By Jeff Brumley
For centuries, Baptist and other churches have sought encounters with the divine through music. The quest has led to everything from organs and hymns to guitars, drum sets and praise bands.
Now there are those hoping the search leads churches to jazz, suggesting that the musical form is a natural fit in sanctuaries and other sacred settings. They contend that its spontaneity in some ways reflects the movement of the Holy Spirit.
Jazz, like God, offers worshipers a plan that leaves room for individual expression and experience.
“Jesus — God — sings a melody for us, but there is not one way to follow that melody,” says April Stace Vega, a former Baptist pastor who performs in Washington-based jazz and world fusion bands, often in church settings. “God actually likes a diversity of voices, so we don’t have to play exactly the same all the time.”
Healing through jazz
Jazz in church settings is nothing new. But proponents of its use in worship are speaking up — and getting some attention.
Duke Divinity School’s Faith & Leadership journal published an article earlier this month titled “Jazz belongs in church.”
It featured the pianist-pastor of a Presbyterian church in Pennsylvania who has held an annual communion service the Sunday before Labor Day for the past 23 years. It also reported that the jazz ministry will add four jazz vespers services as vehicles for music and healing.
The annual service has helped break through worshipers’ feelings of isolation by creating a sense of unity among church members and visitors, the article said. Moving into the jazz-healing vespers services is meant to expand that benefit into other areas, Pastor Bill Carter told the journal.
“The arts can touch or even heal some of us,” he said. “A jazz approach is going to say there is always more here than what is on the page, and maybe we haven’t found it yet.”
Church member Judy Cutler told Faith & Leadership she was uncertain about the jazz services at first, but then quickly came around.
“The music makes me feel closer to God, my faith and the people in my church,” Cutler told the journal.
‘Evokes wonder and joy and worship’
Others have needed no time to embrace the way jazz evokes experiences of the holy.
“I played sax in a jazz band in my younger years, and so I’ve got jazz in my blood,” Brian McLaren told ABPnews/Herald.
It’s an experience that has continued for McLaren, a Christian theologian, author and speaker also known for his leadership role in the Emergent Church movement.
“Because of the complexity and the unpredictability of jazz, it grabs and holds my attention in a unique way and yields both an emotional and intellectual satisfaction,” he says.
McLaren says he agrees with the comparison between jazz and the workings of the Spirit. It “integrates form and freedom” by combining required notes, chords and rhythms with space for improvisation.
“For musician and listener alike, the result is a kind of explosion of creativity that evokes wonder and joy and worship,” he said.
‘Putting Scripture to jazz melody’
That’s what a congregation and musicians experienced about five years ago when a monthly jazz vespers service was held at Convergence, Lisa Cole Smith says about the church and arts center in Alexandria, Va.
“They had drums, guitar, bass guitar, an electric harp,” says Smith, the pastor and artistic director at the Baptist-affiliated Convergence. “And they did some very cool things with jazz pieces — putting Scripture to jazz melody.”
The idea was to explore jazz as music for worship and meditation.
“I think the jazz genre probably lends itself to that because there’s the opportunity [for musicians] to create, in an organic way, music out of their experiences,” Smith says.
Smith says she’s seen the same effect created by improvisation exercises used for Bible study at Convergence. It offers the same kind of freedom-within-structure that is the backbone of jazz.
“Jazz is a healthy idea for churches because it allows musicians … to use the talents they are given and to have a voice themselves.”
‘Space to approach the sacred’
Jazz services also help the musicians, Vega says, by giving them venues where they can play in such a way that connects their musical with their spiritual lives.
And when they are able to do that, the congregation also will be able to do that, says Vega, who with her husband once worked at a McLaren church start in Maryland.
“The thing about jazz is, we always make the tie between the music and the spirituality.”
Participants also benefit from the natural pauses in jazz music, which reflect the pauses and silence in contemplative worship settings, Vega says.
The absence of lyrics in much of jazz, which makes some people uncomfortable in worship settings, actually contributes to the quality of spiritual listening.
In other forms of worship “you get the idea you can’t do anything with God without talking,” Vega says. “Jazz gives us real space to approach the sacred in a wordless manner.”