Jazz & Church Planting

By Bill Ludwig

April 26, 2017

Maybe it's been overdone, this analogy, but as a musician and fan of the jazz scene, I cannot escape the parallels between how a community comes together and functions as a church and how the members of a jazz combo feed off of each other's talents and gifts, nourishing one another in the scope of a set of songs. The result of each is something new, original, creative. 

This parallel can be seen in many facets of the church planting process but is perhaps the most visible in the process of contextualization. It is in this course of the coming together of the spiritual and cultural DNA of the both the planter and the people in the community that something new, original and creative comes to life. In a traditional jazz song, the band will play the melody of a song, called the "head€" first. Typically the head is played straight, as in no ad lib or improvisation. This is done to establish the song, its key, tempo and stylistic pattern. Once the song is established, however, the magic begins. 

Each musician, in turn, expresses their interpretation of the head as they work their way through the community of musicians on stage. At various points, players will join in with each other and play off of or against each other in a dizzying vortex of creative expression. The integrity of the song is always found in the melody, but the strength of the song is found in the creative synergy between the gifts and talents of the players involved. 

These same dynamics apply to the establishing of a new spiritual community. Newbigin describes contextualization as a "€œfaithfulness to the scriptures alongside costly identification with people in concrete situations."€ In a very real sense, the planter'€™s life should represent the truths of scripture in the same way that the head represents the melody of the song. The contributions of the rest of the members to the eventual shape and culture of the community are similar to the creative improvisations of the jazz combo. These individual imaginations are shaped by the talents and life experiences of the musicians and represent the planter'€™s identification with them in their context. 

It can become costly when the planter must entrust the finished product to the community being created like the lead trusts the strength of the song to the creative expression of their band mates. The church planter and their team contribute half of the DNA to this new life. They also set the melody of the song. This original composition may include patterns and components from other musical scores, but this one is unique and personal to the planter. By playing through the head with their lives, philosophies, theologies, and so on they set the tone and provide the cultural key, tempo, and patterns that the community will come back to again and again. 

The planter's self-awareness plays a huge role in the process. Stemming, perhaps, from a lesser awareness and embrace of their identity, too many planters underestimate the value they bring to this process. Others, it seems, may overvalue themselves in this process and behave as if only one set of DNA is necessary for the creation of new life. Both approaches are flawed. If the planter fails to establish the integrity or melody of the community by not living it or leading it intentionally and consistently, the new community that forms runs the risk of being formless. It will struggle to live into the unique vision that the planter carries within them. 

Alternatively, if the planter insists that their preferences and ideas be the only material contributing to the new life being created, the community becomes one dimensional. Instead of a band of musicians creating something together, the planter will struggle to encourage ownership amongst the new community. Ideally, the synergy of both melody and improvisation will combine into a creative and life-giving church. 

If you are leading a church or plan on planting a new church, I encourage you to become a fan of jazz. You are the one in whom God has entrusted the melody, the vision, for this new community. Play it. Play it with every ounce of intentionality and consistency you can. The band, or community, that will form around you must first learn that melody from you. This will establish the integrity of the community. But don'€™t stop there! The spiritual community that is forming is a like a jazz combo. Turn them loose to interpret the melody and improvise based on who they are and what they bring to the process. Their contribution will be the strength of the song, of the community, and their improvisations will be the sounds that seem familiar to their friends and neighbors. If you can play your melody well and learn to listen to the musicians around you, you will form a church that has both integrity and strength, and who’s sound will draw the greater community together, each playing their part.

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