Churches Jazzing Up Rituals During Lent

Nearly four years ago, the Rev. Dr. Nancy Taylor of Boston pondered how Lenten services could take on a new form of intimacy and interest. Having witnessed how consensus building can mobilize a community — she had helped secure a minimum wage initiative for Idaho farm workers when she worked as a pastor there — Taylor spent countless hours huddling with her staff and chatting with her parishioners about how tradition can become more compatible with the modern world.

The response: On Maundy Thursday, prayers will not be the only thing wafting heavenward inside the sandstone arches of the Old South Church, a congregation affiliated with the United Church of Christ that was planted in 1669. The service will now include a cluster of jazzy vibes emitted by drums, bass, a saxophone and an alto mixed with the chancel choir and organ.

“In the pattern of the emergent church, we take ritual and deepen them; jazz them up,” said Taylor, senior pastor of the Old South Church. “We would still present Maundy Thursday as a sad time. But we are a congregation of an unabashed, confident faith.”

To bolster her point, Taylor said that the congregation will even sing a Duke Ellington piece, “Savior God Above.”

Taylor, who was trained at the Yale Divinity School, said that the different, “bluesy, jazzy feel” is attracting newcomers and keeping faithful parishioners invigorated by mixing reverence with relevance. Now the church averages nearly 200 worshipers on Maundy Thursday, up from approximately 60 in the past.

These days more and more churches are filling their pews by slightly shifting the tone of Lent from somberness to celebration, and recasting the message of suffering to conquering, in the face of a society that values a feel-good, carefree religiosity, exemplified by megachurches like Joel Osteen’s 40,000-member Lakewood Church in Houston.

From spiraling Flamenco rhythms on Good Friday to Jewish seders on Maundy Thursday to lush selections from the rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” on Palm Sunday, mainline ecclesial leaders have had to find creative ways to attract new worshippers and sustain the interest of their loyal flock during the season of Lent.

“We take traditional things and bend them because culture bends all things religion,” said the Rev. Dr. Jackie Lewis, the senior pastor of the Middle Collegiate Church in New York, a congregation originally established in 1729 that is the oldest continuous Protestant church in North America.

Lent is conventionally described as the 40 days prior to Easter. During this period, Christians are encouraged to observe the motif of suffering associated with the unfathomable horrors that befell Jesus Christ by practicing acts of self-abnegation and piety, including fasting and almsgiving.

But many mainline churches are facing difficult times with membership. According to the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, young adults attend religious services less often than their elders and they engage in fewer religious services, including the Lenten season, than previous generations.

Efforts are now afoot now in many mainline Protestant circles to make Lent more appealing across intergenerational and interreligious lines.

At the Middle Collegiate Church, a congregation known nationally for its cutting-edge multicultural brand of worship, Good Friday will have a mix of sauciness and introspection. A flamenco group will again lead worship.

Prior to Good Friday, on Maundy Thursday, the Middle Collegiate Church, which is affiliated with the Reformed Church in America, will hold its third-annual combined Jewish seder and Agape Meal, an ancient Christian meal interspersed with bread and wine, hymns and biblical meditations. Lewis will co-officiate this service with Rabbi Burt Siegel of The Shul in New York.“The experience is so gripping and the music is so moving that people watch, weep and pray,” said Lewis.

“It is of great joy to do this,” said Siegel. “It is very important to affirm our human oneness.”

When worshippers enter the Middle Collegiate Church’s social hall, event coordinators from The Shul and the host church will seat them at long tables of 10 people each. At each table, there will be a lit candle and elements of a Seder dish on display, such as a hard-broiled egg, the shankbone or a lamb bone, a compound of apples, nuts cinnamon, and the matzo, a cracker-like flatbread, among other symbolic aspects of the seder. While this joint service has not increased attendance, according to Siegel, it speaks of the phenomenon of adding new layers of creativity to traditional services in hopes of keeping people engaged.

Recognizing that monotony disengages people, a pastor in Bonita Springs, Fla., said that he annually rotates the liturgical program during Lent in an effort to give his congregation a fresh experience.

The Rev. Richard Browning, senior pastor of the Hope Lutheran Church of Bonita Springs, near the Gulf Coast between Naples and Fort Myers, says he plans to help members imagine what happened to Jesus during Passover by showing a PowerPoint presentation. Last year, Brown said that his congregation hosted an adult drama ministry team. The megasized sanctuary, equipped with screens and auditorium capacity seats, averages 400 attendees during two individual Good Friday services.

“It does not change who we are,” said Browning. “But it does not make sense to do things that don’t attract people to attend church.”

On Maundy Thursday, Taylor will be draped in a black robe. Her staff and her chancel choir will also be donning black. They will gather around the communion table to evoke the story of Jesus’ Passover meal. Candles will be snuffed, save one, the Christ Candle, as a series of lessons are read. Every step, every movement will be seemingly choreographed to create emotional and spiritual connectivity.

“We have an empty cross,” says Taylor. “A part of our theology is the joy of Easter.”