Reviving an archaic artform … creating distinctly excellent and challenging music … building a bridge across the worship wars—these are just a few of the things Isaac Wardell and Joseph Pensak set out to do when they created Bifrost Arts in 2007.
They’ve had much success in a short time. Bifrost recently completed a 27-stop tour across the country, drawing large crowds of hundreds in locales as diverse as Boston and Memphis. They’ve released two records featuring acclaimed musicians like Sufjan Stevens, Damien Jurado of Pedro the Lion, and Leigh Nash of Sixpence None the Richer, singing new hymns as well as traditional ones. And they might just be leading a movement in the Church toward congregational singing over worship-leaders-as-performers.
In the Beginning
Wardell, a Covenant College grad who now serves as the director of worship arts at Trinity Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Charlottesville, Va., was working as a worship leader at a Redeemer church plant in Brooklyn and playing in rock bands on the side when his friend, Joseph Pensak (a Reformed University Fellowship pastor at the University of Connecticut), challenged him to merge his two interests.
“I was squeamish about mixing the commercial side of Christian music with worship,” said Wardell. “In my mind, worship was separate, and I had been turned off by the fuzzy line between many Christian concerts and worship.”
It took an eclectic music festival in a synagogue on the lower east side of Manhattan to change his mind. Wardell and several friends hosted a sacred music festival there as an outreach event.
“There were Jewish Klezmer bands alongside Eastern Orthodox members chanting,” said Wardell. “It was transcendent.”
It was then that Pensak and Wardell realized they could provide resources to other churches seeking this unique blend of worship music, through materials like recorded music, scores, and songbooks.
This led to a whirlwind recording effort spanning 17 states. “I thought I’d ask a few friends to help out,” said Wardell. “And we ended up with 200 performers.”
Two albums emerged out of the process: Come O Spirit! and Salvation is Created, a Christmas record. Both reflect innovative, lyrical songwriting, an indie rock vibe, and artistic excellence—all hallmarks of Bifrost.
“We created Bifrost Arts to enrich the Church and engage the world with beauty and truth through music beautiful enough that non-Christians are attracted to it,” said Wardell. The name of the organization comes from Norse pagan mythology, meaning “a bridge connecting heaven and earth.”
“Bifrost wants to be that bridge,” says Wardell. “Bach said that music is the only art of heaven given to man, and the only art of earth taken to heaven. Singing together is one thing we know we’ll all be doing together forever.”
Reviving Congregational Singing
One thrust of Bifrost, and particularly its 27-stop tour, was to challenge the Church to return to congregational singing. With many caught in the worship wars of traditional vs. contemporary music styles, Wardell and Pensak envisioned a unseen third option—participatory hymn sings, in which the focus was on making music together. The tour allowed them to conduct the hymn sings in locations ranging from art galleries to bars to churches.
“I’d heard many people say, ‘Gosh, I’m so tired of the commercialization of music on one extreme and an archivist mentality of music on the other extreme,’” said Wardell. “So we envisioned this tour where just a few of us would take our banjo and upright bass to each stop, we’d recruit a few local musicians, and then we’d play hymns—unmiked—and pass out songbooks and teach the audience how to sing harmonies. It’s crazy, but the idea of people really getting together to sing has become a novel concept in today’s society.”
In fact, the pageantry and spectacle that accompanies much of modern worship music is just the thing that has killed congregational worship, according to Wardell.
“People aren’t really expected to participate anymore. As I led worship over the years, I would look out and see the apathy on people’s faces.”
It was this apathy that drove Wardell to create Bifrost. “There’s an instant community that forms when people join their voices together—and I think there are implications for how we view church as a result. Often, when you see a congregation truly listening to one another and responding to one another as they sing, you see interconnectedness in other ways too: the church body as a community, accountability among members, the church serving as a true anchor for members.”
Greg Thompson, Wardell’s pastor at Trinity PC in Charlottesville, agrees. “Isaac’s work is historically attuned, culturally engaged, and beautifully creative. And rather than tending toward show-stopping spectacle, it actually tends toward greater congregational engagement, which is to say, lots of people really, really singing. I have been amazed as I have seen everyone from children to Chinese students to Boomer conservatives gathered around not just the same table but around the same songs—and singing.”
Recontextualizing the Gospel, through Music
The response to this movement has been surprising. During its tour, Bifrost sold 2,500 records and gathered as many as 100 people at each stop. The Bifrost albums, more folk in sound than contemporary Christian, feature careful arrangements of both new hymns and old Christian poetry set to music.
“It’s funny that hymnody has become such an archaic artform,” said Wardell. “But there are actual rules to it: you write four-part harmonies, keeping in mind people’s vocal ranges, and you create melodies that are easy for people to pick up and learn quickly. It’s music created to encourage participation.”
That’s just what Bifrost seeks to do, even through its recordings. Though the albums can certainly be appreciated by casual listeners, they’re also constructed to be aids for congregational singing.
“We’re constantly recontextualizing the gospel,” said Wardell, “even in the way we write new songs.”
And that’s the goal of Bifrost: to create challenging, beautiful music that motivates churchgoers, particularly the young, to get excited about church music again.
“We want to offer a proposed solution to the worship wars rather than just saying we’re too cool for Christian music,” said Wardell. “Ultimately, there is not perfect worship style, but we can create a way of dialoging about worship to think of it in a kingdom way. The language of love is more powerful than the language of excellence.”