Jazz, worship and Lutheran liturgy play well together in the city

ELCA, Seeds for the Parish Spring 2016

If you’re in New York City and feel a little overwhelmed by all the people, noise, skyscrapers, cars and trains, head for Midtown Manhattan and seek out Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church.

Here you’ll find a minimalist-looking granite, wood and glass building, in stark contrast to its surroundings. But walk through the sanctuary doors of Saint Peter’s and you’re in a special space for prayer, worship and music—especially great jazz. “We have to think about how we welcome people and bring light and warmth into our space—and music is a huge part of it,” explained Ike Sturm, music director for the jazz ministry at Saint Peter’s. Saint Peter’s jazz ministry has a dynamic 50-year history. “We’re near what was once an epicenter of jazz. A lot of jazz musicians lived and played right in the neighborhood where the church is located,” Sturm said. It started with a pastor, John Gensel, “responding to people’s needs and getting involved in the lives of jazz musicians who needed spiritual support,” Sturm reflected. They were also invited to share their music in a different context—church. That special relationship with musicians became a lasting aspect of Saint Peter’s ministry and presence. “The musicians offer up the gifts and music that they love, and we offer a chance for their voices to be heard. At the same time, it gives us a unique take on our worship, liturgy and language of the church,” reflected Sturm. “With the imagination of the musicians that come in, the word and all the parts of our Lutheran liturgy, it’s dynamic—literally different every single time we worship.”

Recently, Sturm has been working on complementing the wealth of world-class jazz musicians playing at Saint Peter’s with more volunteer musicians of varying abilities and interests. A new monthly program, Jazz for All, is doing just that by drawing together people of different ages, abilities and experience levels—including teenagers, retirees and homeless people. They gather for music, learning, prayer and fellowship and also find spiritual nourishment and support. Sturm describes it as “a wildly, beautifully diverse group of people.” “It’s exciting. We have a lot of great, beautiful music happening at a really high level here, and this gives us a nice balance of community-driven music with a different focus," he said. Sturm believes congregations can find
“strong” resources for nontraditional music and worship in partnerships formed with musicians and music programs in their communities. “There are great musicians everywhere—at
colleges, high schools, middle schools, folk festivals, wherever musicians play.” “We really need to learn how to make these things a vibrant part of what we are doing in church … looking for
intersections and partnerships everywhere, and being creative,” suggested Sturm.

Contact Ike Sturm