Before we arrived in Northampton, it was clear to us that using the arts to express our being Jesus-followers was foundational. Because two of us on the team were experienced jazz players, we knew a means of connecting with Northampton to demonstrate the exquisite beauty, and creativity of God in his redemptive, Kingdom mission was to offer the music we love.
The jazz arts have unique expressive and improvisational potentials which can capture the depth of the Story framing our own stories. Jazz can communicate the pathos of the human condition because of sin and death, and shout the exquisite joy of forgiveness and freedom because of Christ's finished work. Jazz "paints" sonorously and rhythmically the colors of life related to the Giver of life. It's both "Guess Who I Saw Today" and "Freedom Jazz Dance."
We're not experts at this, but here's what we've done so far:
1. We use it in worship. When we started we formed a Worship Team comprised of jazz players and non-jazz players. We blended jazz harmonic and rhythmic sensibilities so that while we did some modified CCM, we also created original music and played jazz arrangements of hymns and traditional Christian songs. We experimented with grooves, forms and harmonic frameworks including modal forms. It was an experiment that stretched us all, some more than others. Some things worked and others not at all. The hybrid group we created required sensitivity, flexibility and generous dollops of Christian love.
2. We use it in the reflection time of our gathering. We begin with what we call Leave Aside where people are able to settle into worship, quietly letting go of worries, distractions and frustrations. During that time, guitar and a hand drum (Udu drum, doumbek or djembe) create a musical atmosphere conducive to letting go of anything which might emotionally impede being open to what God wants to do that morning. The music is jazz influenced harmonically and rhythmically, but fairly free. It is deliberating peaceful and calming. People talk after of sensing the presence of the Spirit. Sometimes there are tears.
3.Of late, we've used playing jazz as an opportunity to build relationships with people who are not Christian. We have a trio (guitar, bass and drums) where we rehearse weekly. After the rehearsal we take time to talk and often matters come up of what it means to follow Jesus. We can talk well after midnight. Some of those conversations were a part of our guitar player coming to Christ. We did not aim the rehearsal that way, God used it for his purposes. Being able to explore the music together created a wonderful atmosphere for addressing questions of faith and life. Our friend and new brother already had them, but the camaraderie we built in making the music established a place of trust and communitas.
We want to do more of this in that we don't disengage the enterprises of our daily lives (work, family, neighborhood, art-making, etc.,) from our primary identities as Jesus-followers on a 24/7 Kingdom mission. Therefore, the rehearsal room and the gig are not exempt from God's redemptive, subversive calling. Everything we do is a platform. We want people to realize we are Jesus-followers who can really play this music as well, The two aren't mutually exclusive.
We're also getting ready to be playing out in Northampton. That was one of our goals from the outset. Being new to church planting, we had much ground-laying to accomplish before we could begin to put a serious group together to play gigs here. We're in process now, but will soon do some performing with the goal of building relationships with musicians and other artists. We want to play well so there is musical integrity. We want to demonstrate humility so as to not create any barriers, but reveal a servant's heart. We want to bless the people in Northampton with well-crafted and played music, win a favorable hearing, and maybe get to have conversations that matter.
4. At Easter, we'll be hosting a city-wide event called FEAST. The idea grew from the Parable of the Banquet (Luke 14:12-24). We will be having a free, lavish feast for the poor, homeless, street musicians, shut-ins and needier working families. As part of the event, we've put together an ensemble and have the fortune of working with a singer to offer some familiar jazz standards they can recognize, and maybe even sing along with. It's not a concert, but a chance to expose folks to the idea of church and jazz. We also want to open them to the Gospel by building relationships of love and service. At the end of the day, we want them to feel served and they matter.
While we're not yet blazing any new trails pairing the jazz arts with Kingdom mission, we are establishing an identity as a "church into the arts" -- which for this town is important. We'd love to have festivals around the music, perhaps ignite the jazz playing in kids or street musicians down the road.
Ultimately, the point is Jesus and how we can make him known. Jazz can create community and teamwork, establish a healthy identity, build self-acceptance and confidence, create the ability to concentrate, listen and support, and open people to the transcendent, endlessly creative God whose idea jazz is. So we'll keep after its remarkable potential for connecting people with the astounding Gospel here in Northampton.