When I say packed, I mean we were glad the fire marshal wasn’t around. Chairs spilled awkwardly into what were supposed to be side aisles, and people stood in the back and on the wheelchair ramp on the side of the room.
When the event ended, the sound and the image of a couple hundred people milling around, talking and hugging and laughing, made it hard to tell whether this had been a concert or a party or a family reunion.
Out of the crowd came a man, a friend of mine, to shake my hand. As he did so, he looked me in the eye, his excitement visible on his face, and said to me:
“This is church.”
Welcome to Roots Revival Stage, the free community concert component of Roots Revival, a service grounded in Americana/roots-based music at Centenary United Methodist Church in downtown Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
On the night I’m talking about, we welcomed The Amigos (“Hot American Folk Music”) and folk legend David Holt into our auditorium for a collaborative concert. This was our largest attendance, but we have had similar evenings with pop/folk singer-songwriter Dar Williams, folk artist Jonathan Byrd, and Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
Roots Revival is a weekly worship service. Why are we occasionally taking that time to have a concert?
There are two main reasons. First, when we looked at the resources we had for advertising this service, we decided to throw parties instead of doing traditional marketing.
Not only is this more fun, it also makes more sense for what we do. Roots Revival is an experience that must be had, not just explained. We can throw out buzzwords all day long—“Americana,” “liturgical,” “informal,” “emergent,” “participatory”—but even in the rare instances when people actually know what we mean by that, you still aren’t really going to get it until you’ve been there. What’s more, my generation in particular tends to respond best to the experiential and the relational anyway.
Having a concert series instead of doing traditional marketing also creates a space for invitations that wouldn’t happen otherwise. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a visitor at a Roots Revival Stage event say that they haven’t been in a church in years, even that they had sworn they would never go to church again (even one of our guest musicians said that he had to repent of that very sentiment after an evening with us!). Our hope is that Roots Revival can create a safe yet challenging space for the churched, the non-churched, the de-churched, and everyone in between—and the concerts are a unique opportunity for that.
Second, by offering free concerts with artists of rare quality and depth, we are telling our city and our region that we care about the arts and community. The church needs renewal, and I think a vital component of that will be resistance to the insular model of church. In many churches, there is a mentality that the only things that matter are the things that happen within our walls, with our people, according to our agenda. But I believe the church is going to change more in my lifetime than it has in quite a while, and part of what needs to happen is more collaboration with the community beyond the church.
In her book The Mystic Way of Evangelism, Elaine Heath says that the church needs to relearn the practice of kenosis—self-emptying. Jesus “emptied himself” (Phil. 2:7), and we are called to do the same. As mainline churches decline, the temptation is to build ourselves up—to scramble to put butts in pews and boost membership numbers—but as Heath writes, “the world needs to see a church that is not all about itself.” We are nowhere near getting that right, but in Roots Revival Stage, we are exercising a hospitality that we hope can move us in the right direction.
After the concert with The Amigos and David Holt, the man who came up to me afterward sent me an email. He said that night was one of the best examples of the church he’s seen, and that if anyone asks why we put so much into Roots Revival, “I’ll tell them a story about how God’s children sang the night away.”
And we did sing the night away. Was it a concert, a party, a family reunion, or church?
It was all of those things.
Join the celebration every Wednesday night at 7:30, and visit www.rootsrevivalws.com for updates on our concert series.
Sarah S. Howell