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.

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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.

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