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Inspirational stories behind Canyon Worship songs

Third of a series previewing Canyon Worship 2018, which will be available for $9.99 on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify and Shazam and in the Lope Shop on campus beginning Monday, Sept. 10.

By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau

Students in the Center for Worship Arts program at Grand Canyon University know all about the mysteries of writing … how sometimes the words just don’t want to come out and other times they flow like a raging river …

… Most important, they know what to do when inspiration makes the songwriting process a wild ride.

“I was walking back from a class, and the melody of the chorus popped in my head,” Aaron Bolton said. “I did what I always do – I popped open my voice memo. But then I was sitting in my room later, still struggling. College is definitely a struggle. There are times for me so often where I feel like everything’s falling apart. I was sitting there stressed about money, feeling not good, all these different things. So I started writing words down.

“I thought, ‘Wait a minute, I’m freaking out about what’s around me. But I’ve seen these giant mountains of things that were ahead of me that I thought could never move, never fall, I’ve seen them move before. I’ve seen situations that were dead that God raised back to life. People who were not saved and dead in their sin – me, all of us, everybody. God raises them back to life in these situations that we think are impossible.’”

Out of all that came his Canyon Worship 2018 song, “Witness.”

“My God does the impossible,” he said. “It says it over and over.”

Mallory Denson also was struggling when she wrote “You and I.”

“As a songwriter, you really get stuck in ruts sometimes,” she said. “I was writing so much music but not lyrics. It was late at night and I was struggling to come up with stuff, and the next morning I was just honestly praying about it. I had an idea of what I wanted to write about, and literally the next day, at midday, words just started flowing out and they wouldn’t stop. I wrote the song in 10 minutes, which is very surprising.”

Even more surprising was the topic her song addressed. More about that next as we dig deeper into the work of three more student artists on the album – Denson, junior Courtney Welker (whose song was performed by Denson) and Bolton.

“You and I” is about marriage, which Denson finds interesting since she isn’t dating anyone at the moment.

“It is about what I would like my marriage to look like,” she said. “The beginning of it focuses on the feelings you have when you meet that person, the middle of it says I can’t wait for that to happen, and then the end of it is just like, ‘This is God’s plan, your hand in mine.’

Mallory Denson

“Whoever hears it, they have that assumption, ‘Aw, they got married.’ It’s definitely storytelling.”

And why did she write that when she wasn’t in a relationship?

“Seriously, no reason at all. I listen to a lot of Josh Garrels – I think his genre inspired it a lot. But I have no idea why I’d write anything like that. It’s definitely not a corporate worship song. I would never lead this in a worship setting. It’s that raw folk sound. That’s the genre I listen to a lot of the time. It’s definitely a song you listen to on the radio, on a car ride.”

Denson graduated from GCU in April and is the Worship Pastor at Paradise Church in Phoenix. It was the first time one of her songs was chosen for Canyon Worship.

“I was kind of shocked,” she said. “I just felt it was ironic that the song that gets chosen is nothing like my writing style. It’s hard for me to write worship songs. A lot of what I write is R&B but more of a jazz taste. It’s very groovy.”

Welker, who made last year’s album with “Prodigal’s Lullaby,” wrote “Free Me” while she was at home for the summer in 2017. She was mesmerized by how it blossomed when co-producer Geoff Hunker started working on it and Denson sang it.

“I knew that I wanted someone else to sing it,” she said. “I heard Mallory singing at our student leader retreat when she was leading worship, and at one point she was singing a song that showcased how well she can sing.

Courtney Welker

“They took it from this simple piano and vocal melody that I had written to this really cool, guitar-based, dynamically grown song that Mallory sings super well. I got to sing some harmonies on it and Geoff added some harmonies on it, too. I’m really happy with how it turned out.”

The message of “Free Me” – to avoid complacency and man-made traditions – is just as important in today’s world as it was in the era it was borrowed from, when Christ walked the earth 2,000 years ago.

“I was struck by Matthew 15, where Jesus condemned the Pharisees for being stuck in their own traditions,” she said. “I’m a person of routine, so I was personally affected by that. I don’t call them traditions, but I have lots of habits that I excuse just because I’ve always done them.

“Even in the church, I think we have things we excuse because we’ve done them habitually, but that doesn’t mean that they’re right because we are not our standard of right and wrong – the Lord and His word is.

“I wrote the chorus just as a prayer to not be like the Pharisees, to not be stuck in tradition, and I saw that Jesus’ response to hurting people in the very next chapter was to have compassion on them. You can’t have compassion if you think you’re right and if you’re stuck in your own ways.”

The song changed her habits, too. Here’s one: She appreciates community more.

“People are there for a reason, and they’re not there just to say hi and bye, but to be honest with and to be there for you,” she said. “Habitually, there are people I just say hi to every week. But now I choose to seek out how I can be praying for them and to open the door to relationships – being willing to go deeper if the Lord opens the door to that instead of sticking with my own circle.”

Bolton’s “Witness” fits the mold of so much of Canyon Worship 2018 – it’s a corporate worship song.

“I think it’s really just like a declaration of who God is and a helpful way to remind myself, even personally, when I’m in those moments where I honestly don’t believe the things that I want to believe about God’s promises and what He says He’s going to do and who He is,” Bolton said. “I love the idea of singing over yourself of God’s promises and who He is – it gets you back to believing.”

Aaron Bolton

Like Denson, Bolton graduated in April and is working in the local church community – he leads worship at Gateway Church’s new Tempe campus and also fills in on its Scottsdale campus.

He’s from Spokane, Wash., but has spent all of the last four years – including summers – in Phoenix. And here’s the most impressive testament to his perseverance: His car didn’t have air conditioning a year ago.

The coolest aspect of the Worship Arts program, in his opinion, is that it is infiltrating the Valley and churches elsewhere with well-trained worship leaders. In the past, this wasn’t something you learned in college.

“The Worship Arts program is taking people who wouldn’t necessarily go to college because they used to think, ‘Oh, I just want to be a worship leader at my church. All the other worship leaders at my church don’t have degrees,’” he said.

“The way I think about it is, ‘How much more should people in the church be equipped and educated? We want the church to be excellent. We want the church to be the place that the world looks to to find God, to find, ‘What is my purpose in life?’”

Inspiration strikes again.

Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or rick.vacek@gcu.edu.


Related content:

GCU Today: Coming soon: Canyon Worship shines bright

GCU Today: Upbeat ‘Rhythm’ sets tone for Canyon Worship




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