'Swinging' musical opens door for church to share the gospel

SOUTHSIDE, Ala. (BP)--December was a little different this year for 100-year-old Southside Baptist Church.

Nestled between a cow pasture and a cotton field in Southside, Ala., the church usually does everything by the book. Like the majority of other Southern Baptist congregations, it has a choir, an organist and a pianist.

But on a mid-December weekend, the church had more than 1,800 visitors from the community tapping their feet and snapping their fingers by taking classical tunes of Christmas and making them swing.

More than 40 singers and 24 instrumentalists at Southside performed the musical, "Let Heaven and Nature Swing," written by Don Marsch and published by LifeWay Christian Resources. The simple, catchy harmonies were easy for the choir to sing and fun for the audience to hear, said Jeff Stith, minister of music at Southside, who has performed the musical at one other Southern Baptist church. His purpose for doing the musical, he said, was more than just providing entertainment.

"There are a lot of people who will come to a swing concert who might not come to church otherwise," Stith said, recalling a young Catholic teenager who came the first night and brought her mother the second night. "I believe God's going to honor the message if the person's there."

The musical also brought other opportunities for the church to build relationships with instrumentalists who came to play in the orchestra who otherwise wouldn't come to the church.

"I play trumpet with a local big band called the 'Kings of Swing,' so it was just natural to supplement our orchestra with players from the Kings," said Glen Kramer*, orchestra minister at Southside. "One of the organizers of the Kings is an old-time big bandsman who is also leader of the local community college show band. He thought the music was some of the best-written music he had ever seen."

Swing music itself has slowly made a comeback for the past several years.

"Swing is big in today's culture because it represents a nostalgic era -- the war years," said Don Schlosser, editor in chief of the music, publishing and recording department at LifeWay. "It holds fond memories of fun times for people from that generation, and it's a fun, upbeat style that's associated with fun and energetic dancing and live bands."

The swing style also gives church music an opportunity to connect both personally and emotionally with the congregation, Schlosser said.

"It embodies a feel not found in any of the standard hymnody of the church, and it's even different from the steady diet of praise and worship music," he noted. "It's fresh and it's fun. It's a little bit risky and daring, too, because we feel like swing music may be a little worldly and indulgent, like we used to feel about drums and rock music."

While Let Heaven and Nature Swing and a second project, "Swing the Wondrous Story," were both originally designed for students and young adults because of their easy voicing yet challenging rhythms, many adult choirs are using the music as well.

"As a director, I had to jump in with both feet, be very positive, and convince the choir members that we were going to do this," Stith recounted.

A few of his choir members were a bit resistant at first, Stith said, but he quickly saw the majority of his choir catch the excitement after rehearsing only a few times, with several men from the choir renting costumes like zoot suits and military uniforms of the era for the actual presentations.

Stith also used multimedia effects throughout the musical, providing narrative dialog he had written, and flashing a PowerPoint presentation of black-and-white photos from the 1930s and '40s of the military, old cars and the five major band leaders and their bands. A nativity scene was displayed, offering visual support to the song "What Child Is This?"

"You have to convince your congregation that there are new ways to attract people without crossing the lines," said Stith, pointing out that there were multi-generations who attended the church's performances. "If you do something very contemporary, you're going to reach younger people. The good thing about this musical is that you reach across all generational lines -- and that's the best type of musical."

Choral and instrumental books are available for Let Heaven and Nature Swing as well as Swing the Wondrous Story. Music for solo instruments will be available in April. For more information, go to www.lifeway.com and visit the online catalog.


*Name changed for security concerns.

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