All That Jazz

How one congregation improvises with music, but not the message

Is contemporary or traditional music more fitting for a church service? Minnetonka United Methodist Church in Minnetonka, Minn., may have found a unique answer to this question. For this church the answer is “neither.”

Instead, they’ve chosen jazz—obviously not the most cutting-edge of genres, yet not as archaic as 14th-century hymns—as a means to draw people of all ages and walks of life. It may seem a bit unorthodox at first glance, but Minnetonka UMC’s services are as inspiring and enlightening as any with more churchlike musical offerings.

“We were looking for a way to reach out to the community in a way that was different,” says pastor Ken Ehrman, who leads the ultra-casual, cabaret-style service. “That’s when we came up with the idea of jazz, which reaches people of all generations.

On a recent Sunday morning, for example, the professional jazz musicians who serve as the “worship band,” used “Just in Time,” Jule Styne’s song from the 1950s, to help illustrate points about the story of Lazarus. “God’s timing,“ explained Ehrman, who sees the service as a way for members to push themselves to recapture the excitement and sense of purpose of talking about faith with new people.

The idea was posed to the congregation as part of a challenge from United Methodist Minnesota Bishop Sally Dyck for members to get out of their comfort zones. On Sept. 9, 2007, the church began hosting the nontraditional services, which typically draw about 75 people but experienced a recent growth spurt after the Star Tribune, a large metro daily newspaper in the Twin Cities, ran a feature story about the venture.

The “jazz services” are held in the church’s fellowship hall, where pews are replaced with tables and the atmosphere is more coffee stains than stained-glass windows. The first notes sound out at 11:15 on Sunday mornings—purposely later than usual because many of the musicians stay up late on Saturday nights performing. That includes Fritz Sauer, a professional jazz trumpet player and retired United Methodist pastor who leads the five-piece Restoration Jazz Band each week. Ehrman, meanwhile, functions much like a frontman for any big band, keeping the patter lively and the service flowing.

The typical Sunday experience is marked by movement—everything from foot-tapping and hand-clapping to people getting up to retrieve a second cup of coffee and perhaps a muffin. Ehrman makes a point of providing directions to the restrooms. “After all, most of us just rent coffee,” he said during one service, drawing a hearty laugh from the congregation.

Beyond the musical unorthodoxy, however, the services provide most of the traditional church standards. Ehrman’s sermons more accurately resemble Bible studies, punctuated with immediate feedback from the parishioners. Scripture readings are done in “reader’s theatre” style. A basket is placed at the front of the gathering for those who wish to contribute.

It’s often difficult to find a way to stretch churchgoers in an upscale suburban setting such as Minnetonka, Ehrman said. And the task of helping these normally reserved and polite Minnesotans become open and outgoing individuals who practice “radical hospitality” is also a bit daunting. But as an outreach tool, so far the jazz approach seems to be working, as 20 percent of those attending each week are first-time visitors to the church.

“We look at the whole thing as an improvisational experience,” Ehrman says.

A journalist for more than 30 years, Paul Wahl writes and resides in Eden Prairie, Minn.

International missions is no longer an overseas venture—the world is in your backyard. Having trained leaders across the globe since the 1960s, Donna S. Thomas shares practical ways your church can reach its international neighbors in Faces in the Crowd.


Ministry Today Subscription Special - Subscribe to Ministry Today magazine today and get 12 issues (2 full years) plus Amplified Leadership, a free leadership book for only $24.

Order Life in the Spirit to actively grow your ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit. Your congregation will stay saturated in God's Word, learn to hear His voice, understand their purpose and calling and move into an active role in your ministry.

Your Turn

Comment Guidelines
  • Jentezen Franklin encourages church leaders to encourage their flocks to vote their values.

    Why We Must Count the Cost—and Vote

    There is a propaganda war that is raging in this country, and it is full of manipulation, lies, ...

  • Pastors, do you see anything familiar on this list?

    10 Habits You Should Think About Dropping

    If you recognize these patterns in yourself, take an inventory.

  • Life.Church is at it again with its ever-expanding free technology.

    Life.Church Open Network Launches to Further Equip Church Leaders

    Life.Church adds to a decade of generosity by expanding its free resources.

  • Have you ever had a cringe moment during your church announcements?

    The 7 Deadly Sins of Church Announcements

    Sometimes they just miss the mark, albeit unintentionally.

  • Start a Wildfire of Spiritual Growth in Your Church

    Start a Wildfire of Spiritual Growth in Your Church

    Watch how God can take one spark and turn it into a wildfire that impacts your ministry, your community and even future generations.

  • Peace is indeed attainable in this selfish world. Just look for it in the right place.

    Finding Peace in a Fallen and Selfish World

    You can have peace in this world. Just stop looking in the wrong places.

  • Praying for leaders

    Failing to Do This Can Spell Disaster for the Church

    And it has the potential to destroy many lives.

  • Church members argue

    12 Reasons Church Staff Conflict May Arise

    This is not unique, but among these there are some that seem more pervasive than others.

  • Some of these reasons for leaving the church are simply not plausible.

    7 Reasons People Leave Their Church During Crisis Times

    Some of the excuses are pretty extreme and, quite frankly, lazy.

Use Desktop Layout
Ministry Today Magazine — Serving and empowering church leaders