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Singer in the City
Image: Courtesy of Melanie Penn

Melanie Penn wasn’t entirely sure what she believed when she moved from Virginia to New York City in late 2000. She had been raised in a Christian home, but was “a bit of a lost soul” when she arrived in the Big Apple.

“I was very melancholy and victim to the ebbs and flows of my social life, circumstances, and my inner state,” she said. “I thought the remedy for my sad state of mind and heart would be hidden in the city, and somehow I would find it. I did not.”

At least not right away. A year later, she watched from the roof of her East Village apartment as the World Trade Center towers came crashing down. She thought, I have to get my life together. Things could end at any moment.

She ramped up her quest for answers by turning to the only church she knew of: Redeemer Presbyterian. After hearing several of Tim Keller’s sermons, something clicked. “I had a powerful experience with Jesus one Sunday. I rode the 2nd Avenue bus home and knew my life would never be the same. Remedy found.”

These days, Penn spreads word of the Remedy through her work at Redeemer, where she serves as creative and events director for City to City, Redeemer’s church-planting ministry, and through her art, as an independent singer-songwriter who recently released her second album, Hope Tonight, last spring.

Like her stellar 2010 debut, Wake Up Love, Penn’s new record is produced by Ben Shive (Andrew Peterson, Bebo Norman, JJ Heller). It’s light and airy, much like Penn’s pleasant soprano, and, as the title implies, relentlessly hopeful. The Phantom Tollbooth says it’s “simply enchanting,” naming it one of the best albums of the first half of 2014. CCM lauds its “inventive melodies,” and World says “the album glistens, echoes, and casts soul-deep shadows in all the right places.”

Theology is in full bloom on Hope Tonight, though it may seem to be merely budding. Pay attention closely, and you’ll hear it — softly, subtly, but surely. “All the songs are ‘Christian’ in some way,” Penn said. “I’ve never written a song with Jesus’s name in it. But all of my songs are about Jesus, and they are all for his name.”

Penn says it’s a mantra she has learned at Redeemer, from Keller.

“There’s no distinction between ‘Christian’ and ‘non-Christian’ art,” she said. “If art is true and beautiful, then it has to point to Christ himself. Art makes us thankful. Art shows us there is more to life. Art awakens the soul.”

Penn’s pastor, and her employer, has enjoyed watching her grow.

“Melanie has listened to what we say at Redeemer about Christian songwriting,” said Keller. “It is not always about overt Christian themes, but about giving a Christian perspective on all of life. This makes her not simply a part of the Christian music scene in the city, but a Christian who is part of the city’s music scene.”

And as part of the city’s church-planting scene, Penn aligns herself with Keller’s vision for congregation proliferation. In recent decades, there have been few better places for urban church growth than New York. Half of the city’s churches have been founded since 1978, according to a 2007 survey by the Values Research Institute and the New York City Leadership Center. (Tony Carnes, a CT reporter who has studied New York churches since the ’70s, says the city is “like a Silicon Valley of church-planting.”) And the pace isn’t slowing down.

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Singer in the City