The fact that this change has manifested itself so quickly, and has been accepted so seamlessly in the last ten years is somewhat surprising to Lance Winkler, director of contemporary worship at Church of the Resurrection, a large community serving approximately 2,000 people each Sunday in Leawood, Kansas. “People need to realize that this is a huge change, worship-wise, within the church. The last time church music has changed this much was in the 16th century, when Martin Luther moved church music from Latin into the vernacular.” For an institution that has sworn by the same musical forms for 400-500 years, such a radical change in worship styles is remarkable.
It’s an intriguing evolution, considering the church and rock n’ roll have not traditionally had the coziest of relationships. From the very beginning, as Elvis’ hips gyrated and the Beatles sent adolescent girls into fits of hysteria, religious traditionalists looked on with raised eyebrows. The new “race” music, full of fuzz-tinged electric guitars and driving drum patterns, flirted with sexuality and dissent. It was anti-establishment, and the church was the original establishment, resulting in a cultural war between zealous clergy members and rock n’ roll’s biggest icons – not to mention stacks upon stacks of charred vinyl.
|Matt Draeger works the sound amidst First Lutheran’s original pipe organs. In churches making the move from traditional forms of worship to more contemporary styles, this scene is not uncommon.
By 1966, with John Lennon’s famous declaration in an interview with The Evening Standard that the Beatles were, “more popular than Jesus now,” the battle lines were clearly drawn – even if the quote was taken out of context by American audiences. In Cleveland, the Reverend Thurman H. Babbs threatened to excommunicate any member of his congregation caught listening to Beatles albums, while Bob Larson, one of Christianity’s original converted rockers, put the finishing touches on his first book, 1967’s Rock and Roll: The Devil’s Diversion. In the book, Larson claimed, “Rock and roll is a part of this plan (Satan’s) to achieve a world-wide moral decay,” spending countless pages warning parents of the seductive powers of The Beat.
And while Larson’s words may now seem like pure scaremongering, rock n’ roll’s early image as a tool of the devil succeeded in keeping contemporary sounds out of the church for decades. Only after years of uninspiring music did congregations begin clamoring for harder-edged sounds on Sunday morning. According to Lance Winkler, “In the beginning, the term rock n’ roll didn’t really represent good things, but that stigma is pretty much gone today. As a result, the church feels like it can now bring in some of that music.”
The Economics of Worship
Ironically, it may now be the church that will save live music. As the numbers of paying gigs continues to drop – eroded by lessened community support and increased entertainment options for consumers – and the price of everything from guitar strings to gasoline continues to rise, professional musicians are finding themselves in an increasing painful pinch. Meanwhile, as ticket prices for concerts and festivals continue to skyrocket, people are staying home, giving record companies less incentive to find pioneering acts. Thomas F. Lee, President of the American Federation of Musicians, recently testified at a Senate Hearing on public performance rights, “People don’t realize that 99 percent of the people who make money from music are not household names. They are club acts, mid-tier and emerging artists, background musicians, orchestras, studio musicians and others who struggle to make ends meet.”
Meanwhile, as churches find themselves ministering to growing audiences – audiences who are now expecting presentations on par with popular mainstream productions – they are spending money to retain talented, professional musicians. According to Reid Greven, all of North Point’s band members could be considered at least semiprofessional, with almost all of them earning a significant amount of their income through music. Rehearsals run for three hours on Wednesdays and all of the musicians are paid for their services at the church – in addition to being well fed before practice and performances. “When you use professionals, you can anticipate a professional result, and you can demand more of them,” Reid says. “They can execute the music better, and what it really does is decrease the learning curve. They don’t have to go home and woodshed and reinvent the wheel. It’s already under their fingers.”
|A packed worship service at Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas. The church initially spent $400,000 on its sound system, but is now looking to upgrade.
For churches that have the wherewithal to hire and retain a full cadre of professional musicians, the benefits are obvious at each service. But even for churches that don’t have the means, the knowledge or even the desire to hire a band, professional musicians have turned into an indispensable part of the modern worship experience. A prime example of this can be found in the CrossTalk Praise Team, a group of pro-level players offering their services in the Atlanta area.
CrossTalk provides a variety of turn-key services to churches looking to incorporate contemporary sounds into their worship, from consulting with church leaders about the incorporation of music into services, all the way to leading weekly worship. When asked how churches request their services, bassist Doug McAlexander, a 28 year pro, explains, “Sometimes they just need supplemental musicians, including sound equipment. Sometimes they just want a worship leader. We’re just trying to meet the needs of the church, whatever they may be.”
Talking with Doug, you begin to understand how important the services of professionals are to modern religion. “People should not walk into a church and feel like they’re going back in time, stylistically or technically. People will not be drawn to sub par musicianship,” he says. It’s a mindset that is important to CrossTalk; Doug frequently discusses the need for “musical excellence” within the church, and it shows in the band’s composition. CrossTalk guitarist Britt Stein has been playing professionally since 1984; guitarist Russ Cooper is working well into his third decade of musicianship. All of CrossTalk’s members have worked in both studio and songwriting capacities.
When you’ve got professional musicians participating, you’re bound to encounter prolevel gear. Although many people might still picture church musicians playing on substandard, outdated equipment, that image has become inaccurate. Guitarists in the church are overwhelmingly gearheads – boutique is the new name of the game. Doug plays custom- made basses, in both the fretted and fretless variety, and claims 13 in his arsenal. He plays through a Thunder Funk bass head – “made by a guy named Dave Funk who worked on the space shuttle,” he excitedly tells me – and Euphonic Audio cabinets. You won’t find a low-end piece of equipment anywhere near his rig.
Likewise, Britt Stein plays through a Genz Benz Black Pearl head, run into an Avatar speaker cabinet filled with Celestions. His pedalboard is filled with a variety of pedals from names like Keeley, AnalogMan and Barber. “If I get something that I don’t like, it literally drives me crazy,” Britt confesses. “I think my ear changes from time to time, because I’ve been through a lot of drive pedals.” When asked if he encounters gearheads in his musical worklife, Steve Tomason of North Point says, “Absolutely. Even after playing clubs for years, I’ve never run into more gearheads than I have in the past eight years, playing in churches around the country.”