Every Time I Feel the Spirit: God's actions told through the musical and literary heritage of African Americans

While on vacation, a member of my congregation attended a jazz worship service that she enjoyed immensely. She wondered if we might try something similar. I had heard about jazz worship services but wasn't sure how to put one together. To take a regular order of service and insert jazz music into it seemed ill-advised, yet so did a radically altered worship service that bore little resemblance to what normally occurs on Sunday mornings. The challenge was to strike a balance between the usual flow of worship and the creative possibilities of a jazz music liturgy.

Eventually, our worship and music leadership team decided to combine a familiar overall structure with numerous jazz musical selections. We began by organizing a Dixieland jazz combo. Using musicians from our church staff and the outside community, we brought together a pianist, bassist, drummer, trumpeter, trombonist, and clarinetist, with our choir director serving as conductor. We also invited a soprano soloist who is especially gifted at African-American spirituals. We located a number of spirituals in the Presbyterian Hymnal that would be appropriate for congregational singing, with the accompaniment provided by our jazz combo. And we chose an arrangement of "Shall We Gather At the River?" for the adult choir anthem.

So that the jazz music would enhance our worship, not replace it, we shaped the service around key Old Testament themes common in African-American spirituals (the Exodus, the Suffering Servant, and God as Creator). Each theme would be briefly introduced, then illustrated through music or readings from the poetry of James Weldon Johnson.

As soon as the congregation heard the opening snare drum riffs, they knew this service would be unusual. But using appropriate hymns, familiar musicians, and a coherent order of service prevented exchanging the "good news" for novelty. The service attracted many visitors, and we plan to modify and repeat it regularly. One good time of year to consider using this service is during Black History month, celebrated each February in the United States.



Prelude: "When the Saints Go Marching In" (Jazz Combo)

Call to Worship

Welcome to our service of worship! This is a time of music and prayer and praise.

We come to celebrate God's presence and how God's love is expressed through Jesus Christ.

We come remembering the saints of ages past and how Christ calls us to walk by faith today.

The Lord of Creation and the Exodus continues to lead us on paths of righteousness.

With the sound of hymns, spirituals, and raised voices, let us praise our God together!

Hymn: "Amazing Grace" PsH 462, PH 280, RL 456, SFL 209, TH 460, TWC 502


Response of Praise: "Glory Be to the Father" PsH 635, PH 577, RL 561, TH 736, TWC 805

Choral Invitation to Listen to the Word: "Shall We Gather at the River?" by Robert Lowry, arr. John Coates, Jr. (GlorySound)

Children's Message

Hymn: "I'm Gonna Live So God Can Use Me" PH 369



As a church that professes faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, much of our worship focuses on his life, death, and resurrection. Our church year begins with Advent, moves through the birth of Jesus at Christmas, and continues with Lent and the powerful stories of Easter and Pentecost. In between, we hear again about the teaching and healing ministry of Jesus and about the early church.

Yet only by hearing the message of the Old Testament can we put the New Testament news in context. Only then can we appreciate the world God made, into whose history Christ Jesus was born. Only then can we glimpse what God intended from the dawn of history and intends for the future as well.

The Old Testament is rich and diverse but it has a simple message: God is the Lord and Creator of this world and all that is in it, and God has acted through people and historical events to redeem this world. We tell that basic story in many ways, but one of the most powerful comes from the musical and literary heritage of the African-American Christian community. Take, for example, the Exodus story, how God's people were made slaves in Egypt until the Lord sent Moses to tell Pharaoh, "Let my people go." The Black church would remind us that Pharaohs still live today. These modern Pharaohs demand our allegiance, siphon away our life strength, profit from the toil of our hands, enslave and dehumanize through weapons of fear, oppression, violence, or greed.

Listen again to the old, old story as it is described for us in this poem by James Weldon Johnson and in the spiritual "When Israel Was in Egypt Land."

Poem: "Let My People Go" by James Weldon Johnson

Note: Space does not permit us to include this poem or "The Creation." They can be found in God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (New York: Penguin Books, 1927, 1955). Both poems should be read dramatically by readers who have prepared well.

Hymn of Response: "When Israel was in Egypt's Land" PsH 476, PH 334, SFL 103

soprano soloist, with congregation on the refrain



We need to cherish the creation stories of Genesis and the redemption stories of Exodus. One way to hold fast to their wisdom is through the idea of "substitution." In place of darkness and chaos, God gave us a world of beauty, order, and loving relationships. And when that world freely chose paths of disobedience and sin, God planned our redemption, substituting virtue for our vices by sending Jesus Christ to stand in our place before the judgment seat of righteousness.

The prophet Isaiah spoke about that substitution in his Servant Song (ch. 53). This song is quoted more frequently in the New Testament than any other Old Testament passage and is sometimes called the "gospel in the Old Testament." It is remembered today for the way it describes the substitutionary sacrifice made by Jesus Christ on our behalf. And when the prophet Jeremiah cried out in his despair, "Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no one who can heal our wounded souls and broken spirits?" both the Isaiah song and the African-American spiritual point to the answer of Jesus the Redeemer.

Scripture: Isaiah 53

Solo: "There Is a Balm in Gilead" PSH 494, PH 394, RL 465, TWC 611



Go back in time before the prophets with their angry tirades against corruption and disobedience; go back before the kings of Israel with all their battles; go back before the Exodus wanderings in the wilderness. In the beginning was a willful act of creation, an act done by a loving God who desired to be in relationship with creation, especially with those created in God's image. That basic message of God's desire for relationship is heard throughout Scripture and is heard in this church every Sunday.

Let us hear again about God's perfect act of creation, and let us respond in praise both in music and in our lives.

Poem: "The Creation" by James Weldon Johnson


"Amen, Amen" PsH 365, PF 299
"Every Time I Feel the Spirit" PH 315

both songs congregation and soloist

Prayers of the People


Closing Hymn: "He Is King of Kings" PH 153

Parting Blessing

Postlude: "O Them Golden Slippers" (Jazz Combo)

Randall Bush is pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Racine, Wisconsin, and an avid musician.


Reformed Worship 49 © September 1998, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.