The Avant-Garde Church

For January 12, 2016

Free = Liberated from social, historical, and psychological constraints
Jazz = Improvised music for heart, body, mind, and soul.
 The Avant-Garde Church
There’s a jazz movement that’s often referred to as “Free Jazz” or “Avant-Garde Jazz.” Pioneered by the likes of 
Ornette ColemanPaul Bley, and Keith Jarrett (a pianist who is one of my greatest influences), it emphasizes improvisation of both form and function.

The jazz most people know is based on “standards,” songs from the 1930s and 1940s such as “Night and Day” or “Autumn Leaves.” These are terrific songs, and they make for great improv. But the songs are pre-formed. They have a verse, chorus, and bridge, and no matter how clever the improviser, for the most part, we still recognize “Autumn Leaves” as “Autumn Leaves” when we hear it.

One of the great innovations of the free jazz movement was the idea that even the form of the song would develop organically—there is no song until the song begins. So in a jazz trio, the pianist might start playing something that the bassist and drummer then pick up. The song will grow and change shape and form as the three musicians are inspired—together, to create something that has never existed before.

For free jazz to be successful, it requires the musicians to be incredibly aware of each other in a way that is profound and surprising. It’s incredible to watch (or be part of) a free jazz performance as suddenly, everyone is feeling the same syncopation, the same rhythm, even though there are no notes on a page, no chord changes to follow. It is truly an experience of the Divine Creativity flowing through our human form. It requires a great deal of faith and trust in your fellow musicians, and in the creative nature of the universe as an energy we are capable of tuning into. The results are often stunning and transcendent, although there is also a great deal of free jazz that sounds like cacophony. In some ways, though, the cacophony is even more resplendent. Anyone can find beauty in something that is obviously beautiful. It takes more commitment to find beauty in something that at first listen is just a bunch of people making disjointed noise (listen to Ornette Coleman and Pat Metheney’s 
Project X if you want to practice this concept).

I’ve begun to consider that the 21st Century church could do with a big infusion of free jazz. Churches all over the world—and especially in America—are failing miserably and closing their doors. Much of the problem has been blamed on archaic worship styles, or a lack of appeal to Millennials (although it seems nobody can really figure out what Millennials want, including Millennials), or, rightly, a theology and Christology that are no longer pertinent to a civilization that understands quantum physics and genetics.

However, I think one of the main reasons so few people have any interest in church anymore is because it’s like a Jazz standard—it has a beautiful melody that everyone knows and many people love, but it leaves zero room for improvisation. Nobody wants to listen to the same song over and over and over again, especially if that song no longer makes any sense. We might want to listen to it now and then, and reminisce about how quaint the song is, but it’s not going to attract us on a regular basis, and it’s rare for any new listeners to play the song.

Improvisation is entirely a movement of the Divine Creative Spirit; what religious types might call the Holy Spirit. This is what descended upon Jesus at the moment of his baptism, what overtook the thousands of people gathered during Pentecost, inspiring them to find a deep understanding of each other that exceeded human linguistics. Improv is what inspires us to change the world. Yet in church, we follow a strict set of rules about what happens when and who can do what. We follow guidelines created 1000 years ago and are allowed very little, if any, flexibility to riff on the chord changes. And free jazz in church? Only if you never want to be invited back.

This is a model that spells certain doom for any congregation unwilling to trust in the Spirit and try a little free jazz.

We live in a world in which we need to make changes and sharp turns without regard to the sheet music. Sometimes, it’s simply time for a brand new song. The sheet music church services are written on is akin to the old tune “Jeepers Creepers.” It’s a nice little ditty, but nobody wants to listen to it on anymore. It can’t even be remade because the music itself follows a moldy melody that is too corny for most postmodern people.

It’s time for church, and the services we hold in church, to go completely off the music and start improvising. I firmly believe that the future of a vibrant, healthy congregation is in not knowing what to expect at all on any given day. For church to become dynamic and—dare I say it, relevant again, it needs to be communal. It needs to serve the spirit and the community. Church needs to accomplish these goals not by practicing rote rituals (and getting all bent out of shape when those rituals change), but by taking a look both inward and outward, every week, and with God’s help, discerning what those both within and outside the church walls need today, now, at this moment. Then, the church needs to realize that everything might be completely different the following week. If we can create a flexible church, freed from the constraints of the notes on the page, we might figure out how to fill the spiritual, physical, emotional, and mental needs of our brothers and sisters. Maybe the church could even help move the entire world a little more toward a jazz riff to which we can all add our own, unique groove.

The free jazz movement began in the 20th Century.
Here’s to the free church movement of the 21st.

Meditation: We all have the ability to improvise. Trust in the Divine Creative and just do it.

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