Backed by six musicians, a singer wearing skinny jeans and Converse sneakers raised her voice, then her hand. Hundreds in the crowd sang along. Minus the lyrics — “We will not fear/for God hath willed/His truth to triumph through us” — this Sunday morning song felt very Saturday night. But it took place in a sanctuary, not a stage. At a church in Chanhassen, not a downtown venue.
Members of this band, at Westwood Community Church, know those stages, too.
Across the Twin Cities each Sunday, musicians who headline First Avenue, the Dakota Jazz Club and Orchestra Hall are performing at a lesser known venue: church. Singers and instrumentalists from rock bands and classical ensembles, folk groups and gospel choirs are paid to play at the weekly services, adding expertise and oomph to old hymns and new worship songs.
For some, it’s a gig. (“For lack of a better term, it’s an easy cover band gig,” said bassist Matt Call.) Others see it as an expression of their faith. (“For me, it comes straight out of heaven,” said singer Jevetta Steele.) Either way, most view the steady income as a key piece of making a living as a musician.
“When you’re 18 and starting a band, you don’t think, ‘Man, I’m going to grow up and be a rock star playing churches,’ ” said Quillan Roe of the Roe Family Singers. “It’s not sexy — it’s not part of the romantic image of the traveling musician.”
But his old-timey bluegrass band plays churches regularly these days. And each Sunday at 5 p.m., Roe leads the band at the House of Mercy, a St. Paul church that spotlights country-gospel music in its worship: Hank Williams on a recent Sunday, alongside “Amazing Grace.” Other musicians in the church’s Blood Washed Band are volunteers, but as music leader, Roe gets paid. (It’s a post previously held by Page Burkum of the harmonious Cactus Blossoms.)
“For the Roe family, it helps a lot,” Roe said, then laughed. “The Roe family both as a band — and the Roe family as my wife and my children.”
Churches, then, are a sometimes invisible supporter of the Twin Cities area’s robust music scene, helping fuel musicians’ passion projects or simply cover rent. “In a funny way, churches are… allowing us to be artists,” said Jourdan Myers, a keyboardist and vocalist, continuing a tradition that dates back to Bach. “They’re paying us as musicians, valuing us in a way that a lot of venues don’t, a lot of clubs don’t.”
But there are tensions, too. Musicians who play these gigs, some of them nonbelievers, talk about trying to figure out a church’s beliefs, haltingly chatting with bandmates and parishioners, unsure of when to speak their minds. Some songwriters are hesitant to advertise their church gigs, worried that their own projects might get a reputation as a Christian rock band.
“We are playing in an industry that is, in a lot of ways, hostile to the idea of God,” said Myers, who learned to play in a band at church and recently toured with Haley Bonar, who now goes by Haley. “I’ve gotten razzed for playing at churches, for sure. … Some people view it as selling out.”
‘Breathe a little easier’
Andrea Leap has sung with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and at the Jungle Theater. But on Sunday, you’ll find her at church: Hamline Church United Methodist or Central Presbyterian Church, both in St. Paul.
“I have worked church gigs since I was 16,” said Leap, who also teaches voice at the MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis. When Leap moved to Minnesota a decade ago, “the very first job I got was a church gig, and it covered my rent,” she said. “I could breathe a little easier.”
A few years ago, after Leap performed at the Cathedral of St. Paul during Holy Week, the Catholic church offered her a full-time position. But Leap — who is open about volunteering for Planned Parenthood — declined to sign a contract saying she would adhere to the tenets of the Catholic faith. The decision was “amicable,” Leap said, and she continues to gig with Catholic churches.
More than in other states, “Minnesota is a place where it is an accepted practice to have hired section leaders” and soloists for church and synagogue services, she said. Elsewhere, that’s done “only in wealthier congregations and not with a lot of publicity.” She credits the difference to the state’s high level of music education. “Once you realize it’s a skill,” Leap said, “you understand that you’ve got to pay for it.”
At some churches, music directors hire singers and instrumentalists per service, adding strings and brass for big holidays, including Easter. Sight-reading skills required. This year, a music director created a Facebook group, called MSP Church Gig Postings, where churches advertise their needs and musicians find fill-ins.
“Last minute request! I’m in need of a cellist for Good Friday. Can pay $100.”
“Bass needed for Holy Week in Chaska!”
“TENORS, I need a sub for my church choir tomorrow morning. $55 for one service.”
At Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis, choral leader and organist Philip Brunelle adds a brass quartet and timpani for Easter services. But “I regard every Sunday as Easter,” he said. “There are no low Sundays.”
This church takes music seriously, with five paid soloists leading its senior choir, handbell ringers and music ranging from Renaissance to new commissions, including works by Minnesota composers Steve Heitzeg and David Evan Thomas. “When solo things come along — which they do all the time — you want to be able to know it’s going to be of the highest caliber,” Brunelle said. “That, then, affects how people worship.”
All genres welcome
At Progressive Baptist Church in St. Paul, the congregation was on their feet. They sang and danced, throwing their hands in the air as soloists onstage took turns leading.
“Grateful, grateful, grateful,” they sang on a recent Sunday. “Anybody out there grateful?”
Wearing a blue blouse and a big smile, Jevetta Steele shouted: “Yes!” She then jumped off the stage, wrapping up the chorus with a dramatic wave of her hand.
For Steele, of the legendary Steele family, becoming director of music ministries at this church allowed her to pause her international performances while her daughter was in high school. The part-time job involves organizing singing groups, dance troupes and a six-piece band.
The band is paid, while the rotating cast of singers are volunteers: “For them, it’s not their job,” Steele said, “it’s their joy.”
She has incorporated a range of music into the services at the church, including hip-hop Sundays. During one service, filled with Lionel Richie and Marvin Gaye songs, parishioners “weren’t quite sure whether to get their party on or their praise on,” Steele said, laughing. Each song is divinely inspired, she added. “Lord, what is this that you’re asking me to do?”
The range of music at churches on any given Sunday is as broad as parishioners’ beliefs. Progressive Baptist goes gospel; House of Mercy elevates alt-country, and during high mass at Catholic churches, such as the Basilica of St. Mary, the organist is the star. At Westwood Community Church, music is modern, with lots of guitar. Songs include those from John Mark McMillan, a popular Christian music artist from North Carolina with a big beard and hip hair.
“A hymn maybe feels more currently compelling next to a song we wrote last week,” said Ben Rosenbush, the church’s creative arts pastor. “That reminds us, too, that we are just the present telling of this story.”
Westwood is big: At its main campus in Chanhassen, there are two worship areas that seat more than 1,500 people. A satellite campus in Minnetonka holds 300 more. The sermon is streamed live to all three spots. But each hall gets its own band. Rosenbush — whose pop-rock project is called Ben Rosenbush and the Brighton — has drawn musicians who perform with such acts as Jeremy Messersmith, Greycoats and Owl City.
These artists might be played on 89.3 the Current, he said, “but they also weave into the church community for the gifts they bring.” In the church, the music is “kind of an inversion of the concert,” he said, with the band serving the congregation’s encounter with God.
Among the musicians, “there’s a broad faith spectrum,” Rosenbush said. “And I think that’s OK.”
Singer PaviElle French has scripture tattooed to her body and “will never forget” walking down the aisle with her minister, at age 19, to be saved. She had joined that St. Paul church after “they had asked me to come sing,” she said. “I came to the service and just loved it.”
But in her 20s, after the death of her parents, “my spirituality was challenged 100 percent,” French said. Today, she believes in the same principles, the power of scripture, but “it’s just that I look at it a little different.”
During the day, French works at the American Institute of Architects Minnesota. At night, she sings at spots such as Icehouse in south Minneapolis. (“I like to say that I moonlight as an engagement and operations assistant,” she said with a laugh, “because my real job is being an artist.”) And one Sunday a month, she gigs at church.
Monthly performances at Shepherd of the Hill in Chaska and elsewhere have helped her reconnect with her religious past, she said. “It opens up my mind and my heart,” French said, introducing her to people and a community she wouldn’t have otherwise gotten to know. Members of the church are now her Facebook friends, she said.
“For me, it’s definitely more for the fellowship and the anointing than it is for the supplemental income,” French said. “But that income sure is nice.”