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Preaching Like Jazz

Relaxing into the moment with the Holy Spirit’s movement of rhythm and grace.
Preaching Like Jazz
Image: Jon Feingersh Photography Inc / Getty Images

My parents offered me the gift of piano lessons when I grew up, beginning in second grade. Nancy Schwegler was my devoted piano teacher, helping me learn the intricacies of music theory and strengthening my technique, all while gradually exposing me to some of the greatest composers of the classical tradition. But her devotion to me as a student shone even brighter when, realizing I was losing interest in piano during high school, she took lessons herself to help me learn how to play jazz.

As my interest in jazz increased, she set me free to develop my abilities by playing with those even more skilled, even as I soaked in the masters like Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, and Herbie Hancock. With my parents’ encouragement, one summer while in high school, I attended a jazz camp at a nearby university, learning so much more about the ins and outs of playing jazz.

One of the biggest adjustments for someone trained classically with music is moving away from a full score—where all the notation for both hands is written out from start to finish—to working off a lead sheet—where the only notation might be a melody accompanied by the basic chord structure of the song. I tried to learn how to comp and improvise amidst the flow of the music and the lead sheet while at this camp, but the harder I tried, the worse my playing sounded.

Observing this, one of the older, seasoned jazz musicians working with us, an upright bass player, leaned over to me while we played and said, “You need to relax. You need to relax into the feel. Just let the feel get inside you and flow with the rhythm and the music.” It was counterintuitive but it was right.

When I first began to preach in high school, I believed using any prepared notes was a failure of faith, and not relying on the Holy Spirit. After all, I thought, if I can’t trust God to give the words in the moment, then where is my faith? However, it didn’t take me too long to realize that it might be helpful for me and others if I had something in front of me to restrain my tendency to meander off into topics that were only of interest to me (and perhaps not even that interesting to the Holy Spirit!).

Later during seminary, I learned to prepare an outline of Scripture texts that led to a sermon outline that led to a written sermon manuscript that led to an aural draft of the sermon, that is, the written form of a sermon meant to be heard not read. This was incredibly helpful for my development as a preacher.

Yet as time passed, I realized I needed to develop my own approach to preaching. The approach I have developed could best be characterized as preaching like jazz, of studying and preparing diligently but then relaxing into the moment with the Holy Spirit’s movement of rhythm and grace.

What Do You Bring With You?

One question I enjoy asking other preachers, and I find budding preachers often asking me, is, “What do you bring into the pulpit when you preach?” In developing my sermons, you would see me steadily labor over studying a text before beginning to shape that into a sermon in written form. The end product might look very much like a full sermon manuscript. I do write it for hearing not reading, but it is still a manuscript of sorts, nonetheless. In my setting, this helps our technical team have a sense of how to follow me in the sermon as they advance accompanying presentation slides. They receive it in advance, and I have that sermon text in front of me on an iPad as I preach.

However, this is where the “manuscript” wording begins to break down. Along with asking a preacher what they bring with them into the pulpit, it is also worth asking a preacher what they do with what they bring with them into the pulpit. For me, this is where preaching begins to move into jazz territory.

Before I ever begin to preach, I have thought through this sermon and also familiarized myself with its structure. I seek to internalize the message itself but also the message’s flow and structure so that I do not rely on what is in front of me. It is not memorization, but it is an internal familiarity. As one mentor said to me, “You have to let the sermon live inside of you first.” Even while I have that fully written sermon manuscript in front of me, I begin to view that more as a jazz lead sheet than a full score. And that’s where the fun begins.

Even though I almost always begin with a well-prepared opening to my sermon and even as I have the basic structure and theme of the sermon in mind, I seek to be open throughout that preaching experience to the gentle guiding or the forceful interruption of the Holy Spirit. There is always a fine line between leaning into emotions and relying upon the Holy Spirit, but I do believe this is something we can learn to discern.

Similarly, to how a jazz musician learns what works best in the improvisational flow of a 12-bar blues or the unique styling of a 5/4 beat like Dave Brubeck’s rendition of Paul Desmond’s “Take Five,” so, too, I find that a preacher can learn how to discern the Holy Spirit’s freeing movement within the flow and structure of a sermon.

One of a Kind Theme and Variations

One musical form I learned early in my piano lessons was that of theme and variations, where an initial melody is repeated several times with various, often increasingly complex, changes. When he was roughly 25 years of age, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote an easily recognizable example of this theme and variations form. Taking a well-known folk melody, familiar to us in songs such as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” or “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep,” Mozart composed 12 variations on it (“12 Variations on "Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman" K.265/300e.”). It is always recognizable but takes on unique flairs and flourishes, dynamics and tempos, to re-present the familiar in unique and sometimes surprising forms.

This familiar form in classical music becomes a wild ride in jazz, whether it’s Art Tatum’s rendition of “Tea for Two” or John Coltrane’s thirteen-minute reinterpretation of “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music. While it is hard to generalize about jazz across its widespread history, some of the essential elements of jazz are “blues, syncopation, swing and creative freedom” (“What are the elements of Jazz?”). My own sense is that there is always something “in the moment” about jazz, whether in a live performance or a recording. There is a one-of-a-kind experience, something that Legacy releases of classic jazz albums with alternate takes makes clear.

Preachers echo jazz in this way, bringing everything together within a one-of-a-kind moment in the preaching event. This is why printed sermon manuscripts never read quite like the sermon you heard and why often reading a sermon never feels quite as powerful as when you were there to hear it. Before I preach, thoroughly prepared in prayer and study, I ask the Holy Spirit to guide me with wisdom, power, and freedom into this one-of-a-kind moment of edification and worship that God wants to bring.

In my current church setting, I preach during three services each Sunday morning at 8, 9:30, and 11 AM. Each service has the same overall structure and is not themed differently according to worship styles (e.g., traditional, contemporary). However, no two sermons within those services is ever exactly the same.

In fact, I have sometimes heard from congregants who say they were talking with others who attended a different service and there was something in one sermon that was not in another. Sometimes they’re surprised to have missed a certain point or story, and other times they’re thrilled to find they received something from God that felt like it was just for them during that specific message. None of this is pursued as a performance or for attention, but I am often reminded that what God is doing in each moment with each person and in each sermon and for each service is unique.

The Ensemble

At least part of this uniqueness is related to the people who are gathered together. I sometimes say that each service for our church is like a slightly different sub-congregation within our church. But regardless of whether a congregation gathers in many services or one service, the people assembled to hear and attend to the word are a living community. As preachers we sometimes can lose our focus, misunderstanding our unique role within the congregation. It is true that we may be up front speaking, but this is still a community experience. God is doing something intricately relational within the gathered people, including both those listening and those speaking. And this, too, reminds me of jazz.

Miles Davis is undoubtedly one of the best-known jazz musicians of all time and his most famous album is Kind of Blue recorded in 1959. Davis pulled together one of the most renowned ensembles of all time to record this album, leading a group featuring John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley on alto sax, Bill Evans on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums. This six-piece was an augmentation of what became known as Miles Davis’ first great quintet during 1955-59, which some say was surpassed in the second great quintet (1964-1968) with Wayne Shorter on saxophone, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums.

While Davis’ fame is well-deserved, every musician knows it is not just one person’s skills but the interplay of an ensemble’s personalities, skills, and abilities that makes a truly great musical moment. In fact, it is when one person thinks too highly of themselves that we often see great musical ensembles—or other groups like sports teams—crumble apart and lose their greatness.

So, too, when we think about the sermon, preachers thrive by understanding their place in a greater ensemble, so to speak. The preacher is just one part of the gathered community, the church at worship, and even the preaching act, which can deceptively seem like a one-person event is still the ensemble moving together. In my setting congregants respond to the preacher with comments, stirring murmurs, or some clapping, which is a gracious reminder that we’re in this together as an ensemble of worship.

Like a jazz musician looking to those he plays with, I pursue a double awareness while preaching. On the one hand, I seek to be aware of what the Holy Spirit is doing, that I might surrender my preparation and preaching plan to God’s work in this unique moment, as Paul suggests: “keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25). On the other hand, I try to be aware of what is happening with my fellow believers in response to the word, playing off of God’s work in them even as I respond to God’s work in me.

Contrary to appearances, preaching is not a solitary work, but is actually the swinging rhythm of an ensemble at worship.

‘It Don’t Mean a Thing’

All this is just an attempt to articulate with words something that is hard to put into words. While it might be easy to name some characteristics of jazz, there is something that you just have to feel within it.

As the Duke Ellington jazz classic, “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” hints, there is just something indescribable that catches all the notes, musicians, and listeners together into a rhythm and flow that moves them somewhere else. So, too, preaching like jazz takes all the study and preparation into the sermonic event to encounter something greater than the preacher, the congregation, or the words in a wondrous encounter with God.

It is difficult to describe, but perhaps the impressions here will encourage other preachers to relax into the counterintuitive feel of the preaching moment, letting the rhythm and the music of the Holy Spirit and the congregational ensemble take us somewhere else that is beyond us.

Matt Erickson serves as the Senior Pastor of Eastbrook Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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