Musicians and Congregation Worshiping Together
By Zoe S. Erler

Jaded, cynical, and road weary, Andy Zipf (pronounced “Ziff”) began slinking into the pew at Church of the Ascension, an Anglican parish in Arlington, Virginia. A traveling musician, Zipf had been on tour for the better part of a decade, frequenting church after church along the way, calling none his home. But the way this worship felt was different, refreshing.

“It was disorienting,” he admits, “but disorienting in such a good way; kind of like you’re looking at a picture for years and you think you see the entire image, and then someone turns it 180 degrees and you’re able to actually see clearly.”

As a former member of the house band for a large church, Zipf says that playing music in this setting had felt too much like a performance, as if the musicians were separate from the congregation. This discomfort, combined with his desire to make music that was more Indie rock-folk, led him to conclude that there was no suitable place for him to continue playing at church.

But 10 years later, when he observed what was happening at Ascension, under the pastoral oversight of Chuck Colson, Zipf experienced something new — musicians and the congregation worshipping in tandem, creating collective adoration in a folksier low-key vibe.

He and his wife, Miriam, liked it and stuck around. Several years later, Colson accepted a call to pastor Christ Church Presbyterian (PCA) in Jacksonville, Florida. As the church transitioned in Colson’s absence, Zipf offered his musical expertise to the worship team at Ascension as a part-time director of music.

Not long after coming to Christ Church, Zipf found himself not only directing music, but songwriting for the church again, this time for his new congregation.

“Maybe I can do this and not be crushed by my own ego and pride and cynicism of pop Christian music stuff,” he mused.

Fast forward to 2018. Zipf, Miriam, and their toddler son were living in a one-bedroom apartment, paying the bills, but with little margin. So when Zipf received a call from Colson inviting him to consider coming to Christ Church as a new full-time director of music and artist in residence, Zipf decided to pay a visit to Jacksonville, albeit timidly.

“I wasn’t, on paper, qualified to do any of this.”

But particularly after experiencing Sunday worship and the feelings the familiar feeling he had had when he first worshipped at Ascension, Zipf was convinced. He and Miriam loaded up their life and relocated to Jacksonville.

For the Church, By the Church

Not long after coming to Christ Church, Zipf found himself not only directing music, but songwriting for the church again, this time for his new congregation. Initiated by Colson, who had been working on lyrics on his own, the twosome began co-writing hymns, leading to the release of their first album in fall 2020 titled “Yellowhammer Hymns.” Their second album — “Yellowhammer Hymns: Safe from Harm” — hit digital platforms on August 13. Written during the deepest days of the pandemic and based on various psalms, the emphasis of this second collection of songs is seeking God from a place of weakness and personal poverty, explains Colson.

“We also sought to answer the anxieties, worry, and losses of this season with the strong medicine of Christian hope. Part of our strategy for addressing the moment was to get our eyes off the present and focus on the transcendent truths  of God’s victory in Jesus.”

For Zipf, this collaborative hymn-writing has contributed to his personal reorientation toward worship more broadly. When he writes music to play at a club, he realizes he is self-expressing. When writing for the church, he is writing for collective expression. And that leads the songwriter to ask himself certain questions: Can this song be easily taught to others? Can it be easily sung in this key?

“Safe from Harm” pulls in instrumentalists primarily from the congregation, musicians with various levels of expertise, including Colson’s 15-year-old son, Ware, who plays percussion. And while the first album was recorded in a smorgasbord of settings, including a bank vault, the second album was recorded entirely in Christ Church’s newly renovated sanctuary, which becomes, Zipf says, its own instrument that brings in a natural reverb.

“I had previously thought, ‘I can’t do what I do in church. There’s not a place for me, so I will continue to do what I do outside of a church.’”

Zipf is glad to have discovered that he was wrong.

Chord charts and the Spotify link are available at Image by Nathan Zipf.

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