Discipling Your Worship Ensemble: Lessons from a Jazz Club

Most rehearsal time with our worship teams is spent on musical logistics. We may pray for each other and begin or end our rehearsal with a devotional, but how often do we apply biblical principles and spiritual lessons to the actual music making itself?

When I was in high school, I wanted to be a jazz musician. I spent an enormous amount of time listening to my dad’s Big Band-era records as well as the artists that I loved. I ended up working my way through school playing jazz and other gigs. But since I've been immersed in music of the church for the last 25 years, my attention to the jazz music world unfortunately waned. However, last Friday night some friends took my wife and me to a jazz club in St. Louis, Missouri, called Jazz at the Bistro. Something was rekindled in me that had lain dormant for years, but this time a reawakened musical interest came through the lens of some biblical insights and applications.

That night at the bistro we heard five incredible high school all-star students who had been trained through the Jazz St. Louis Education Program, and they were sharing the stage with headline artist Stephon Harris, a vibraphonist who plays with impeccable style and lightening speed.

The interplay and musical sensitivity between the young artists and Harris was thrilling. Throughout the evening, my mind continually bounced back and forth between my days as a jazz wannabe and what lessons I now wanted to share with the rhythm section at my church and my students at the seminary. Practical ideas and thoughts such as "less is more," and "listen to each other," and "you don’t need to play all the time," and "let’s work toward greater dynamic contrast," and "it doesn't need to be loud to be effective," were just a few of the more apparent phrases that surfaced in my mind. 

In fact, the jazzers on the stage in St. Louis did more listening than they did playing. When they were playing, they listened intently to each other. In between songs, the kindly Stephon Harris offered some gracious remarks about the young players and then made this statement:

Jazz is an art form of empathy. These players are not only being vulnerable with each other, they are obviously concerned with and attentive to each other. And if they can learn those relational skills by playing music together, think what can happen in the rest of their lives and in the world around them.

 I don't know anything about Stephon Harris's spiritual background or worldview, but at that moment I was ready to have someone say, "Let's turn to Colossians 3.”

As the Apostle Paul guides the reader back and forth between putting off the things of the flesh and putting on the characteristics of the Spirit, he lands on the following phrase just before he dives in to his musician language: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another…” (Col. 3:12). I wonder how much more I could be relating musical instruction to real-life circumstances that foster “otherness” in personal relationships?

In the past, I’ve tried to avoid “over-spiritualizing” musical concepts, but the longer I lead rehearsals, the more I’ve realized how perfect the musical environment is for sharing spiritual truths. There is no better place for discipleship than the music and worship ministry. Not only is the worship ensemble a perfect laboratory for “preferring others and serving them,” the melodies and lyrics to the songs we work on have a sticking power beyond the rehearsal. Our people take the melodies and the messages with them on the wings of music. And as we lead our rehearsals, we forge in the minds and hearts of our people the vital role of living and serving not by ourselves, but in community.

I can still see the young drummer in my mind on that stage in St. Louis. His eyes were riveted on the other players, and the look of joy never left his face.  

Joe Crider

Dr. Crider is the Executive Director of the Institute for Biblical Worship and a professor of Church Music and Worship in the Department of Biblical Worship at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY. He also serves as Worship Pastor at LaGrange Baptist Church in LaGrange, KY.