Song Story: “Celebrate Jesus” by Gary Oliver
- Wednesday, October 27, 2004
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.”
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