James Ward on Music and Worship

When interviewing James Ward, one is interrupted by children (his and neighbors') running through the room and by a ringing telephone. Thus our conversation about intercultural worship was punctuated with muffled giggles and with talk about concert bookings, mikes, synthesizers, and recording facilities.

In the Christian community Ward is known as an energetic performer of contemporary Christian music and as a song writer who welds biblical texts with jazz, blues, and pop-rock rhythms. He has recorded five albums of his music, and his song "Morning Sun" has been published in a number of contemporary hymnals.

Jim is also a member of an interracial Presbyterian (PCA) church in Chattanooga, Tennessee. (See sidebar.) Here he ministers with both his piano accompaniment and his song writing. Jim and I spent a lot of time talking about the style of worship in New City Fellowship Church and about his family's involvement with that congregation.

Q. In your worship services at New City Fellowship are you conscious of the various traditions that might be represented in your group—traditions such as Presbyterian or Southern or black?

A. Yes. In our choice of songs, for example. The opening song is sometimes a rousing black gospel song, sometimes a white hymnal tune. When I select the songs, I usually put a hymn, such as "Holy, Holy Holy," at the beginning. That's followed by a fifteen-minute song service that usually includes a mix of styles. Some of my songs, which would probably be called "contemporary Christian," are included. So are black gospel songs, which our black members identify as being part of their tradition.

Q. How about the Scottish-Presbyterian psalm-singing tradition?

A. No. It's not represented. The psalms are represented: many of my songs are based on psalms. But using the Scottish Psalter in our congregation would be largely inappropriate since it represents a white tradition. We white members believe that as part of our agenda for reconciliation for the overwhelming oppression of two hundred years and in order that our black members might feel completely trusting, white culture should take a subsidiary role in our worship.

Q. Why, then, do you sing white gospel songs?

A. Because the white gospel songs, particularly here in the South, are a blend of cultures. For example, we have one song—"I'm on the Battlefield"—that I found in a white Church of God hymnal; I put a beat to it, and it's one of our greatest hits. And a song like "Amazing Grace"—it comes out of a traditional white background in the British Isles, but it is acknowledged in the black community as an important song. It is a song that has instant identity.

Since most of the blacks in our church identify with contemporary styles, contemporary white songs are also acceptable. Contemporary music often contains many of the same elements as traditional black music a bluesy melody, accented rhythm, tambourines. And so contemporary white songs are more acceptable than traditional psalms and hymns.

Q. The reason for not singing from the Scottish Psalter is that it would be foreign to the church?

A. Yes. It's not that our black members are opposed to the Psalter as such. Recently I was asked to play the twenty-third Psalm from the Psalter, and the congregation lustily sang all six verses; everyone loved it. But psalm-singing is not part of the black tradition. And if I'm going to err, then I'm going to err on the side of not drawing on a white tradition. If we used the Psalter too heavily, we would be implying that white is preferred.

Q. How can your church still be recognized as a Presbyterian church?

A. The distinctives are still there: the various forms we observe, the way we celebrate communion, and the preaching. Our music is also very scripturally based, and the hymns that we use are selected from the Trinity Hymnal, a Presbyterian hymnal. Visitors are able to tell that we're not a Baptist or a Pentecostal church.

Q. How much of your order of worship is the same from Sunday to Sunday, and how much is spontaneous?

A. Our weekly liturgy is almost uniform. The only times that we vary it greatly might be Christmas and Easter. But the spontaneity is also present that's always been an ingredient of our service. (It's an ingredient that tends to lengthen our services: usually we go an hour and a half, morning and evening.) We try to get a combination of structure and spontaneity. I think structure, as well as a sense that anything can happen within the context of that structure, has a positive effect on worship. Like any young church, we experiment a lot.

Q. Do you use a printed order of worship and hymnals, or do you preserve an oral tradition?

A. We now print an order of worship, but that's quite recent. And although we do use our own songbook, we also have some music that people learn by rote and sing spontaneously—some of the songs that I've written, for example, or some of the traditional black songs.

Q. Is the preaching of the church geared to an intercultural, interracial congregation?

A. Yes. Our pastor grew up in the Newark projects and has experienced interracial living. He has an uncanny ability to choose vivid illustrations. Some of the ingredients in urban life are a struggle—paying your bills, dealing with the macho atmosphere among the men, understanding household roles. Our pastor uses recurrent themes that address these ingredients and appeal specifically to an urban congregation.

Q. The Church Growth people say that a church is most likely to grow if it is as uniform as possible in terms of income and race and social status. Why have an intercultural, interracial church? Aren't you putting up barriers to people joining?

A. We probably are. Some people are discouraged from joining because of our cultural priorities. However, we always ask a person who wants to join our church if he or she is sympathetic to our goals (see "New City Fellowship," p. 3). The majority of these prospective members, both white and black, indicate that these goals are the very reason they want to join.

Q. A more personal question: You could be in a church with fewer problems and obligations. Why do you bother staying with New City?

A. Beth and I have asked ourselves that question. And we always come back to the fact that we like it here. We are uncomfortable with the privileged society where you're never in contact with people who have great needs. Beth works as a member of the diaconal assistance group. If she didn't, she would never come into contact with people who have $700 water bills because their commode doesn't work properly. Such work is a very Christlike vocation.

We think that ethnic diversity is going to become more and more part of life-style in the United States, and we want our children to be ready for that. We want our kids to be close friends with children from other ethnic groups and to enjoy the mix in the world. I think America needs to appreciate the diversity in the kingdom more.

I'd be happy if the Lord blessed our church with explosive growth based on our distinctiveness, but I wonder if that would be good for us. I don't think being in a large church or a prosperous environment is an important criterion for the Christian life.

Q. On the question of diversity— most of our readers are from middle class, homogeneous churches. Should white, suburban churches deliberately, in their choice of music, borrow from other traditions, such as black gospel? Or would that seem contrived?

A. People in suburban churches are already experiencing the effects of ethnic diversity in our music. If the young people are singing "Pass It On," they are experiencing the ability of Ralph Carmichael to distill the ingredients of popular music into a form that is palatable for suburbia. So, in American suburban churches, you don't really have to try it's gonna git ye!

I think that ethnic diversity in a church is great. When I play my music in a church that has no ethnic diversity, people find that fresh air is blowing through the windows. Having someone with expertise represent another tradition for your congregation can have nothing but positive effects.

Q. Let me put the music question another way: If New City gets rich enough to buy a pipe organ, would you vote for that purchase?

A. Oh, man! Listen. I majored in pipe organ. I did a pipe organ senior recital in college, and I love pipe organ music. But I don't think we'd ever buy a pipe organ for our church. We might buy a Hammond B-3. Even though it would not be a good instrument to use for a baroque chorale, a Hammond B-3 is an important instrument for black worship. If you hear it played properly, you see what I mean. It's got a distinctive sound in the history of rock and roll, and it's very important for blues and for jazz.

Q. So the music and the instrument ought to match the particular congregation.

A. Yes. You see, the pipe organ is a symbol of quality in a certain idiom, but in another idiom it's totally useless. A Hammond B-3 would be a weak imitation in a classical idiom, but in a blues and jazz idiom it's dead center. It's exactly what's needed with a nice Leslie speaker and some of those waw-waw sounds. I know that may sound very weird, but it'sjust part of recognizing each cultural setting and its criteria.

Music is a major ingredient for attracting people to a church. That's why our church has a bass player and an acoustical piano, amplified with a PZM mike inside so that it can really rumble. We don't have drums on Sunday morning, but we do have tambourines and congo drums. We try to keep things really jumping.

Q. Any final words on diversity in worship?

A. Yes. I speak, too, as a modern hymn writer. I don't reject the music of the past. But I also speak as a proponent of music by the living. God is active in 1987. God is alive and in control—NOW. We do not have to rely on the music of people who are dead.

It's important to respect tradition, and in our church we do. We sing "It Is Well with My Soul" and "Amazing Grace." They are very meaningful. But is also very meaningful when a living song writer in the congregation is able to capture the thoughts and experiences of modern faith and put them into music of worship and praise. And just like some Fanny Crosby songs (she wrote a couple thousand of them) didn't endure the test of time, so some of our hymns and choruses are not necessarily timeless in quality.

I feel that it's very important for churches today to encourage creativity within the congregation, so that young writers with real talent can be affirmed by the church instead of driven into the world. It's not really a question of age; many older people share this vision of contemporary expression of praise. Let's not abandon creativity and cross-cultural efforts because of some failures. Let's promote them because they help to bring today's people into a personal relationship with today's Lord, Jesus Christ!


New City Fellowship

New City Fellowship began as a Sunday school for children in a Chattanooga ghetto. Formed around 1970 by students and faculty from Covenant College who wanted to establish a Reformed witness in the city, the Sunday school gradually grew into a church. In 1973, under the leadership of pastor Randy Nabors, James Ward, and others, the small congregation began meeting in an old YMCA. Later they became a "particular" church, first in the Reformed Presbyterian Church (RPCES) and then in the Presbyterian Church in America.

In describing the congregation of which he is a part, musician James Ward explains, "Through the years we've always maintained a focus of mission, a mission (concentrating on diaconal ministry) to people living in the city. And, of course, another major theme is reconciliation between black and white Christians. In a city like Chattanooga, it is very unusual for blacks and whites to worship together."

About 70 percent of the members of New City are white, about 30 percent, black. The congregation is currently worshiping in the Chattanooga Christian School.

Harry Boonstra (hboonstr@calvin.edu) is former theological editor of RW and emeritus theological librarian of Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.


Reformed Worship 3 © March 1987, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.