"If We Play It, Will They Come?"
by Michael L. Cobbler (September / October 1998 — Volume 14, Number 5)
Reflections on the relationship between outreach and music
Music has always been an integral part of worship. Whether the faithful are singing laments at funerals, singing a Bach cantata, singing praise songs, or "trading fours" with a jazz band on a hymn, music has been an important means by which people articulate and make manifest their love of God and allegiance to Jesus and one another.
Music has such an impact on worship life that we even tend to identify a congregation by the kind of music they use in worship. Sometimes we say, "First Church is a contemporary church," because they primarily use recently written hymns and praise songs in their worship services; or "Trinity is a white glove gospel church," because they do traditional gospel in a formalized setting.
In all this, however, we seldom examine if the type of music in this day and age is a driving factor in drawing people to, and keeping people in faith in Jesus Christ. Is music the reason they became a member of a particular congregation, or did music bring them to a commitment to faith in the first place?
Thirty years of being a performing musician and 20 years in the gospel ministry gives me no definitive answer, but I do have a few benchmarks I count as important which I will share.
I am certain that my own reflections on the relationships between music and outreach are largely influenced by my own somewhat unusual story of coming to faith. I was reared in the Church of Christ, Scientist and only attended Sunday School well into my teen years. So as far as music in church was concerned, I was occasionally exposed to an organ or soprano recital.
I was, of course, growing up in Brooklyn, New York, aware of the great African-American preachers and congregations, but compared to my upbringing, thought them and their churches to be too "loud and wild." (I have since changed my mind.)
In 1964, a friend of mine who played in a city-wide public school orchestra with me, asked me if I would be willing to play a trombone duet with him at his church. I immediately asked him, "How do you get away with playing your horn at church? That would never happen at my church."
He said, "I checked it out with my pastor and he said it was okay." The pastor was the Rev. Richard Bartley, and the congregation was Holy Redeemer Lutheran Church in the East New York section of Brooklyn.
Two weeks after he asked me, Billy Cobham and I were playing an arrangement of the main theme from "Finlandia" by Jean Sibelius for two trombones. There was probably something very profound and significant about two black teenagers playing music by a Finnish composer on their trombones, in that small, integrated Lutheran congregation in Brooklyn.
|Music is a magnet and not an anchor. Nothing takes the place of people sharing their stories so they can connect to the "old, old story."|
But, nevertheless, we were so pleased because, as we had reflected on it many years later, that congregation and its pastor let us do what we wanted, and they helped us do it right.
The "doing it right" concerned not merely the music or theology — that was the easy stuff. Doing it right concerned questions like, were we giving glory to God as opposed to our own gifts and abilities? Were we enriching the worship life of the congregation, or taking away from it? Was there a unifying factor in the music?
And as we got more involved with rock and jazz, we further asked, "How could the congregation be involved in this, and not simply listen?" and "Does it communicate the gospel to those present (and to those not yet here)?
These questions and conversations were always being lifted by some very gifted and Christ-centered disciples, such as Pastor Bartley, Pastor Lyle Guttu, Stephen Marston (who was our youth director), the Rev. Tom Boomershine (who was our organist), the Rev. Ronald MacLennan (who was a seminarian at the time), the Rev. Dr. James M. Capers (who was a lay associate at the time), and the Rev. Dr. John Garcia Gensel, who let us play a Jazz Vespers at the Old St. Peter's in Manhattan while we were still kids and was a dear friend and mentor in ministry.
There is little doubt in my mind that although the music was the magnet in that experience, it was the mentoring that kept a lot of us young people there at the time. The work and witness in music extended into drama, conflict management, reducing crime, working with street gangs, and most of all, building a community of faith.
Tribute to J. Gensel
Certainly, the work and witness of John Gensel is key to my understanding and appreciation of the relationship between music and outreach. Minister to the New York City jazz community for more than 30 years, he was truly "shepherd to the night flock."
Two things absolutely amazed me about John. First of all, though he was not a musician himself, he had the most important gift a musician could have — the ability to listen deeply and respond appropriately. He would go to the night clubs and listen to the music, and then he'd listen to the musicians! The musicians weren't expecting that, but that was his gift to them. That led to enduring relationships and faith commitments that have enriched us all.
The second thing was John's ability to get people to do things. That may sound a bit simple, but John knew how to get people involved in creative and affirming ways. I recall one time when he had a visitor from North Dakota read a lesson, having asked her to read about 15 minutes before the Jazz Vespers. He had her share a little bit about herself and the youth group she was with, and he introduced her with some of that information just before she read. She was so thrilled!
After introducing her, he then said, "Immediately following this lesson, Mike Cobbler will play the jazz tune that is mentioned in this text. I imagine you all didn't know that jazz is in the Bible!"
The lesson was in the second chapter of 1 Thessalonians, and John had said nothing to me ahead of time. Fortunately I was able to "pick up" the title of the tune in the text (it comes from verse nine) and play it, but it reminded me just how "jazz oriented" the St. Peter's Jazz Vespers was, because of John's leadership and influence.
It was the essence of jazz, where, as a friend of mine says, "You don't always know what's going to happen, but you always know what's going on!" In short, John Gensel was a master of invitation, hospitality, and getting people to use their gifts to the glory of God. Thanks be to God for his work and witness among us!
Will They Come?
While I have lifted up some important persons and examples in the relationship between music and outreach, I still need to answer the question "If we play it, will they come?" That is, can music be a magnet to a targeted people to draw them into a commitment to Jesus Christ and his church at your congregation?
Well, it can be done, but some prior understandings are useful to help make it effective.
(1) Know that any significant change in music is a change in the culture of the congregation. The culture of a congregation always has to be taken into account — its habits, what it counts as valuable, and how it understands itself. Consequently, when new music is introduced, it's good to know how people relate to and understand the old, familiar music.
Music plays such a significant role in the life of some congregations that the choir director is known as the "secretary of war." If you are to "mess" with that with an appeal to reach out to different people with different musical tastes, know what you're messing with.
(2) Know the culture you're in — make sure you have "dug deep" in that field. This may be stating the obvious, but actually a lot of types of music are in our congregational cultures — often more than we know.
I'm reminded of the story that Tex Sample tells of the man who did not appreciate the power of the hymn "Amazing Grace" until he sang it in worship to the tune of "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." Then he "got it!"
Recently I sang "Jesus, Name All Names Above" to the tune of "Secret Love." One of the "mothers" of the congregation sought me out and told me she didn't think the worship could "reach her" with a jazz standard, but that night she was reached. The music "dug deep" into a past she had almost forgotten about, and she appreciated that.
(3) When you try to do outreach through music, make sure people talk about what the music means to them, and not talk merely about the music itself (or its performance!).
Be in conversation with people about what the music means to them. People will sometimes mask what they are feeling by only talking about how well or badly the music was done, or talking about what other people thought.
Sometimes a type of music has negative connotations for a culture, and those realities have to be addressed. One member of a congregation which I served, who was solidly committed to outreach had adverse feelings about contemporary gospel music.
She once said to me, "Pastor, I left all that to come here, and now it's here!" It took some understanding of what that music meant to her to uncover her deeper feelings, which had little to do with gospel music.
(4) Be a mentor to and supporter of your musicians, liturgists, and worship planners. It is really not true that liturgists are terrorists with whom you cannot negotiate. At the same time, if the new music is out of their and the congregation's field of experience, then get help from someone who has experience, or have the worship planners get help.
I have sought out the help of many musicians, liturgists, and worship innovators over the years to find ways to reach people through music, and that has been a benefit to me and the congregations I have served.
Also, a willingness to learn and go outside of your own musical bounds is helpful. I presently work with an organist who is collaborating with jazz musicians on new settings and liturgies. She does not have to do this — she is well-established as a church musician and organist — but she wants to grow and learn new things. It is important to encourage musicians in these efforts.
(5) Planning and frequency are very important in anchoring the music into the culture of the congregation. While I have nothing against annual special music worship services, they are not to be understood as serious and substantial outreach opportunities. Congregations will often try this and expect too much.
In order for an outreach through music to have strength, it needs to be well-planned and done frequently. I have had the most success when the people who are to be reached are involved in the planning process.
(6) Most of all, build relationships, for while music is a powerful tool, it is only a tool. This may sound a little strange coming from a musician, but music is a magnet and not an anchor. Nothing takes the place of people sharing their stories so they can connect to the "old, old story."
The verse before the "Night and Day" text in the second chapter of 1 Thessalonians (that's the tune I played after the reading at the Jazz Vespers service, by the way) can be a guide: "So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us" (1 Thessalonians 2:8, NRSV).
When you care for those whom you wish to reach with the gospel through music, then those efforts will likely bear much fruit.
Michael L. Cobbler is an ELCA pastor on leave from call, presently serving as lead organizer of Toledoana United in Social Action (TUSA), a congregation-based community organization in Toledo, Ohio. He is also a performing musician (mostly on trombone) and has been a pastor in urban congregations for 20 years, initiating jazz and/or gospel liturgies.