Singing for community

Just as back-up singers provide the real structure and strength of a song, the church can be that source of support for individual Christians.

By Amy Butler

My city must be one of the easiest cities in which to meet people. With all the power that gets thrown around here, networking events and happy hours are a regular part of life in this town. Which is a good thing, since most people here are transplants from other places and many leave support networks and family to come work here.

But one thing I’ve noticed is that, easy as it is to meet people here, it’s very difficult to make friends. 

I’m not talking about casual acquaintances; I’m talking about people you can call in the middle of the night when you’re sick and need a ride to the hospital. I’ve noticed that many of the people who come to be part of our church come seeking that very thing: a break from the lonely pace of life in a town where being a star is on everybody’s bucket list.

I was thinking about all of this a few weeks ago when I happened to see a documentary film called Twenty Feet From Stardom. The film is about back-up singers. You know, those people who stand behind the main superstar and sing all the stuff in the background. 

So much talent, it turns out, regularly stands behind stars like Mick Jagger and Sting and Elton John. And while people like me don’t generally know the names of those folks in the background, many of the singers featured in the film are powerhouse talents themselves. 

No offense to, say, Taylor Swift, but I’d even say many of them are considerably more talented than the stars they support.

I found the film fascinating. I learned, for example, that it’s really the sound of the back-up singers that makes the song. Some of the most familiar and hum-able parts of songs aren’t even sung by the artist whose name is on the song; it’s the back-up singers!

But most surprising to me was that many of the back-up singers really, really wanted to be back-up singers. Not stars. 

They sounded in some cases almost sorry for the stars — sorry their music becomes co-opted by the industry, sorry for the incredible pressure of fame, and sorry that they have to sing alone. Many of them talked about decisions they made to intentionally pursue careers singing back-up, not solo, because the beauty of the human voice is best heard and experienced when it’s joined with other voices.

This, in particular, shocked me. In an industry where so many people will do just about anything to be in the spotlight, here were people who intentionally chose the background because they think they are better doing what they do in a community of other people doing the same. 

In other words, we’re better together, as Jack Johnson (and his back-up singers) regularly remind us.

It sounds strange when you’re talking about the music industry, but it seems to me that we’ve known this for awhile over here at church. 

In fact, I think community is one of the best beautiful and subversive gifts that the church has to offer this lonely world. 

When we do it well, we are turning convention on its head, setting a new standard for success. Where once we were under the impression that being a stand-out is all that matters, we learn at church that success looks more like learning to live in messy relationship with others, joining our resources to heal the world, and allowing and supporting God’s transformational work in our own lives.

We learn all these things. And, also, we learn peoples’ cell phone numbers in case we need them in the middle of the night.

It seems like these days the church faces the reality of being less and less compelling to a mostly disinterested society, but by creating and nurturing healthy community we can breach that growing divide. And on our best days, we might even corner the market. 

Now if only I could convince some of those back-up singers to find community in the church choir. 

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.