What is Bifrost Arts?
We are a musical collective whose continuing ambition is to challenge and equip worship leaders to make more creative, imaginative, and culturally valuable worship music. In essence, we want to help the church reimagine church music. And the means, being worship music of our own, is about demonstrating how different church music can be and how to resource churches with a better vocabulary.
It started with Joseph Pensak and me. Early on I’d ask fellow musicians (folks like Dave Bazan, Leigh Nash, Damien Jurado) to guest on a song or two, but lately it’s been more collaborative. The next project we’re working on will include Andrew Peterson, Audrey Assad, and Sandra McCracken among others.
What does bifrost mean?
Bifrost is the bridge that connects Heaven and Earth In Norse mythology. Not only do we see that imagery more fully in who Jesus is, but we also see it as a calling to be bridge builders from churches to communities. We want to see the church make beautiful cultural artifacts, but I am truly convinced that our current church aesthetic has been more of a barrier than a bridge. Unfortunately it’s often the case that people listen to popular Christian worship music and do not hear their deepest struggles and fears expressed in these songs. We’re very glad to be part of a new movement in the Christian church of pastors and writers working to change that.
Bifrost Arts has hosted national conferences about worship leading. How did that get started?
While we began this process by simply writing songs and making records, what we quickly found was that churches were eager to have deeper conversations about how their worship ministries could grow in depth and imagination. Joseph Pensak and I organized a tour up and down the East Coast where I would teach these new songs and he would teach a lesson on reclaiming beauty in worship. While the whole thing began in a very underground way, we very quickly realized that we needed to create an institutional space for these conversations to grow. That’s how we moved from making records into writing church worship curriculums and hosting educational events.
What is the biggest problem you see in church music today?
One of the most common conversations we have within the church is about the poverty of language used to describe worship, like “traditional” versus “contemporary” worship. We have a different set of vocabulary that we’ve been working with for the last several years. Rather than talk about worship as either “contemporary” or “traditional,” we’ve found it very useful to describe worship as being both “expressive” and “formative.” We can first affirm that worship is an emotionally expressive act; it pours out of our hearts with earnestness and passion. But, at the same time, the lyrics we sing and the choices we make in worship can also form our relationship with God. Each week in worship we’re expressing both the deepest longings of our hearts while also having those longings formed and shaped song after song. With this in mind, I think it’s really important for us to take a look at our song lyrics and worship practices and ask, “How are we forming our people? What are we forming them to love?”
Your latest record is called Lamentations. Why?
One of the things I’ve been asked about most regularly over the past few years is this subject of lament in worship. This is a subject that’s been getting more attention recently in evangelical circles. However, there are way more blog posts critiquing the absence of lament in worship than there are blog posts with new resources for churches looking to grow in that area.
As a student of hymnody, one of the things I learned was how classic hymns were written. While they might convey universal truths, you’ll just as often find they have a particular cultural context they’re addressing. For example, there’s an old British hymn from the early 19th century that uses language like, “He’ll cradle me when I die, my soul will fly up,” and “If I love Him when I die, he’ll take me home.” That language emerged because, during the Industrial Revolution in the late 1900’s, infant mortality was high. There was this pastoral problem, where children were coming up and asking where their friends were and pastors had to come up with appropriate language—like “Sally is now resting Jesus’ arms”—to answer them. The work of the church is always to respond to the particular cultural challenges of our times. If this is the case, that our greatest worship songs combine the great truths of the Scriptures with the particular pastoral challenges of our moment in time, I think it’s appropriate that our worship songs should not only speak of God’s glory and His fame, but also about topics like human trafficking, gender identify, global political violence, the disintegration of community, and a culture of loneliness and estrangement. This is what our neighbors are talking about, and it’s what our people are talking about six days a week, but many of us see worship as a place where our people can tune out the sorrows of the world. Jesus models for us what it looks like to enter the sorrows of the world, and so we hope to help the church to enter into those sorrows with the songs of this new record.
Isaac Wardell is currently the Director for Worship Arts at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia. Since its conception in 2007, Bifrost Arts has released four full-length records, hosted numerous national worship conferences, and built an internship program to equip future worship leaders.