Sounds like … an amalgam of congregational and radio-friendly worship choruses sung by some of the biggest names in Christian and worship music.
At a glance … though musically on par with most meat-and-potatoes worship music, CompassionArt is groundbreaking for its approach, logistics, and charitable intentions.
The inextricable bond between religion and social justice is as old as James' charge to visit the fatherless and the widows while keeping oneself undefiled from the world. Of late, more and more artists, especially worship leaders, are embracing that challenge, creating songs that not only encourage believers to reach upwards, but outwards, too—to the outcasts, the downtrodden, the least of these.
CompassionArt: Creating Freedom from Poverty is easily the most ambitious, sprawling initiative to arise out of that desire to date. It all began when Delirious frontman Martin Smith couldn't reconcile his comfortable Western lifestyle with that of the people he encountered in his worldwide travels—especially those too poor, too hungry, or too exploited to speak up.
And so CompassionArt, the charity, was born. The idea for the nonprofit appeared novel on paper but was logistically formidable. In a nutshell, the plan was to invite the biggest worship songwriters in CCM—including Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, Paul Baloche, Tim Hughes, Darlene Zschech—to a retreat and see what songs would spring from their collaborative efforts. Making the challenge even more difficult was the goal of giving 100 percent of the publishing royalties collected in the song's entire lifetime to charity. All of it.
Nothing quite like this has ever been done. There have been scores of charity singles, albums, and concerts to benefit those less fortunate, but it's unheard-of for a concerted chorus of artists, managers, publishers, and music administrators to forever relinquish their piece of the pie for an entire album—especially at a time when the music industry is tightening its belt more and more.
This collective act of generosity makes it difficult to review CompassionArt without risking sounding at least a bit cynical. But let's face it: the only way both the disc and the charity will go places is if these songs are picked up by churches and become the next "Here I Am to Worship" or "How Great Is Our God." (Airplay is nice, but it's nowhere near as lucrative as scoring a Sunday-morning smash.)
Martin and his co-laborers know this, so they took great pains to write songs that are sweeping in scope and congregational in spirit. The single "King of Wonders," for example, hits all the right buttons to become CompassionArt's most likely candidate to shoot up the radio charts and church set lists. Its soaring melody—carried with Brit-pop abandon by Redman, Hughes, and Hillsong United's Joel Houston—is to die for, even when the sentiments are familiar for the decade-old modern worship canon.
Many songs follow the same pattern: a strong melody coupled with a straightforward lyric. On more than one occasion, the words will touch on the social justice theme ("Friend of the Poor," "You Have Shown Us") and even make direct references to Africa and orphans, but thematically things are kept as accessible and immediate as possible.
That's not to say there aren't curveballs. For all its similarities to something Passion or Delirious might do, "Come to the Water" is given an ethnic flair thanks to the Watoto Children's Choir and adlibs from gospel superstar Kirk Franklin. It seems Franklin is only there for effect. Other than marquee value, it's unclear why he or tobyMac, with whom he trades microphones with in "Let It Glow," are included in a collection of worship songs.
Elsewhere, Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith offer up a lovely duet ("Highly Favoured") that ranks with other classic performances by the duo, while Israel Houghton turns in a high-powered gospel-funk number that recalls his work with Lakewood Church. But the most soulful and celebratory moment comes with "Fill My Cup," a marriage of Americana and gospel where handclaps, an upright piano, and lead vocals by Smith and CeCe Winans bring the house down, O Brother Where Art Thou-style.
CompassionArt has a tendency to sonically be all over the place, but it's pulled together by its charitable purpose. In practice, only a handful of these songs are true homeruns for congregational use, but then again, the church has always had the last word. As worship leaders look to these songs for their weekend services, let's hope they choose with their heart.
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