Worship is often about music. Whether Reformed hymns or the psalmists’ harps, music has been an important part of our experience of the holy and the communal. Jazz is a popular musical form that some churches have found particularly suited for use by the church as a genre that speaks to modern needs. It is inherently multicultural: born of the black experience in America but played everywhere in the world. It is populist, extemporaneous, flexible, and can be predominately instrumental, leaving plenty of listening space for reflection.
First Reformed Church of Schenectady has held Jazz Vespers every Sunday at 5:00 p.m. for over a decade. It is an easygoing format that folks enjoy, and many people report it’s about as much church as they can stand.
The service is intentionally not liturgical in the normal sense and is mostly music. The musicians are professionals who set the theme for the day. The music is complemented with Scripture, poems, a bit of chat, and a longish prayer. Absent are hymns, creeds, or anything that is easy to disagree with.
Most of the folks that come to the service are not church members, and Jazz Vespers is not at all a feeder program that seeks to get people to the Sunday morning services or even to church membership. There are no bulletins, no ushers, no sermons, only a low-key basket by the door for donations. Usually someone shows up with some cheese and crackers.
“If the intent of the federal act is to experience community living, they need a community church”
The attendance varies dramatically from about 20 to 150 depending on who is playing and the weather. About once a month a bus from a local residence shows up with 20 or so enthusiastic older adults. No one has a tie on. A big part of the whole idea is a close relationship with the musicians who are moved by having folks listen to them so intently. The worship leader engages the musicians about their experiences and the music. Although Jazz Vespers is not designed to bring people into the church as members, six musicians and their families have ended up joining the “normal church.” Vespers sometimes has solo piano players, sometimes trios with drums and bass, and on a rare occasion, a larger ensemble. The musical selections are typically popular music, but often there will be a riff on a familiar hymn.
The term “vespers” generally means an evening prayer service and comes from the Latin word that simply means “evening.” It works in this context since, in the canonical hours that set services for much of Christendom, vespers is a simple evening service, mostly prayers without sacraments or sermons. It is one of the most ancient services of the Christian church and appeals to our need for a time of quiet at the end of a day. Jazz Vespers at First Reformed in Schenectady tries to meet that need for a space to decompress in a context of holiness even when listening to “Over the Rainbow.”
The capital region of New York is a great place to have this service because it has a jazz community and many talented musicians who are often attached to wonderful schools. Jazz Vespers was developed in New York City in the 1980s and successfully migrated to Philadelphia, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, St. Louis, and now, Schenectady. If you would like a sampling of the music and an idea of the setting, visit the website at 1streformed.com.
Bill Levering is senior pastor of First Reformed Church of Schenectady in Schenectady, New York.