In the last 12 years, Redeemer has planted 49 churches in NYC alone and 300 in 45 cities around the world. Penn, though not a church planter herself, loves being a part of it.
“New York is a wonderful place to start a church because there are so many people,” she said. “The city kind of reduces you to nothing, and destroys any sense of privacy or stability you may have enjoyed somewhere else. Cities make you question. Cities make you desperate. That is a beautiful thing, actually, and drives many to look for a church home.”
Penn described church planting as a team effort, while songwriting — at least for her — is more solitary work. But for both, “pain tells you what’s not working. With church planting, like any entrepreneurial endeavor (songwriting included), there are pangs when one part of the effort needs to be tweaked. There can be pains of inefficiency, or of communication falling flat.”
“It’s similar with songwriting,” she said. “All hard work is painful on some level. When I need to work on a song more, there’s such a lack of peace that I am unable to relax or have any relief until it’s done.”
Christian songwriter Andrew Peterson, whose friend Shive produced Penn’s albums, believes her hard work is paying off.
“Her melodies are surprising and infectiously singable,” he says. “I also love that her songs are so guileless and whimsical. On the new record, there’s one called ‘Sun Song,’ which she wrote because she figured the sun deserved a song. As simple (and beautiful) as that.
“On her first record there’s an amazing song about the wind, and another about a star. Sometimes I feel like I’m out of song ideas, and Melanie reminds me to look around, pick something beautiful, and sing about it.”
Losing her voice, finding it again
Penn has been singing all her life. Her public debut came at age 6, singing “Once in Royal David’s City” in a Christmas Eve service. In sixth grade, she started voice lessons, and through high school and college, she was preparing for a career in opera.
She went to Indiana’s DePauw University on a vocal performance scholarship, but during her junior year, “my voice fell apart. I think the stress of being in a music conservatory, and the confusion of just growing, caused my throat to become so tense that I could not sing. I would walk into a practice room, open my mouth, and nothing would come out. Just silence. There was nothing technically wrong with my voice, but I was psychologically stressed, and the symptoms took hold in my throat.”
She couldn’t sing for about six months, “an eternity for a conservatory student. It was incredibly distressing, and during that time, any hope of a career in opera vanished.”
Penn’s voice ultimately returned — she credits two voice teachers for building it back, note by note — but her plans had changed. She might not end up at The Met, but she could give Broadway a shot. For almost nine years, she climbed the ladder, and even did some national tours. She played Sandy in Grease many times, sharing the stage with Frankie Avalon.