get their groove back:
A sacred music maker shows congregations how rhythm can transport them to a spiritual place faster than a dull devotional dirge
Copyright, 2005, by
Douglas Todd, All rights reserved.
From: Vancouver Sun, Saturday, August 13, 2005
Included by permission of the author.
They say white men can't jump in basketball. But sometimes it also seems like white churchgoers can't move in their pews.
Where is the rhythm in most mainline Protestant Canadian church services?
The old English, German and Welsh hymns that are typically sung in mainline Protestant services can be lovely. But many can also be dour, stodgy, heady and too serious. Where are the spontaneity and hand-clapping good times?
Peter Dent, a sacred music maker based on Galiano Island, has devoted much of his career to injecting some swing, some primal rhythm, into United, Anglican, Lutheran and Presbyterian worship services.
He's seen the way pop-rock hymns have been brought into many large, fast-growing evangelical churches, where pianos, guitars and drums are now the norm -- bringing with them young people who are drawn to such easy-to-digest contemporary sounds.
However, Dent knows some of those evangelical soft-rock hymns, such as those heard on KLYN radio, "are not very good."
Moreover, the biblically literalist theology that often accompanies them is not to the theological taste of many liberal worshippers.
So he's found himself spending a lot of energy finding different ways to help mainline Protestant churches -- with their less conservative theology but, ironically, more conservative worship style -- get their groove back.
He's convinced it's the sure-fire key to church growth.
"A lot of mainline Protestants were brought up to believe church was supposed to be no fun. That they weren't supposed to feel joy or show emotion in services. They were taught to believe God was always serious," says Dent.
"But now more and more people are realizing rhythm can get you to a spiritual place. It can take you quickly to a place that a boring anthem doesn't."
The creator of CDs such as Swing Unto the Lord and An Old-Fashioned Hymn Swing has adapted many classic hymns -- such as All Through the Night, Precious Lord and Laudes Domini -- to give them a jazz, gospel or swing feel.
The adapted tunes are designed to get toes tapping and fingers snapping. Most Protestant congregations, he says, eat them up.
A great deal of classically rooted hymns are weak on rhythm. But Dent says rhythmical music can be a boon to churches, because it not only appeals to the mind, "it moves other parts of our body."
Since spirituality is about wholeness, Dent believes a good worship service should engage the mind, soul and body.
Jazz, blues, rock and gospel rhythms literally echo the inner rhythms of the human heart, he says, which pumps our blood to a syncopated beat.
"I don't believe in a polite God who shows no emotion," he says. "I think churches can be a place where Christians can feel good about spontaneity -- about feeling the rhythms of God."
Dent often travels the continent (and sometimes the world) consulting with churches on how to make their music more lively. He loves the great classic hymns, but also thinks most Protestant (and Catholic) services could be far more musically diverse.
Dent would like to see more churches bring in young musicians -- perhaps by encouraging a teenage guitarist who likes the blues to come into the sanctuary to perform songs such as Stormy Monday Blues.
He also believes many church leaders and congregations are ready to sing along as they explore the "transcendent" meanings inherent in some popular songs, such as What a Wonderful World, It's a Most Unusual Day, Oh What a Beautiful Morning and You'll Never Walk Alone.
African-American and white gospel hymns, he says, are also a natural for Protestant and Catholic churches, including inspirational, body-swaying tunes such as Were You There, I'll Fly Away and Oh Happy Day.
As well, Dent says many rhythmical popular tunes, too complex to be sung, can also be appreciated as sacred instrumentals.
You often don't need religious lyrics for music to transport you to a more spiritual dimension, he says. Often the lyrics get in the way, and he recommends simply ignoring some of the more morbid theology inherent in some otherwise great old hymns.
There are often practical and small-p political hurdles to overcome within denominations before congregations can open up their musical repertoires.
There can be esthetic battles between a church's old guard, who like traditional European hymns, and newcomers, many of whom prefer music with a stronger beat. Some churches have responded to the conflict by offering two services filled with completely different styles of music.
Dent adds that a big problem with many small congregations is that the solo musical director, who is often classically trained, is "asked to do it all," and doesn't have the expertise to integrate more catchy, contemporary sounds into services.
You can't expect every church organist/choir director to also be a specialist in jazz, blues, folk, gospel and rockabilly.
Although it's no small task, Dent says one way for mainline Protestant denominations to enhance the musical life of their churches is to encourage small, often-struggling congregations to merge into larger ones, which can better support broader, better funded and eclectic musical programs.
In addition, although Dent loves the traditional mainline Protestant church pipe organ, he also recognizes it doesn't adapt well to many styles of music.
The sound of pianos, guitars and drums can be much more attractive than pipe organs to rhythmically oriented (often less musically literate) younger people, including those in the baby-boom generation.
Dent and his wife attend an Anglican church on Galiano Island, as well as an eclectic congregation associated with students and faculty of evangelical Regent College on the University of British Columbia campus. Asked about his personal theology, he says he basically finds his spirituality in music.
Not doctrinaire, he appreciates religious ideas and theological cut and thrust. But he's basically just a big supporter of whatever gets people up and moving in the pews; possibly dancing, maybe shouting "Hallelujah," perhaps engaging in call and response -- generally having a good, relaxed spiritual time.
"I support emotion in the
church," he says. "And less a sense of what's appropriate
Return to Peter Dent's home page.