New City Fellowship started with some great resources available right within our nucleus of visionaries. Although the seed can fall on stony ground, we had some stable, committed church planters in our music pool. Indeed, several of our musicians and singers are still with the church. In addition to my wife and myself, Lunard Lewis has been with us since 1978, Bryan Holland came in 1973, and came back in 2008, Leland Stewart, Jim and Rachel Crumble, and Joan Nabors were all among the early musical leaders.
Not only did it help to have a pianist and song writer committed to the work, but we also had an African-American who played bass and directed a fledgling choir. Choir days that we visited were a great point of contact with African-American churches, and helped build credibility for our mission. We learned classic gospel repertoire like Praise is What I Do, and Order My Steps. Although some have said that it is a stereotype to have a black gospel choir in a multi-cultural church, we found that it provided a much needed joyful sound in our worship that did not necessarily characterize the dominant culture music of that time. Also the creative environment of learning dynamic music kept the musicians and singers occupied and interested. Learning to reproduce gospel music with its passion, its harmonies, its message, its bass lines, and its vocal timbre is no small challenge.
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We had our obstacles as well. One was that it seemed like white college students were attracted to our little church plant more than inner city folk. When we had a worship service, one could look over the group and see as many observers as members. Our emphasis on helping the poor made it hard for our services to have a very big representation of urban households. Poor people often don't have transportation and their lives are controlled by myriad problems that militate against church attendance on Sunday morning early. On the other hand, young college students were excited, well fed, and driving in to check out this experiment.
I struggled to find singers and musicians who could get the sound we were after. Gerardo Marti, in his book Worship Across the Racial Divide speaks of pastors trying to find African-American soloists and worship leaders who can get that sound they are looking for. White singers must work to change their phrasing and improvisational skills to sing gospel music right. My songs were also a hybrid sound of Reformed theology and blues licks, even though I was studying and imitating black music. I guess I didn't really want to write exact replicas of Andrae Crouch's songs.
Further, urban blacks were deeply committed to their churches, and very few wanted to break rank with their grandmother's church. Even though there were solid friendships and warm common experiences with folks, it would never replace the homogeneous sound and culture of the black experience. Eventually black Christians began to be drawn to our church from connections they had, spiritual struggles that found solace in our ministry, or inter-racial marriage. The latter continues to be an obstacle in the life of a couple that seeks a worshiping body that both can relate to. But today, our music is much more developed and visiting black attendees are more inclined to feel included in the cultural mix of a service.
Another obstacle was the dingy places we had to worship at first. The old YMCA we met in was convenient and cheap, but it was grimy and poorly secured. There was the risk of PA systems, keyboards, or computers. Later, when we met at a Christian school, it was cleaner, but outside the perceived target area of our ministry. As our church grew, we needed a bigger place, and our set-up on Sundays became more demanding. For me personally, I experienced my first burn-out from setting up the PA system, drums, keys, and even risers for the choir, and then leading in worship.
Issues come up as the music ministry becomes more elaborate. Those who are faithful and become invested in the work begin to feel like they should be rewarded, when they may not actually have the talents necessary for leadership in singing or playing. The volunteers from the dominant culture begin to question whether there is any benefit to them and to their families, when so much of the work is specifically directed to the minority.
We prayed for a better place to meet, and Dr. John Sanderson of Covenant College began to pray for us to move into our present location in Glenwood. For the music department, moving into a traditional space brought new challenges. At first our band was down in front of the pulpit and the room was not conducive to amplified music. Almost every Sunday we struggled with the overwhelming bass resonance and the acoustic drums drowning out the choir.
A third obstacle was the skepticism and discomfort from the denomination and the Presbytery. Church growth models at the time were based on homogeneous growth and PCAs were being planted in shiny new subdivisions. Demographic uniformity was the plan of the day, and Willow Creek Community Church was one of many churches planted and grown after the missiology of C. Peter Wagner of Fuller Seminary. The idea of an intentionally diverse congregation being planted in a southern town was not unheard of in 1971, but it was not as strongly supported in the PCA as it has become today.
Our music choices, our instrumentation, our vocal sound, and our blues-gospel style was one that separated me personally from other white musicians in town as well as fellow recording artists at my record company. This choice made our church music less welcoming to other congregations in Chattanooga in our denomination, and though our music was appreciated and respected, we were apart from the others.