Over the past few years, Fernando Ortega has risen to critical and popular prominence as a singer-songwriter of great depth and creativity. He is a storyteller, worship leader, artist and vocalist of unparalleled talent. He has been described by critics as gifted, engaging and refreshingly original.
Nominated for four Gospel Music Association Dove Awards in 2001, Ortega took home the prize for Inspirational Album of the Year for his critically acclaimed project Home. His latest project, Hymns of Worship, focuses on the grace and faithfulness of God in 11 hymn favorites-a beautiful bridge between the past and the present for worship-minded people of all ages.
Ortega gathers inspiration from his family's long tradition of artistic excellence, as he was born from a long line (eight generations) of New Mexican artisans, weavers and farmers. "My family settled in New Mexico some 300 years ago," he explains, "and has maintained nearly the same way of life until my grandfather's death in 1992. He lived to be 102, the father of eleven children.
Perhaps it is that inspiration that encourages the thoughtfulness with which Ortega approaches his songwriting. As a worship leader, he has established himself as a champion of the classic hymns of the church, insisting that our praise needs to "carefully balance experiential and theological reflection."
"Before say 1850 or so, the writers of church music were all theologians, and there was music specifically for the church and music that was not." Ortega notes. "It was separated that way. Now we have this idea of 'crossing over,' of reaching the lost. But the hymns were never meant for reaching the lost. And now pop culture has really taken over the whole scene. Church music has become very feeling-oriented. You see many worship songs where God is important insofar as He meets the person's needs--'I was lost, and you found me...' or 'You're my everything, you're my this, you're my that....'
" Because of pop culture, because we are in a lot of ways mushy, we want to find God on the whole 'Daddy' level. There are so many books written about Abba Daddy, and crawling up into Daddy's lap. I can't imagine any of the church fathers that I can think of talking in those terms. Although there is the acknowledgement that there is that aspect to God, it's sort of further down on the priority list of 'ways of thinking about God.' I believe it has to start with God as creator, as transcendent, as judge, and all these things. I just think there is a real need in pop culture to feel good about ourselves, and to feel good about who we are, and those kinds of things have really poisoned our church without us realizing it. They've really crept into the way we write songs."
Ortega's songwriting craft often weaves around a central story that appeals to listeners in the way it causes their own personal reflection and worship. "I think the goal with any song, short story or novel, is that it's all about observation-- to see things that are true of the human condition," Ortega shares. "I'm not very prolific at all, but I think my goal with any song is that the listener is able to hear it vividly enough that they can picture it in their own context or in their own place, and they make that song their own. I think that's one of the signs of a successful song."
"The first time I heard Fernando perform was in the context of a church service," says fellow artist Amy Grant. "I cannot remember a time when I was so instantly riveted by the kind of honesty, vulnerability and giftedness that I encountered that morning."
Indeed, it's difficult to imagine a more focused, careful performer. Ortega has emerged as one of the most articulate and gracious advocates of creative and spiritual renewal in Christian music. And his reputation has garnered him much respect as a worship leader from fellow artists within the contemporary Christian music industry.
Worship leader Michael Card echoes Grant's sentiment. "Fernando is a God-send to the church. His music reminds us that true worship is still the heart's response to God's Word. The Body of Christ is blessed by this brother."
Debra Akins is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Nashville, TN.