The last eulogy has been said, the Scriptures read, and mourners anticipate a quiet, reverential hymn to precede the benediction. Instead, the church choir and band erupt into a pulsating, fast-paced, staccato-cadenced tune called “Death Is Ended.”
Its lyrics are drawn from 1 Corinthians 15:15-55:
Behold I tell you a mystery, we will all be changed—
In the twinkling of an eye, and the trumpet will sound—
We’ll be raised imperishable
Death—where is your victory?
Where is your sting?
Death is ended! Death is ended!
Death is swallowed up in victory!
By the time the song crescendos to its conclusion, the memorial service has transformed into a celebration, confirming that for followers of Jesus Christ, life begins as death ends. There is some applause and cheering; tears of grief now mingle with smiles and tears of joy, hope surging anew in the hearts of loved ones left behind.
The composer of “Death Is Ended” is James Ward, who has served as a musician, worship leader, and music director for New City Fellowship (PCA) in Chattanooga, Tenn., since its founding more than 30 years ago. The piece was written in 1982, after a young mother and a 5-year-old girl in the congregation had died, along with Ward’s brother, Timothy, a victim of leukemia.
“The song came out of our church’s life,” Ward recalled. “It had been a year of soul-searching in our church and our pastor, Randy Nabors, asked me to write a song to encourage people. It certainly established a personal connection with many in our congregation.”
In the years since, singing the song has become a tradition at the decidedly non-traditional New City for Easter and other occasions, as well as memorial services. Composed about the same time as the Broadway hit Fame, the dynamics of “Death is Ended” are reminiscent of the musical’s popular theme song—yet thoroughly biblical in its message.
Currently featured in a video on the church’s website (www.newcityfellowship.com), “Death is Ended” represents most strikingly the music of New City, a multicultural assembly with a large concentration of African-Americans and a growing number of Hispanics. But it is hardly a stand-alone piece.
On any given Sunday, a New City worship service offers a melodic and rhythmic mix unlike what one might encounter in most congregations, PCA or otherwise: a tune with a bouncy reggae or Caribbean beat, a jazzy praise song, a black gospel ballad, traditional hymns, a funky blues instrumental, Southern gospel, a classical selection, contemporary praise music, or an occasional piece with a Latin tempo.
Accompanying instruments include piano, electronic keyboard, guitar, bass guitar, drums, bongos and other percussion. The music is exuberant and enthusiastic, with many of the worshipers swaying or bobbing to the beat, some even dancing.
Without question, this is a significant departure from typical PCA practice. None of this, however, is either whimsical or haphazard. It’s part of a well-conceived, fully integrated strategy for tailoring the overall worship experience to fit the culture of the community where New City is situated.
“Our worship seeks to be cross-cultural, yet flowing out of our Reformed tradition,” the church’s website explains. “This means that we understand God to be the audience of our worship. Our understanding of the ‘regulative principle of worship’ is that all we do in worship must be biblical.
“We believe we are to be courageous to use all of ourselves in worship, so we follow the teachings of the Psalms to use our bodies in such things as clapping, raising our hands, shouting, and dancing. The Psalms teach us to use instruments and call on everything that has breath to praise the Lord. We do not think being truly Reformed means to only use a Northern European 16th-century cerebral style and functional order to worship God.”
Ward noted that New City’s music philosophy was forged in concert with Nabors, the congregations’ teaching elder from its inception.
“(In any church) the pastor’s personal preference is going to be a major factor. He sets the tone of the church with his leadership style—combined with personal preference—and that has to be picked up and supported by the music staff,” said Ward. “The biblical content of our worship songs has everything to do with what music we use. We evaluate each [selection] theologically as well as musically. But looking at the psalms of David, we find a pretty broad range of content—short and simple praises, long stories, and laments,” he said.
“The kinds of music utilized at any church should be driven by its mission. If you seek to reach post-Boomer whites, if you’re focusing on people with tattoos, or if you’re planting a church in northwest South Dakota, it’s going to look and sound different from what we do here at New City, where we seek to reach Latino and African-American attendees, young and old, as well as whites.
“Those of us who started this church in the ‘70s were Baby Boomers, basically a bunch of hippies, counter-cultural in our attitudes. So from the beginning, we set about trying new things, mixing it up in church. It’s not a matter of being consumer-driven, but we’re certainly consumer-sensitive.
“Since our church is in a neighborhood of middle-class blacks, the music speaks to those living in houses right around us saying, ‘We’re here for you,’” Ward observed. “It’s not a matter of ‘demographics,’ which sounds like slick marketing, but rather your mission. Who are you seeking to reach, and what are you doing to reach them?”
That doesn’t mean other congregations—those that are more homogeneous—shouldn’t expand their array of musical offerings. Ward noted that “Precious Lord,” a traditional hymn sung in many denominations, was written by Thomas A. Dorsey, an African-American blues pianist. He wrote the song after committing his life to Jesus Christ as an adult, but the melody was greatly influenced by his secular music experience.
“I toured with jazz bands before becoming a church musician, and I learned to play jazz chords, swing music, funk, blues, even Latin salsa rhythms,” Ward noted. “That helped me a lot in learning to play black church music.
“One of the books that has influenced me a lot is Gather Into One: Praying and Singing Globally. In writing the book, liturgist G. Michael Hawn traveled the world and experienced worship in various cultures. While he found common elements of worship in every culture, he concluded that we in North America need to become more sensitive, more inclusive to appeal to all segments of society, as well as to broaden the way we pray and sing together in corporate worship.
“For me, learning to write and perform music from different cultures has been an eye-opening, mind-expanding experience. And I don’t think we have to abandon our Reformed, Calvinistic beliefs in doing that.”
Ward’s rendition of “Rock of Ages” has been published in the Trinity Hymnal and used by PCA churches (and congregations in other denominations) across the United States. “It has a different melody, but we’re not changing the meaning—just presenting that meaning in a context people can relate to.
“Music is, at its most basic state, a part of God’s creation included in the mandate in Genesis to ‘fill the earth and subdue it.’ In his book Music and Ministry, Calvin Johansson refers to the creatio continua: God’s ongoing creation that we participate in as creatures who bear His image. Music functions in human experience from the most primitive pitches in our speech to the most finely crafted baritone horn, or rehearsed choir. Music goes deeply into our spirits and resonates with who we are,” Ward observed.
Of course, music is in the ears of the listener, and no rationale can dissuade some people from their musical predilections. He relates a story to illustrate contrasting reactions to the style of music he presents:
“A few years ago I was a guest artist during a Sunday evening worship service at a large evangelical church in Toronto, Ontario. This was a predominantly white congregation located in a multi-ethnic city with a rapidly changing demographic.
“The pastor had an enthusiastic personality and a booming laugh. ‘Do whatever the Lord leads you to do,’ he roared.
“As a frequent guest in churches, I have learned to watch the pastor to find out what his version of ‘the Lord’s leading’ is. This man obviously meant what he said; he led the congregation in several contemporary choruses, and participated in clapping and vigorous singing.
“I had a song I was using a lot at that time called ‘David’s Dance.’ It includes hand motions, clapping, and for the fourth verse, the people stand, link arms, and do a modified Jewish dance-kick. The pastor loved it, and wrung my hand at the end of the service.
“As he and I stood in the foyer greeting people, one man with dark skin and a turban approached the pastor. He asked for an appointment that week. ‘I had no idea Christianity was so joyful,’ he said. The very next person, a long-time member of the church, was next in line. ‘I can’t believe we’re doing this in the church!’ he commented with a scowl.”
Nabors reflected on the impact Ward and his unique musical style have had on the development of New City and its ministry.
“It would be hard to overestimate the music’s value to us. In the multi-cultural environment we have, it’s the glue that holds our people together. Because cross-cultural worship is integral to our mission, we have far less friction over music than many churches. If the music is effective, it helps to bring about harmony, real unity.
“Ours is very much a praising, joyful congregation. I like to sum up our worship in one word: joy. There is such a celebration, a sweet expression of praise to God. It’s not unusual to see people come and end up weeping—with joy—through their first service with us. Often people who attend our services find themselves enjoying worship like never before.”
Nabors acknowledged despite the natural fit of Ward’s music for the overall worship experience, it has not been a simple achievement: “Jim is truly a cross-cultural, world musician. It has not always been easy for him, coming from a white, middle-class background, classically trained as a musician and with a Reformed perspective. It has required commitment, incredible practice, and dedication. But he has wholeheartedly immersed himself in jazz, blues, black gospel music. He has written many of his own works, combining all aspects of his background and at times stepping outside of his comfort zone.”
Gene Johnson, full-time diaconal coordinator at New City, has known Ward for many years and shares Nabors’ appreciation for the man and his music.
“Jim has done a wonderful job over the years with the musicians, helping them to understand that their job is not showing how talented they are, but to lead us in worship,” Johnson said.
“The style of music we use makes it easy for people to worship. If Hispanics are able to sing in their language once in a while, it helps them to relate their faith to their culture. People need to embrace their own cultures, of course, but they should also learn to appreciate different cultures.
“The question we need to ask is, ‘Is this a place where people can feel comfortable worshiping?’ We need to create an environment where people can worship God, and at New City we have an incredible mix of business people, college professors, students, blue-collar workers, and uneducated single moms with five kids.”
Despite having functioned as a catalyst for the musical style employed at New City, Ward emphasized he is not the linchpin of its strategy. “We don’t have our song service built around one strong personality. We use multiple song leaders in rotation. The effect is that the music is not dependent on one person, but it’s a shared experience based on serving. And every Sunday we strive to assemble ethnically-diverse praise teams, providing a different sound to the singing, regardless of the music we are doing.”
Ward, 59, holds a bachelor of music degree from Covenant College and a master of music in jazz performance from the University of Tennessee, and has served as worship director for a number of Christian conferences. His son, Kirk, is carrying on his father’s artistic tradition as music director at New City Fellowship St. Louis.
A former guest lecturer for the Thomas F. Staley Foundation at Covenant, Geneva, Eastern, Gordon, Calvin, and Malone colleges, Ward envisions the establishment of an Institute of Contemporary Worship, along the lines of the Chalmers Center for Economic Development, an autonomous entity at Covenant College that prepares students for careers in serving the poor and disadvantaged around the world.
“I would like to see our denomination give greater attention to training and equipping musicians for the demands of modern worship music, and creating incentives for musicians to stay serving in the Church. Another alternative would be to have a series of conferences throughout the country and the world to explore how the Reformed community might use the creative arts to appeal to the society around it more effectively,” Ward stated.
“Pop culture has overwhelming influence over our children, the media, and American life in general. We’re foolish if we don’t acknowledge that pop culture is having a tremendous impact on people in our churches as well, and we need to respond appropriately and proactively.
“I am convinced we should enjoy the great variety of ways we worship throughout the world and make them part of our own experience. I have heard Latin American evangelical services described as deeply passionate expressions of longing and celebration, and have seen the African-American traditions with a cathartic high built right into the flow of the service,” he said.
“As for our youth, the next generation—how are we including them in our weekly morning worship? What better way to send an inclusive message than to acknowledge them in our music? This does not mean singling them out, but quietly paying attention to where they are culturally and to address that as one of the circumstances of morning worship.”
Robert J. Tamasy, a member of North Shore Fellowship in Chattanooga, Tenn., is vice president of communications for Leaders Legacy, Inc., an Atlanta-based ministry to leaders; author of Business at Its Best: Timeless Wisdom from Proverbs for Today’s Workplace, and co-author of The Heart of Mentoring with David A. Stoddard. He comments on everyday issues from a biblical perspective at www.bobtamasy.blogspot.com.