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Jazz Worship 101: Where do we begin?

question-markSo, you’ve decided that your worship needs a little changing, a bit of updating, something more contemporary in nature, liturgy with some oomph. You’ve been reading the experts on revitalizing ministry and worship—Brian Mclaren, Cameron Trimble, Molly Baskette and others, so you know there are lots of ideas and models for enhancing your worship life. Perhaps you’ve given thought to your church’s music program and have expressed gratitude for your music ministry leaders but feel there’s a creative energy lacking in the traditional organ-centered music of your congregation. Or your church has started a praise band—plenty of energy but the music seems a bit simplistic and the theology questionable. And now you’ve heard about jazz and wonder if it could be a viable option.

A number of years ago a pastor friend shared with me that he and the church’s worship leaders determined that music was the key element providing the thread to their worship service. They decided they needed to update their church’s music program and began researching various music forms and while they valued traditional hymnody, enjoyed some elements of praise music, and affirmed the meditative quality of Taize, they wanted something with more vitality. They seriously considered creating a service format based in Rock ‘n’ Roll but realized that musical intensity was created by increasing volume. Not desirable. “But then I spoke with a good friend who headed the university department of jazz,” he said. “He explained that jazz musicians did exactly the opposite. To increase intensity they turned inward to explore their inner expression and many times actually played softer, but with such intensity that it was compelling.” Another jazz musician friend of mine calls this “quiet fire.” More on quiet fire in a subsequent blog post.

So, in beginning a jazz ministry it’s important to connect with jazz musicians who understand their musical expression as a manifestation of their interior life. They may not be practicing Christians, but they should be deeply spiritual. Depending on how integrated you want the music to be in the liturgy will determine the number of musicians, the music performed and the extent to which the music inspires and leads the service.

A large New York City church has a weekly Sunday evening jazz vespers service, actually more of a jazz meditation. Some of the biggest names in jazz play the service and it’s truly a spirit-filled and inspiring time. But it’s fairly passive with little or no jazz hymnody. Another church I know has an occasional jazz service where the jazz musicians go the extra step—playing the hymns. But at the service I attended there was no sense of musical leadership to help support the singers, and the music performed wasn’t related thematically to the service. When they finished playing they sat down and nothing was ever mentioned about their presence from the pulpit. It was a sort of jazz plug in service.

So, the first thing to do is to make a choice—do you want the music be more of a jazz meditation (prelude, postlude, offertory, etc.) or do you want the musicians to provide musical continuity by accompanying the congregation in their singing. Both ways are valid, but whichever you choose it’s important to make sure that the music is integrated with the theme and the entire service a coordinated whole.

More next week,


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