CityAlight is a fully volunteer-run music ministry of St Paul's Church in Sydney, Australia. They will be in Singapore on September 30 for a night of worship. Photo courtesy of CityAlight. 

In songwriting, what typically comes first: The lyrics or the melody?

This is the most common question posed to Australian band, CityAlight, which is behind hit worship songs, Yet Not I But Through Christ In Me and Jesus, Strong And Kind.

The answer is neither, according to CityAlight’s co-founder and songwriter, Richard Thompson. In fact, a City Alight song always starts from a theme centred on biblical truth, lyrics and melody meticulously built around it.

“It sounds really unromantic ­– just the way we like it,” he told Salt&Light with a chuckle.

Worship ministry gone global

CityAlight is the music ministry of St Paul’s Castle Hill, an Anglican church in Sydney, Australia.

“We ‘fill up the well’ before we start trying to write a song.”

When Rich and his counterpart, Jonny Robinson, joined the ministry in 2013, their intent was to provide “biblically-rich songs with simple melodies” that even other small churches would be able to use.

“Most churches are under-resourced in terms of musicians,” said Rich.

Neither of them had any inkling of the global reach and impact that CityAlight’s music would come to have.

What they did have, however, was clarity in the creation process.

A theme, once selected, kickstarts a time of in-depth learning, study and discussion that informs the trajectory and lyrics of the song. Like examining a diamond from different angles, each song is multi-dimensional, addressing various facets of the theme in the “robust” lyrics, Rich shared. 

CityAlight is the music ministry of St Paul’s Castle Hill in Sydney, Australia. Songwriters Jonny Robinson and Richard Thompson decided on the name in 2013 when they joined the ministry. Photo via CityAlight on Facebook.

The team works to fit those lyrics into new melodies inspired by old hymns. The song then goes through several iterations of tweaks and sometimes rewrites, overseen by a five-man panel before it even gets to recording stage.

“Someone just scratching away lyrics in a journal as an outpouring of emotion? That’s not how we run!” said Rich.

Rich Thompson (second from left) with the team of CityAlight songwriters. Photo via CityAlight on Facebook.

It is an overflow of a different sort, he mused. “We ‘fill up the well’ before we start trying to write the song.”

Yet Not I But Through Christ In Me took 12 weeks to write. 

It was inspired by a sermon in church describing Paul’s labour for Christ, even as Christ’s power works within him (Colossians 1:29).

Rich remembers walking up to Jonny after the sermon, saying: “What do you reckon it means? How’s that for the Christian and the Church today – to say that we labour in rest? That it is not us, but Christ who works in us?”

Rich Thompson (extreme right) with the current team at CityAlight. Photo courtesy of Richard Thompson.

That sermon inspired their thesis statement, which eventually became the title of the song.

“And that’s where we started: Christ, the One working in us.”

Heavy-laden lyrics 

But what would that look like in times of difficulty and darkness?

“Turn the diamond. What is it about Jesus that is precious during those times?”

“It is in the midst of Paul’s labouring on in weakness that Christ really comes through. So, we were saying: Turn the diamond. What is it about Jesus that is precious during those times?

“That was a real wrestle,” Rich recalled. At that time, Rich was struggling with his mental health while several friends in his Bible study group were going through other difficulties.

A few years earlier, he had co-founded an advertising agency, CadenceMedia, and as his business grew, the rising anxiety led to insomnia.

“There was just this weight,” he said. “It was part of my journey and growth of learning that, no, this is not mine to carry – it is the Lord’s. But those nights were very long and very dark.”

The CityAlight team after this year’s “Sing!” Getty Worship Music conference in the United States. Photo courtesy of Richard Thompson.

But while writing and “filling up the well”, Rich gleaned new insight from Psalm 23 during a Bible study session.

He’d always read the phrases “green pastures” and “quiet waters” (Psalm 23:2) separately from the “valley of the shadow of death” mentioned in Psalm 23:4 – truths that he’d seen as independent of each other.

He suddenly realised: These sentences are coupled together!

“It was extraordinarily wonderful to know that it wasn’t some sort of weird accident that I was in the valley.”

The night is dark but I am not forsaken
For by my side, the Saviour He will stay
I labour on in weakness and rejoicing
For in my need, His power is displayed

To this I hold, my Shepherd will defend me
Through the deepest valley, He will lead
Oh, the night has been won, and I shall overcome
Yet not I, but through Christ in me

“It was extraordinarily wonderful to know that it wasn’t some sort of weird accident that I was in the valley. There was such peace – even without knowing how long I’m going to be in here or that I may never get out of it.

“For me, that was a big moment in this song.”

Emotional impact for the Kingdom

That process of study and analysis is a critical step given the lofty double-pronged objectives of each song set out by the team.

“We want to take concepts and Gospel truths, make them relatable and allow them to sink into people’s hearts.”

Not only do the songs need to be “singable” within a congregation where “you are singing to each other”, but each song also needs to be able to “go with you through the week as well”, Rich said.

“We want to take concepts and Gospel truths that Christians know, make them relatable and allow them to sink into people’s hearts.”

There’s nothing groundbreaking about what they do. Nor are they the coolest kid on the block, Rich said with a grin. But one thing that he prays over often is that God would bless and establish the work of their hands “insofar as it builds His Kingdom, and equips and encourages His Church”.

“And should it go any further than that, that God would shut it down,” he added without pause. “That’s been our prayer since day one, and we ask people to pray that with us.”

CityAlight will be coming to Singapore for one night of worship on Saturday, September 30. Tickets can be purchased here.

Look out for our upcoming CityAlight story on how Rich’s passion for songwriting and storytelling led to the Finding Ruby crime podcasts in partnership with International Justice Mission.


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About the author

Tan Huey Ying

Huey Ying is now an Assignments Editor at Salt&Light, having worked in finance, events management and aquatics industries. She usually has more questions than answers but is always happiest in the water, where she's learning what it means to "be still".