Tom Jennings on Reaching Out to Professional Musicians

Tom Jennings, music director at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, talks about involving professional musicians in worship as an outreach.

Tom Jennings
Tom Jennings

Tom Jennings is the music director at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. He has a Ph.D. in classical piano and has performed as a recitalist and orchestral soloist and in opera, jazz and cabaret. In this edited conversation, based on November 2013 emails, he talks about involving professional musicians in worship as an outreach.

How many professional musicians were involved at Redeemer Presbyterian when you became music director in 1995?

When I first got involved with Redeemer in 1990, there were perhaps a dozen professional musicians at the church. By the time I came on staff in 1995, there were around 100.

How many professional musicians are involved there now, and what genres, instruments, etc. do they represent?

Among pros and conservatory students (Juilliard, Manhattan School of Music), we have around 400 at the church. They represent every possible instrument or genre, though most are in classical, jazz or music theater. There are Redeemer members in pretty much every major ensemble in town, including the New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera.

Given that Redeemer Presbyterian has eight Sunday services spread over three locations, how many professional musicians are involved on a given Sunday?

I would say around 40 to 50 musicians are involved on a typical Sunday. We maybe have a little less during the slow summer season, and we have as many as 150 at Easter or Christmas services. 

What have you found to be helpful to attract and engage professional musicians who are not (yet) believers?

We pay attention to scheduling. We have Bible studies, parties and important church events on dates and at times that musicians can attend, such as weekdays and Monday nights. We have substantial Sunday evening services. It’s helpful to spend time in their world—going to their concerts and club dates, hanging out with them and meeting for coffee during the week. We allow them to play "secular" music at appropriate moments in the services, such as Beethoven string quartets or Miles Davis tunes for preludes and postludes. This allows them to use their gifts naturally and fully. We do all worship music with excellence, regardless of style.

We plan musician parties, forums, house concerts and other community-gathering events for musicians.  

Through Hope for New York, Redeemer’s ministry of mercy and justice, we put musicians to work in service opportunities, like playing at nursing homes and homeless shelters, leading worship for AIDS patients and giving recitals to inspire kids. Our church’s professional musicians are proactive in prayer for, and evangelism of, their musical colleagues. Our pastors incorporate artistic references and analogies into sermons.

How do you get your preaching pastors to include artistic references and analogies in sermons?

I'll frequently share relevant quotes from books or articles with the pastors and also tell them about things going on among the musicians at Redeemer. It helps that most of them have a genuine personal interest in the arts anyway. 

What hasn’t been helpful to involve professional musicians at Redeemer?

It’s not helpful, at least in my experience, to put on concert series or to put pros into ensembles with amateurs.

What guidelines can you offer about asking people who make their living in music to volunteer their services in worship?

We offer payment to professional musicians any time they play for a service, whether they attend the church or not. This isn’t to turn it into a gig but to honor and respect them and help them survive in New York City. If they choose to volunteer instead, we make the commitment limited, not ongoing. We don’t offer to pay when they volunteer for mercy ministry projects around the city.

What’s a common challenge and solution when asking professionals and non-professionals to work together in church music?

I could list a lot of challenges. I'm not the best one to ask for solutions. Our solution has been to attract so many professional musicians that we basically use amateurs only for certain large choral situations and, of course, to joyfully participate in congregational singing!

Read about how Tom Jennings and other fine artists are reaching their peers with the gospel (scroll down to “The Arts Need a Redeemer”).

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