Christ in Me’ was echoing down the halls from a Bible study.
“Another story is from a missionary working in a place where Christians are persecuted. Their group was singing ‘Only A Holy God’ really quietly, and there’s a line in there that says, ‘Who else can whisper and darkness trembles’... and I thought, far out, what we wrote in our living room is being sung in this really intense place, plus in congregations. We’re just deeply thankful to God.”
Thompson says that on the Sunday before CityAlight members left to attend the Sing conference he asked the congregation at Castle Hill to join them in an important prayer.
“It’s a prayer that we’ve been praying since day one,” he explains. “We’d recently been to this workshop conference, and [we were about to attend] the Sing conference with 10,000 or so people, where CityAlight was doing a bunch of stuff and being on the main stage and so on. And we just said to the church that we wanted to double down on this – to pray that God would bless the ministry insofar as it gives him glory and builds his kingdom and encourages his church. And if it becomes anything beyond that, that he would shut it down.
“There are a lot of temptations, and we just don’t want what we’re doing to be for anything other than the glory of God.”