Music’s role in the church and reconciliation

When Richmond, Virginia native David Bailey was eight years old, he watched enrapt as his uncle played the flute in a jazz ensemble. “That, I decided, was what I wanted to do,” Bailey said in a recent interview.

By 11 he was playing piano for the worship services at Victory Christian Fellowship, an African-American Pentecostal church adjacent to the eastern seaboard’s largest public housing project. By 14 he was earning money playing at weddings. At 18 he entered Virginia Commonwealth University to study the saxophone.

“I know every vocation is godly,” Bailey said with a smile. “But the artist’s is a very Genesis 1-2 type of vocation.” God’s first self-revelation “wasn’t as a judge or king or ruler,” he explains. “It was as an artist. Genesis 1 is a poem that’s about God’s creative process,” he continued. “The first mandate God calls us to is culture-making. The arts are key to what it means to be human,” says Bailey, now 38. “You can’t have flourishing without great storytelling and the arts.”

Music: A means for reconciliation

Bailey’s high view of the arts isn’t rooted only in a strong theology of creation. Music, he believes, is a powerful means of reconciliation. Good musicians must be cultural anthropologists. “Intuitively, in order to make a connection with your different audiences,” he explained, “you have to understand that you’re crossing different cultures.”

Throughout college, Bailey would play his saxophone on Friday nights at a country club and on Saturday nights in jazz joints. Sunday mornings, he was the pianist for the contemporary worship Third Presbyterian. Then he led worship Sunday afternoons at Victory Christian and finished up playing Sunday evenings at a congregation composed of internationals. Many people stick with their own homogenous groups, Bailey noted, whether that’s immigrants or whites or minorities. “They have an experience of white Richmond or middle-class Richmond or black Richmond,” he explained. “I was doing all of it in a weekend.”

The work honed Bailey’s skills in navigating diverse cultural contexts. He already had personal experience of feeling like “the other.” He grew up in a predominantly white county but went to church “seven days a week” in the inner city. “When I was in the suburbs I was a racial minority,” he recently told a group of pastors. “When I was in the city I was an economic minority.”

Around 2008, Bailey’s wife, Joy, called out his giftedness in communicating with and gathering people from many different walks of life. Conversations about reconciliation was becoming more frequent in the Christian community, and she urged him to begin writing and teaching from his experiences. Not long after, the couple moved into an economically distressed urban neighborhood in Richmond called Church Hill at the invitation of Corey Widmer and Don Coleman. Widmer, who is white, and Coleman, who’s black, had co-founded East End Fellowship there. The church is intentionally multi-racial and multi-class and seeks to be a reconciling community. The pastors asked Bailey to serve as the congregation’s worship director.

Today, Bailey’ is no longer in that role but he continues serving as an elder. Largely as a result of his influence, the worship arts have become a central strategy for advancing East End Fellowship’s vision of unity in diversity. Bailey believes in the wisdom he heard from a music teacher: “We can’t all talk at the same time and hear one another. But we can all sing together at the same time and hear one another.”

After the initial years of optimistic enthusiasm, the leaders at East End hit a wall. At a staff retreat, Bailey recalled, a young African-American woman admitted she felt “hungry, angry, lonely, and tired” in the face of the challenges brought on by racial diversity. Others agreed. The team decided to study Scripture and read more about sociology and other fields that could help them. This formed the seeds of what later became a small group study series on Race, Class, and the Kingdom of God that Bailey has taught nationwide alongside his white colleague, Elena Aronson. But even this deeper dive was insufficient, Bailey realized. “We were preaching reconciliation, but we weren’t singing it.”

The team had made progress. They’d come “to see reconciliation as spiritual formation” and engaged the congregation in activities aimed at increasing everyone’s cultural intelligence. This provided vital shared language and knowledge. But Bailey sensed the work of reconciliation entailed more. It required cross-cultural collaboration in making new culture.

“Everything’s theoretical until you do stuff together. Like Mike Tyson says, ‘Everybody has a strategy until they get punched in the face.’”

Writing the soundtrack of reconciliation

In Church Hill, this took shape when Bailey launched the Urban Doxology Songwriting Internship in 2011 to be a vehicle of both leadership development (especially for minority young adults) and culture-making. At its heart is a summer song-writing internship for adults ages 18-25. “People’s theology isn’t shaped by what they hear preached, passively,” Bailey asserts. “It’s shaped by what they sing.” Music sticks. Music heals. “We even learn our ABCs through music,” he commented.

To emphasize the point, Bailey talked of an exercise he did with congregants. He’d ask a mixed group to raise their hands if they’d heard of John Stott and some hands would go up. Then he’d ask who knew about James Cone, and other hands would rise. “Then I’d ask who’d heard of Chris Tomlin,” he continued, and all the hands would raise. Bailey felt convinced Tomlin has shaped people’s theology more than most academic theologians. “This isn’t a new idea,” he adds. “The Wesleys understood it during the Great Awakening. “People’s theology of grace was more influenced by “Amazing Grace” and “And Can it Be” than by anything else.”

What East End Fellowship needed was music and liturgy that could express its core values of community and justice, presence and diversity. “Every social movement has had a soundtrack,” Bailey says. Surveying the contemporary Christian music landscape, he couldn’t find what he was looking for. “The repertoire of music available was largely about ‘vertical’ theology, created for the soccer mom, the white college student, and the Black middle class,” he explains. “But in the ‘hood’ or for the Black Lives Matter demographic, or for the multi-ethnic community, you need music for ‘horizontal’ theology.” So, through the songwriting internship, racially diverse teams of young musicians come to Church Hill and create it together. They’ve created more than 200 songs to date and some intern alums formed Urban Doxology, a worship band traveling to share the music and the message of reconciliation with other congregations.

“Collaboration is really where the transformation happens,” Bailey said. “We’re not transformed by the relationships alone. Just sitting around the coffee shop talking about ideas is not going to change us. We’re transformed by working together to try to create something that lasts.”

Topics: Church and Ministry, Theology

About the Author

Amy L. Sherman is a Senior Fellow at the Sagamore Institute and author of Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good (IVP).