Music to Nourish the Soul

Posted on Posted in Music, Worship
Reviving Brentwood’s Vibe with Jazz

contributed by Brian Fraser
In the photo: Brian Fraser and Dan Reynolds (piano) at Jazz Evensong, Brentwood Presbyterian

When I started to minister with Brentwood Presbyterian Church in November of 2009, it was clear that they loved music. Their tastes ran along traditional small church lines, but they ran deep. They complemented the Presbyterian hymn book with a compilation of their own, Brentwood Favourites, done in the mid-1990s. It contained a great mix of old Gospel songs and spirituals.

My love of jazz went back to my student days studying Canadian history at the University of Toronto. My first jazz album was Oscar Peterson’s Canadiana Suite. Peterson’s musical take on Canada’s diverse regions added instinctual and emotional dimensions to the intellectual understanding I was developing. I was hooked.

Now, Brentwood was small – 15 on average at worship each week. The Presbytery had tried to close them down three times. But most of those 15 showed up at the presbytery meetings and convinced them to give them a chance to revive their mission and ministries. Eventually, Jim Smith, as interim moderator, and Don Hill, as interim minister, got them focused on mission as a reason for survival. They brought me in to do some planning work. Then they convinced me to come as half-time minister. So, Brentwood’s love of music and my love of jazz became an energizing force for the flourishing of the congregation.

One other gift is important here. The sanctuary has amazing acoustics. It’s not big or fancy. Basically, a rectangular box that seats 100. But musicians come into the building and rave about the sound. They want to come back and play there. We’re not sure that those who built Brentwood back in the early 1960s had acoustics in mind, but the Spirit was working with them and made sure this quality of space was there when needed.

There are three primary ways in which the introduction of the wit, workings, and wisdom of jazz has revived the Vibe of Brentwood:

  1. We work together by playing ‘jazz’ all the time. Conversation is the most common form of jazz in human experience. We try to manage the substance and sound of our voices in conversations at the church the way jazz musicians manage the substance and sound of their instruments in a performance. That improves the quality of community that is co-created by those conversations. Our melody line, the chord chart around which we play with those conversations, is ‘Nourishing Souls to Flourish in the Grace of Jesus Christ’.
  2. We have attracted a brilliant young jazz pianist, Dan Reynolds, as our director of music. We’ve introduced jazz slowly into the Sunday morning service, often with jazz interpretations of familiar hymn tunes. The Brentwood people also love Dan and want to support him. Later this spring, Dan will begin to do a 15-20 minute prelude period with a trio playing favourite hymns in jazz.
  3. We started an alternative service focused on jazz. It’s offered every Wed night at 8:00PM. There are 7 pieces of jazz, three short litanies, and a 5-min reflection, all designed to nourish the souls present to flourish in the grace of Jesus Christ. After three years, participation is slowly building, now averaging 20-25. (Sunday morning worship now averages 25-30.) About 2/3 at Jazz Evensong are not regular participants in other aspects of the life of the congregation. New people are there every week, some of whom become regular participants. Currently, funding comes from special gifts and the passing of the ‘Thanks Bucket.’

What opened the congregation up to this kind of innovation was a patient series of conversations about how we might use music to better nourish souls to flourish in the grace of Jesus Christ. Jazz was one of the options explored and then became one of the experiments. And, by God’s grace, it is working.

Brian Fraser is the minister at Brentwood Presbyterian Church, Burnaby, BC. Brian founded ‘Jazzthink‘, an organization that helps nonprofits to flourish using the jazz idiom to frame productive conversations and exchange of ideas.