Deckers Creek, an Appalachian tributary that runs through Morgantown, West Virginia, was once clean and clear. These days, it often has an orange hue.
“That’s the heavy metals leaching into the creeks and ground water,” said Zac Morton, a pastor at First Presbyterian Church, a nearby congregation of roughly 250. “It’s notorious as an acid mine tributary.”
In Appalachia, Morton says, addressing climate change and weaving the theme of environmental justice into liturgy reflects the experiences of his community. His church members live in an area littered with reminders and effects of exploitative land use, from higher rates of childhood asthma linked to coal-powered plants to poor water quality due to runoff from nearby mines.
“People here are dealing with the consequences of mismanagement and exploitation of the land,” he said.
The global church is entering the Season of Creation, observed from September 1 until October 4, the Feast of Francis of Assisi, patron saint of ecology. Millions of Christians from various traditions will focus on creation and stewardship, including in their musical worship.
Music that meditates on beauty and laments its destruction can be a call to action and an antidote for despair. New resources from The Porter’s Gate Worship Project—the album Climate Vigil Songs (released in July 2022) and an accompanying worship guide—aim to help congregations make time for exultation, lament, and action.
When creating the album, The Porter’s Gate artists initially struggled to find a sense of hope amid the news of extreme weather disasters and uncertainty for the future.
“The vibe was, ‘This is all so dark.’ Is this whole record just going to be a big downer?” said Isaac Wardell, director of The Porter’s Gate. But “we have the tools to resist a catastrophizing worldview. The reality is that God has the whole world in his hands, and the end will come when he is good and ready.”
“Lord Have Mercy,” a song of lament and confession, is confidently hopeful, set in rich harmony to piano and strings, with lyrics that plead for deliverance, teaching, and leading. The track evokes joy and the joyful rest found in God’s grace:
Lord, have mercy / Holy Spirit rest upon us / Teach us how to tend to creation / Holy Spirit rest upon us / Guide us from our path of destruction
“We are not beyond redemption; all hope is not lost,” writes Anna Robertson, who works for Catholic Climate Covenant, in the worship guide. “In the Book of Jonah, we encounter a God of mercy.”
The work of renewal and restoration is an important theme in Climate Vigil Songs. The artists also challenged themselves to craft music and lyrics that seemed capable of motivating and mobilizing believers.
“It’s easy to write joyful songs about how good creation is. We have songs like ‘All Creatures of Our God and King,’ ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful,’ ‘This is My Father’s World,’” said Wardell. “Nobody likes ‘message music.’”
And yet, they believe “message music”—songs that give instruction and a call to action—can have a place in worship.
“In the church, we have ‘sending songs’ to send us out into the world to share the Good News,” said Peter Fargo, who cofounded the organization Climate Vigil and partnered with The Porter’s Gate to produce Climate Vigil Songs.
“The Kingdom is Coming” is a “sending song.” It draws from the style of spirituals and work songs, lending a sense of determination and urgency to the Good News that “the kingdom is at hand,” while insisting on participation in the work that still needs to be done:
The kingdom is coming! We are praying for it
The kingdom is coming! We are waiting for it
The kingdom is coming! We are working for it
All creation groans!
The lyrics, “we are praying for it,” “we are waiting for it,” and “we are working for it” voice grace and admonition, a mandate to participate in God’s work while resting in the knowledge that God will work with or without us.
For Fargo, worship that both exults in the beauty of creation and laments its destruction is inherently a catalyst for action and change.
“When we put creation and destruction together, side by side,” said Fargo, “how can our hearts not break?”
In Fargo’s view, the good news to those facing bleak environmental forecasts is that all things are possible with God, even restoration of what has been lost or destroyed. And musical worship itself is an act of participation in God’s creation, in helping bring beauty to the earth.
“God invites us to participate in the song of all creation,” said Fargo. “There are frequencies, songs that we can hear and others we cannot. All creation sings God’s praises, and we do too.”
Churches and individuals looking for additional resources to guide creation or ecology-oriented worship this season have access to tools like the Liturgies of Restoration workbook by Liuan Huska, which helps readers examine habits and practices that can shape relationships with creation and the Creator.
In August of this year, the Church of Scotland released a series of “stilling videos,” visual meditations on the natural world, to be used in worship during the Season of Creation. The United Methodist Creation Justice Movement has published a series of suggested readings, hymns, and prayers to guide worship throughout the month.
Calvin University also has a curated a list of worship resources for creation care. Like Climate Vigil Songs, Calvin University’s list of hymns and songs includes selections for expressions of joy, lament, and action. The list includes classics like “All Things Bright and Beautiful” and contemporary pieces such as “Creation Sings the Father’s Song” by Keith and Kristen Getty and “O Rejoice in All Your Works” by Wendell Kimbrough.
In Morgantown, Morton has found that revisiting the creation accounts and the eschatological vision of the new heavens and new earth has helped him encourage others to participate in creation care.
“Some of our eschatological ideas say the world is expendable, it’s all going to burn,” said Morton. “But it’s about renewal. It’s about rivers.”
Images of rivers, clean and living water, permeate biblical prophecy and poetry. They are reminders of the world God created and intended humans to inherit.
“We’re supposed to be cultivating the earth and seeing it thrive,” said Morton.
During a five-week series on ecotheology in May 2022, Morton’s church sang songs about the beauty of creation and invited members of the congregation to write and share original music.
“We sang ‘God of the Sparrow,’” said Morton, “which sort of gives creation a voice.”
Like the tracks on Climate Vigil Songs, the lyrics of “God of the Sparrow” contain the beautiful, the sorrowful, and the “sending”:
God of the sparrow, God of the whale, God of the swirling stars
How does the creature say Awe? How does the creature say Praise?
God of the rainbow, God of the cross, God of the empty grave
How does the creature say Grace? How does the creature say Thanks?
God of the neighbor, God of the foe, God of the pruning hook
How does the creature say Love? How does the creature say Peace?
In this Season of Creation, hymns such as “This is My Father’s World,” “For the Beauty of the Earth,” and “Morning Has Broken” have new company in songs like “The Kingdom is Coming”; “Lord Have Mercy”; and the meditative opening track of Climate Vigil Songs, “God of Grace and Mystery,” which invites the worshiper to sit in wonder and smallness.
God of grace and mystery
From your fullness overflows
More than we can ever hold
Fill us with a melody
Rising up to greet the dawn
Joining in creation’s song, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy!’
Kelsey Kramer McGinnis is a musicologist, educator, and writer. She holds a PhD from the University of Iowa and researches music in Christian communities.