by Marjorie George
from the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of Reflections magazine.
The song that opens worship at Grace Church, San Antonio, on a recent Sunday morning could have come from the court of King David: “I will not forget you are my God, my King; and with a thankful heart I bring my offering . . .”
That’s because, explains Andy Rodriguez, music minister at Grace Church, the group (Enter the Worship Circle) that wrote the song bases much of their work on Psalms. “When they write songs they will gather in a secluded spot, turn off all their electronics and technology, read the Psalms together, and pray,” says Rodriguez. They disconnect with everything to connect with God, says Rodriguez, who, with his wife, Lisa, has been leading the contemporary music team at Grace Church for seven years.
As a somewhat non-traditional Episcopal church, Grace Church was founded intentionally several years ago to draw people who may have never had a church home or who may be alienated from their former churches. For them, organ music and 18th century lyrics make no connection to their lives. Meeting in All Saints Chapel at TMI – The Episcopal School of Texas, the Grace Church Sunday-morning congregation is lively, engaged, and full of young families with children.
Connecting with God is the primary purpose for the music at Grace Church, says Rodriguez. “We are not performing” he insists. “We are the available vessels. We extend a hand and invite the congregation in.” He considers the music team to be the messengers of God’s presence — whether that is for one person in the congregation or the entire assemblage.
To do that, says Rodriguez, he has to empty himself. His mantra is “All of me, none of God. None of me, all of God.”
“There can’t be any of me, of us, in our music,” he adds.
For Lisa Rodriguez, who plays flute, music is a form of prayer. “I’m not very good with words,” she says, “but when I play my instrument, that articulates my prayer.” Everyone has a different way of learning, says Lisa, different ways of praying. “For me it’s music.”
Along with Andy on guitar and Lisa on flute, the Grace Church music team includes two or more guitars, an African style drum called a djembe, a violin, keyboards, and one or two flutes. The team has built slowly over the past several years, says Rodriguez, as God has drawn them together.
As exemplified by that Enter the Workshop Circle song, much of Christian contemporary worship is based on Psalms and Proverbs, explains Rodriguez. Makes sense, as the Psalms are the scripture that most expresses man’s relationship with God, the one biblical book in which man speaks to God. “Everything we do is scripture-based,” says Rodriguez, emphasizing that it is God’s message they are delivering. A heavy dose of the Holy Spirit also guides the music at Grace Church. As team members, individually and collectively, consider the music they will offer on an upcoming Sunday, Rodriguez might ask each of them, “What’s going in your life this week? Where do you see God? What is the Spirit saying to you?”
During the Sunday morning service, Rodriguez take cues from the congregation. “I sing with my eyes open,” he says. “If they are engaged in a song we might sing another verse, or if I am not seeing that connection we might cut it short.” He adds he and the vicar communicate with each other during the music, often with just a look or a slight hand signal.
Rodriguez doesn’t like the term “praise band.” “That sounds like performance,” he says, “we want our music to be simple and vulnerable. We get ourselves out of the way and follow God’s lead.” He calls it staying in the lane. “We don’t want to get ahead of what God is doing, but we are shining a light on what God is doing.”
Rodriguez’ heart’s desire, he says, is that the worshipping congregation will come together for God. Basically, says Rodriguez, “We are teaching the body how to pray through music.”
The phrase, “He who sings prays twice” is attributed to St. Augustine, a fourth-century church Father. In contemporary music at Grace Church, those ancient words are still expressed in the vernacular.
Marjorie George is editor of Reflections magazine and ReflectionsOnline. Reach her at email@example.com
For Further Reflection
The next time you sing in church, whether it is contemporary or traditional, listen to the lyrics. Where might God be asking you to pay attention?