Song Story: “Celebrate Jesus” by Gary Oliver
- Phil Christensen & Shari MacDonald Contributing Writers
- 2004 27 Oct
When Gary Oliver took the job as music director, he was still a child himself. That perhaps explains why, from his earliest days at Truth Church (originally First Pentecostal Church of Fort Worth, Texas), Gary has felt an affinity for children. Having grown up singing in church, young Gary felt natural stepping into a music ministry position. “I’ve been around the music part of ministry and played piano and organ in church since I was about 10 years old and sang in church for the first time when I was two. They stood me on a little folding chair and put the mic all the way down so I could sing. I’ve sung ever since.”
Gary started out as the associate music director at Truth Church when he was just 13. By the early 1980s, Gary was in his early 20s and serving as music director of the same church. One day, while preparing an Easter musical, the director of the children’s department approached Gary with a compelling problem. One shared by churches around the world. “She said to me, ‘I think that all of the songs about Easter are a little frightening and morbid to the kids. Most Easter songs are slow, and they talk about death and about Jesus dying on a cross. It’s all kind of weepy. I would love to have something that would help the children understand that we can celebrate his death, burial and resurrection.’”
As she spoke, Gary heard the words “Celebrate Jesus” in his head. “If you’ll give me 30 minutes,” Gary told her, ‘I’ll write you a song.” Gary, who had already written several praise and worship songs for the church, viewed the program from a child’s perspective. “I thought, ‘What are we trying to get them to understand? That we are celebrating Jesus’ resurrection. It wasn’t just that he died; it was that he died and rose.’ A lot of people die, but nobody else got up. I really wanted the children to understand that Easter celebrates Jesus and that the reason we celebrate Him is not just because He died but because He lives and He rose again.
“I sat down at the piano and sang the song the way I wrote it. I never fussed with the music. I never fussed with the lyrics. Literally the whole A and B part of that song came in less than 30 minutes.”
Later, Gary taught the song to the congregation’s youngest children—from toddlers up to age eight—who sang it on Easter morning near the end of the church’s Easter production. “I remember it like it was yesterday,” Gary says. “My eyes are watering thinking about it! The greatest joy of my life was seeing those kids clapping their hands and stomping their little feet, singing ‘Celebrate Jesus!’ at the top of their lungs.”
Gary says that the adults in church “just went nuts” when the children started singing the song. He turned around to find that 125-person adult choir had started spontaneously singing along with the kids. “I looked out over our audience and people were in the aisles, jumping and dancing and praising God, their hands up and glorifying God while we sang that song. It was a sweet, innocent moment. It was very childlike worship. There was no pretense. It wasn’t a religious, learned part of worship. People were liberated in their spirit because, if you think about it, when you come to Jesus, you have to come to Him as a child.”
Soon the entire 1200-plus member congregation was singing alone. “The amazing thing was, that song was supposed to have been just a little song at the end of the play. The kids had one scene left; I think it was the Ascension. We never finished the play. We sang that song for 45 minutes the first time I ever sang it. It was really amazing. We stopped the song and the place would rejoice, and it was just a roar of praise. The next thing you know, we were right back into it, and everybody was weeping.”
When that happened, Gary realized that there was something truly amazing about his little song. Soon, through no effort on his part, the song would be published—although not under Gary’s name at first. “It got published: ‘Author unknown,’” he says. “The song was recorded by Integrity Music, and they didn’t know who wrote it. They chased me down, and I think the song had been out probably six or eight months before they ever found me.”
It’s still a mystery to Gary how the song found its way to the publishers, although he suspects it may have been passed on by one of the itinerant evangelists or ministers who heard it sung at Truth Church. “I know that’s partly how it got out. I really don’t know how Integrity heard it.” “It was really, really interesting. That song went everywhere. It exploded. Even before it was recorded, it went everywhere and then, of course, with Integrity behind the song, it literally has gone all over the world. I’ve walked into churches in Stockholm and heart them sing it. I’ve walked into churches in Indonesia and heard them sing it. Every time, it makes me weep, and it makes me rejoice in the Lord to think that He would use this little East Texas country boy to write a song that would literally go all over the world. I’m very, very thankful.”
Although the song today is a popular favorite of both adults and children, Gary remains committed to the idea of putting spiritual truth into the language of the very young. “My whole premise for writing this song was to help children understand. If you were to come and sit in my church, you’d understand a little more why that means so much to me. The parishioners at our church tell me, ‘The thing we love is your depth of understanding of the Word of God, but you break it down so that a five-year-old can understand it.’ That’s very important to me because sometimes we just shoot over our children’s heads. Everything we do is for us when, really, everything we do should be for them.
“I’m trying to set my children in motion so that they don’t have the same battles and the same struggles that I did. They can have a deep understanding of the Word of God and understand His love for them and His mercy and grace toward them. So everything that we do is for the children, it’s for our youth. It’s for those coming after us, because when we leave, what are we going to leave behind?”
This truth is particularly important to Gary since the death of his teenage son in 199_. His middle child was killed instantly after an unlicensed peer drove the car in which he was riding into a tree. “We can’t change anything that’s already gone. That’s why Jesus said, ‘Let the dead bury the dead,’ which makes more sense to me today, after burying a 17-year-old than ever before in my life. This song has become even more important to me in the last couple of years.”
Despite the heartbreaking loss, Gary and his family remain committed to trusting in God—and to celebrating Jesus in the midst of their circumstances. “Eighty or 85 percent of marriages that go through the loss of a child end up in divorce. What could have been a devastating blow to our marriage has actually turned into a very painful beauty mark in our marriage. It’s made my wife and me very strong—strong in the Lord and strong with our family—and very committed to what we feel that God has called us to.
“It’s been very, very painful, but the focus has to be that God is always in control. In everything that the Enemy might mean for evil—that comes to destroy your life or your faith in God or your confidence—if you will not focus on the negative side of it, but focus on the positive effects of it, you can always see the hand of God.”
Excerpted with permission from Celebrate Jesus: The Stories Behind Your Favorite Praise and Worship Songsby Phil Christensen and Shari MacDonald, copyright 2003, Kregel Publishing, www.gospelcom.net/kregel