History of Hymns: “Seek Ye First”
By C. Michael Hawn
Seek Ye First
by Karen Lafferty
The United Methodist Hymnal, no. 405
But seek ye first the kingdom of God,
and his righteousness;
and all these things shall be added unto you (Matthew 6:33, KJV) .
Ask, and it shall be given you;
seek, and ye shall find;
knock, and it shall be opened unto you (Matthew 7:7, KJV) .
The influence of Scripture on congregational song is unmistakable. Sometimes a song makes a brief allusion to Scripture; sometimes a hymn paraphrases a passage of Scripture; sometimes entire sections are cited almost verbatim. It is in the latter category that this well known Scripture song falls – a direct quotation from two passages in the Gospel of Matthew.
Karen Lafferty’s “Seek Ye First” is an example of a devotional Scripture song at its best.
Lafferty was born in Alamagordo, New Mexico, in 1948. She received a bachelor of music education degree from Eastern New Mexico University in 1970. She became the worship leader and concert artist for Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California, in 1971.
The convergence of Lafferty’s nascent faith and musical calling converged with one of the fastest growing and influential congregations in the country. Calvary Chapel, which opened in Costa Mesa in 1965 with twenty-five members, has grown to include about 1,600 churches worldwide under the auspices of the Calvary Chapel Association, of which Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa serves as the “cathedral” church. According to some accounts, Calvary Chapel is one of the ten largest Protestant churches in the United States.
Lafferty explains her calling to music ministry in this citation from her website (http://www.musiciansformissions.com/KL/biography/):
“I’m grateful for Christian parents and the Baptist church where I took my first steps with Christ. I’m also grateful for relationship with a Christian friend who in 1970 helped me understand the glorious truth of walking daily with Jesus. I was working as a nightclub entertainer at the time and began to witness to people in the bars. As I grew in the Word and became active in my church, Calvary Chapel, in Costa Mesa, California, I felt a call from God on my life to ministry. What adventures the Lord has had for me since that time!”
Maranatha! Music, a major publisher in the field of contemporary Christian music, was an outgrowth of Calvary Chapel. Karen recorded four albums with Maranatha! and began receiving invitations to perform abroad. After completing missionary training in Holland with Youth With A Mission (YWAM), Karen founded Musicians for Missions International (MFMI) in 1981 as a part of YWAM in Amsterdam, Holland.
Lafferty says on her website,
“God has called me to be a ‘Musicianary’; to seek those places where others aren’t going and to disciple the national musicians, who can then reach their own nations. I believe there are other Christian musicians with that calling too. MFMI’s goal is to work with the local church to facilitate these musicians into ministry, especially missions.”
MFMI continues its ministry under the leadership of Karen Lafferty and its association with YWAM. See http://www.musiciansformissions.com. This site promotes a school for how to become a musicianary.
“Seek Ye First” (1971), Lafferty’s signature song, was written during her early years at Calvary Chapel, following a Bible study on Matthew 6:33. Its elegant and unpretentious melody reflects the text perfectly, which is taken verbatim from the King James Version. Carlton Young notes that this song became a standard of the “Jesus movement” of the post-Vietnam era. Music from this movement became absorbed into the early years of contemporary Christian music. The acoustic sounds and uncluttered harmonies are a perfect vehicle for a scriptural passage that stresses how our priorities as Christians should be ordered.
Published first in Praise 1 in 1971, the second stanza and the “Alleluia” descant were added in Songs for Celebration (1980). “Seek Ye First” has been included in almost every hymnal published in North America since 1980. It even found a place in more “liturgical” traditions such as the Episcopal Hymnal 1982.
Lafferty sings her signature song on a Marantha! WOW Worship recording that contains melodic variations not found in hymnals. In addition, it contains the following stanza:
Man shall not live by bread alone
But by every Word
That proceeds from the mouth of God
Allelu Alleluia. [Matthew 4:4]
Lafferty’s website provides a summary of the direction of her ministry for the last twenty years:
In 1995 after leading the first “School of Music in Missions” in Amsterdam, Karen felt she needed to return to the US to help her elderly parents. She relocated to Santa Fe, New Mexico and incorporated YWAM Santa Fe to be the new home of Musicians For Missions International. Although Karen has become very involved with local Santa Fe churches, her call to the nations remains strong. She is still a world traveling troubadour who loves to share the Love of Jesus through music.
A concert or seminar with Karen is filled with not only her varied musical styles from light rock to country to traditional hymns but is also an experience that takes you around the world with the songs and stories of the people and places that are on God’s heart. Her latest recording “Multitudes – The Sound of Many Nations”  is a reflection of her life’s work with musicians from many nations.
For a video of Karen Lafferty performing a song in a jazz-influenced style in 1978, see http://www.musiciansformissions.com/KL/journal/more.php?id=317_0_20_0.
C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor of Church Music, Perkins School of Theology, SMU.