“If you want, I’ll give you a hug,” a tall man with silver hair says to a seated congregant. “I give man hugs,” the silver-haired man says after the two have bro-hugged. It’s noon on a Sunday. The man-hug guy’s laugh booms over the canned Christian contemporary pop-rock playing through the loudspeakers. What used to be a big-box retail store on Jackman Street is now the El Cajon campus of the Rock Church. The blue-lit stage at room center is flanked by jumbo screens. Convention-style seats angle outward in wall-to-wall rows. This Rock campus seats nearly 1000 worshippers. Today, according to an usher, there are maybe 400 in attendance. Messages scroll across the screens in a continual loop: “Welcome Back. Share the Gospel.” Soft light filters down through a theatrical haze. It gives the effect of indoor drizzle. The man-hug guy walks my way. I look down at the floor.
The service starts. Most all parishioners clap along to the pre-recorded music track playing. A band takes the stage. Lights come up. The room feels electric with anticipation. A keyboard player, an acoustic guitarist with a man-bun who will later identify himself as the Worship Leader, plus an electric guitarist, an electric bassist, a drummer, and two women vocalists. They play along into the soundtrack, then, presumably, take over. The volume swells. No hymnals. Instead, lyrics scroll across the giant screens. Hands, some with Bibles in them, are raised into the dark.
Miles McPherson used to play defensive back for the San Diego Chargers. Now he’s the senior pastor of the Rock Church. His sermon is channeled in real time via closed circuit from the main campus at Liberty Station in Point Loma to the four other satellite campuses throughout San Diego. He is thin, agile, and funny. El Cajon worshippers yell back at video McPherson when he asks questions of his live audience, things like “Who’s the man?” (Answer: Jesus) or “How many books in the bible?” (66.)
The El Cajon Rock band’s sound is of a kind I would not associate with a pick-up worship combo. It is very loud, and full, like being at a rock concert. It could just as easily be Coldplay up there, or a modern country band. The stage lights are stadium-level theatrical. Every song is instrumentally supercharged and loaded with religious-emotional hooks. After the second or third, I’m exhausted from the passion and high volume. I don’t know whether to laugh, cry, or do both.
Music remains a factor
“The reason there’s music in church is because it’s an emotional experience. It opens you up to get the message,” Jonita Cochran, a friend, opines over a breakfast of pancakes. Cochran grew up in black Baptist churches in Alabama. While the underlying goal of church music — to be a portal to spirituality — may remain unchanged, church music today isn’t much like the church music I grew up with. There may or may not be a choir. Hymnals have all but disappeared. And that centerpiece of many church services in times past, the church soloist, is facing extinction.
But music in its various forms remains a factor in the modern church. Some churches go to extremes to heighten the experience. For a time, Michael Sanchez, a celebrated Voice television talent show finalist, directed the music program at Shadow Mountain Church near Lakeside; Shadow Mountain has their own YouTube music channel. Point Loma Nazarene University offers a degree program in Music Ministry. It is an actual career path. And, there are pastors who freely admit to using non-traditional music, like straight-ahead jazz, as a means of getting people in pews. The small town church I attended as a kid back during the 1960s had music that was as basic as it gets. There was a featured soloist, a red-coifed older woman in a choir robe who could wring every ounce of passion out of the standards like “Ave Maria” or “Amazing Grace” in a strong but wobbly tremolo. She was, for many, the emotional apex of the service. She was a star in our community. I quit church cold when I was 16, but the memory of her lingers.
“A church soloist helps prepare the heart for the minister’s message.” Lisa Gruber has spent the past 40 years singing professionally. “I’ve sung my entire life, in bands, and as a paid soloist,” she says. “Music can move us like no other. God has given us the gift of music, and to be able to sing. It’s about Him, not me. Singing is my prayer. The words in the hymn are theology. We are telling God how great He is, how much we are grateful. Singing in church is an opportunity to thank Him for what he has done in our lives.” But she’s not singing in church as a soloist so much anymore.
“Age,” she says. “And, the worship teams are getting younger.”
Gruber’s husband is pastor of the Legacy Church. They congregate at the Parkway Middle School in La Mesa. Legacy does not use old-fashioned hymnals any longer. “We sing off of screens where the words are projected, and we have a wide variety of musical instruments.” She admits that church music has changed very quickly, “Especially in the last ten years. The old sound, the organ sound,” she says, “just doesn’t connect.”
Later, she will say this: “It’s time to move aside gracefully, and let the next generation come in.”
“Why Would Anyone Sing in Church These Days?” is the title of a 2016 essay that Jonathan Aigner blogged in Patheos, an online media company that publishes both religious and non-religious commentary.
“Our cultural ability to make music has decreased steadily since the dawn of commercial recorded music. For many years, churches were able to counteract this musical decline by training many in their congregations to sing and understand the written language of music. We had choirs for all ages.”
Aigner earned his music degree from Baylor University in Texas, and a Master of Arts in theology from Wheaton College in Illinois. His bio says he works as an elementary school music teacher, and that he is also the traditional worship minister at a United Methodist church.
“We used to have these majestic and beautiful instruments” — organs — “with infinite musical palettes and soaring, sustained tones that gave them the ability to breathe life into congregational singing. Now, we’ve dismissed those as passé, and substituted a rock band, fronted by a worship leader. He (it’s usually a he, for some reason) sings his song, and we try to sing along with his cover of our jesusy hot 100 favorites. We replaced an instrument uniquely adept at leading a congregation,” Aigner concludes, “with a cover band.”
More like a concert venue
“We’d do a mini-rock show every week, four times in a row. We had a major touring sound console, amplification, speakers, and concert lighting. It was a production. And we had production meetings every week.” Sport Thompson worked as the technical director at the Church at Rancho Bernardo for 17 years. Thompson says he put in 60-hour work weeks minimum at the church. “The Church at Rancho Bernardo was a full-time gig. It’s what I did for a living.” He says he started at $50,000 per year and when he left, he was making $78,000 in salary. He says the musicians were paid, too.
Churches have become more like performance venues, Thompson explains. He would know. He spent enough time in the latter, having toured with major rock and roll arena acts such as Winger, Megadeth, Guns n’ Roses. “When I was touring, I was a guitar tech.”
Later, he settled down and took a job in Barona Casino’s audio department, running their sound and lights, which gave way to a job doing the same for the Church at Rancho Bernardo. “They wanted a higher level of tech support than they could get from a volunteer. They wanted someone who could organize sound, lighting, and video.”
Thompson says, “Our room seated 1000 people, more like a concert venue than what you’d think of as a church. It was basically set up for live music. This element was important to them. A church service,” he explains, “needs to be an impressive experience. It used to be that it was the architecture that inspired awe and wonder. But now, churches are moving into different facilities like empty big box stores. They need to inspire in different ways.”
“Most of those big churches use Abelton,” says the former music director of a local church. He asks that I not use his real name. He says he doesn’t want to alienate church contacts by sounding like an old disgruntled guy. And, he says, “I might want to go back there and play again someday.” Abelton, he explains, is software and hardware that is specially designed for music creation and performance. He says that when he started nearly two decades ago, things were different. The church allowed him to arrange songs and hire musicians. He says that unlike today, they actually performed live.
“The church allowed me to hire the best musicians in town. I brought people in who weren’t necessarily Christians, but that had good hearts.” The music? “We did everything, from shredder guitar to black gospel.” He says they went for 20 years like that. “We could all play.” But over the years, the game at contemporary Christian churches changed. He says the congregation grew, and that the church had to start providing multiple services on Sundays. That’s around the time when he says the band began to perform to backing tracks the church purchased from Multi Tracks.
From the MultiTracks.com web page: “Now, churches of any size can use Multi Tracks to achieve that full-polished sound that you hear on most recordings and live performances. If you’re looking to have the live flexibility to go to different parts of the song whenever you want, you can do that. If you’ve got a band but you don’t have every musician you need there every Sunday, just layer in the parts you need and you’re ready to go.”
The nameless music director explains, “You can use as much of [the parts of] a song as you want.” Meaning, the sound mixer can take certain voices or instruments out, or leave them in. “The tracks are good, but they’re kind of generic. They have vocals, full instrumentation. The sound engineer can mute anything,” he says, from certain tracks to stage microphones. “You can play along. But sometimes, I wonder if they’re even playing.” In his church’s case, “The worship director had a dummy mic. He wasn’t singing the whole time.” He lip-synched to a pre-recorded voice, in other words. “And when he went into prayer,” which was live, “I would make up something on the spot and play behind him on guitar.
Why use software and backing tracks instead of the real thing?
“Because that’s what attracts people,” he says. “Not all churches have professional musicians. And this way, they all sound good. And they can follow the trends. Things move in cycles.”
He calls this latest trend Elevation Worship, after the type of worship music developed at a church in North Carolina. “Now, they’re all trying to sound like U2, or Imagine Dragons.”
“If you want to shake your butt, go to a night club.”
Joyce Lucia, 65, now living in La Costa, has decades of experience as a traditional soloist in churches on the East Coast. She says those jobs are much thinner out west. At the time we talk by phone, Lucia, a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music, is preparing to be the guest soloist in a neighborhood church on Super Bowl Sunday. I ask about the place of the Sunday morning soloist. Lucia asks if I am a Christian. She says if I were, that it would be easier to explain the concept.
“There’s an old saying: he who sings worships twice. Singing is actually a way of worship. I feel like I’m preaching when I’m singing a solo in church. Just like the pastor.” She says she only attends churches that conduct traditional services. She says she gets soloist jobs by asking, or auditioning, or by joining the choir.
“That’s generally considered a rite of passage to soloist,” Lucia says, “singing in the choir.”
Reverence and mystery
1629 Columbia Street, Little Italy
“Do you have a book?” A woman in all black, mildly stooped, kindly of expression, gray-headed, approaches me from mid-pew and to the rear.
No. Do I need one?
“Yes,” she smiles. “For this service, you will.” She tells me that this is the only traditional Latin service at Our Lady of the Rosary, in Little Italy.
She hands me a book bound in red, an Adoremus Hymnal. “Have you been to St. Paul’s Episcopalian in Hillcrest?” Marty, it turns out, is something of a traditional church music maven. “They have a pipe organ concert there every Tuesday at noon.” I make note. I ask her which door leads upstairs to the choir loft. “You just wait right here,” she suggests. “They all have to come down eventually.”
I’m here for the Latin Mass with Gregorian chant. A church flyer says this service is presented here on the second Sunday of the month at 4 pm. Fishermen built this place of worship. Our Lady of the Rosary was constructed in 1925 and financed by percentages of the catch from homesick Italian and Portuguese immigrants. Small and whitewashed on the outside, inside it is like sitting in a work of art. Artisans long ago painted murals across the ceiling and along the front and back walls. Near-life-sized marble and plaster statues of religious figures are stationed around the altar. The dying light of day filters through exquisite stained glass windows. The woody-pine scent of incense fills the air. Candles catch the downtown breeze through open doors and flicker.
And then, the choir.
It is a rich harmonic sound, light, and filled with portent. Every register is represented. Their combined voice floats over the tops of the pews. It fills the chapel. At full swell, the peak of volume of the gathered voices produces an emotional response in the listener. The effect is of reverence, and of mystery. It occurs that the voices are pure, unadulterated. No Abelton. No backing tracks. No electric amplification. The church was constructed in a way such that human voices would carry. In chant-and-response, the words are foreign to me. I assume they are Latin. I make a note: this is what they mean by Gregorian chant.
“I’m the program director of the choir.” Mike Gruta, 43, works in marketing for a local biotech firm. He’s a tenor. He went to St. Augustine High School in North Park. We speak by phone in the weeks following the Latin Mass. “I pick out the songs we sing,” he explains, but only for the one Sunday, the Latin Mass. “I’m part librarian, too.” He’s the guy who comes up with sheet music for the choir members. Cost? “A good bit of this music is in the public domain,” meaning that copyright no longer applies to the age of the material. “It falls in two distinct themes,” he says. “Gregorian Chants and Renaissance polyphony,” which he says originated in the span of time reaching from the 1400s to the 1700s.
“The bug probably got me when I was in high school. A lot of the songs we perform in Latin Mass are the kinds of songs you’d hear a high school madrigal choir sing.” He says the Latin Mass choir at Our Lady of the Rosary is a volunteer effort, that the members are essentially amateurs. Gruta says he had to audition to become a member, but that was long ago and under a different choir director. “There aren’t more than a handful of us who are classically trained.”
He thinks that singing in church, especially at the choir level, is becoming a thing of the past. “One reason it’s being pushed aside is it takes work.” Gruta says for that one hour of singing, the choir puts in three and a half hours of practice.
An outreach to the urban community
320 Date Street, Downtown San Diego
“We’re in our ninth year.” One of San Diego’s most venerable jazz clubs is actually a church service. Archie Thompson (no relation to Sport,) is a local lounge-and-restaurant-pianist, singer, composer, and sax player. He is also the jazz artist in residence and the music director of Jazz Vespers at First Presbyterian Church in downtown San Diego.
“When Pastor Jerry Andrews asked me to help start Jazz Vespers, I said, we can’t do this with volunteers. We have to pay our musicians.” Jazz Vespers (vespers means evening service,) happens Saturday afternoons at 5 pm in the smaller chapel on the Fourth Avenue side of the massive brick church, inside the smaller wedding chapel. “I think it’s served its purpose as an outreach to the urban community. Jazz Vespers has become its own entity. We’ve had weddings, baptisms, and memorials at Jazz Vespers.”
Thompson says the program was started with an endowment left by a church member. “We’ve become self-sustaining. Does it draw as many new people as we’d hoped? No. But as Pastor Jerry says, we’re only performing to an audience of one — God.”
“If they don’t like it, they tell you to sit down.”
7309 El Cajon Boulevard, La Mesa
“It all starts here,” Larry Edwards says, looking around the chapel from the rose-pink carpeted drum riser inside the Liberty Temple Worship Center. “If you learn to play music here,” meaning, in a Baptist church, “you can play with anyone. These are the hardest musicians to play with.” For the next hour, Edwards, on drums, along with a pianist and an organist, will back the pastor, the choir, and the congregation. “If they don’t like it, they tell you to sit down,” he says. He smiles in a way that only a church musician who has been told to sit down in the past can smile.
Liberty Temple Worship Center occupies a retail storefront alongside a string of used car dealerships, mechanics, saloons, and day-week-month motels on a not-promising stretch of El Cajon Boulevard. St. Martin’s Catholic Church, a huge yellow brick edifice anchors the block to the east at La Mesa Boulevard. Within eyeshot from there is a sprawling Methodist church and day school. Two more community churches reside in the La Mesa Village proper. Upstream from Liberty Temple is Calvary Chapel, another storefront conversion. Around back, just off 70th street, on Amherst, is the New Assurance Baptist Church. In this little cluster of La Mesa, there appear to be more churches per square mile than Starbucks.
“This is a Pentecostal-based non-denominational church. Your experience today is going to be phenomenal, spectacular, extraordinary, and tremendous.” Lorraine Carroll is a presence, standing near the back wall of the sanctuary when I enter. I mistake her for someone in charge. No. She is not. “The pastor’s not here yet.” I explain my reason for being there, that I’m writing about church music. “Musically? What separates black churches from white churches — and when I say black churches, that’s a culture,” Carroll explains. “Black church culture is musically dynamic, because it was birthed out of slavery. Anything you hear today is the residue of slavery.”
There are 11 women in the choir. Lorraine Carroll is one of them. They stand, each with a microphone, in front of the altar/lectern. The lectern is clear acrylic. The back wall is draped in white. Crimson accent curtains and red floor spotlights warm the room. The chapel is a gray rectangle that seats maybe 200. Co-pastor Christina Page first leads with a group prayer in song. Then, Pastor Michael Page takes over. For the next hour, he will sing nonstop. He ramps the energy up, way up, and he keeps it there. One song blends into the next. No hymnals, but the congregation follows along. Some in the audience have tambourines, and they jangle and smack them in time to Larry Edwards’ drum beat.
Later, I ask Lorraine Carroll how they knew what to sing. “We didn’t,” was her answer. “Black church musicians are not trained by sheet music. They are trained by ear. If I start singing right now, I don’t know what key it is. So I call it the key of ‘find me.’ And they will.” She flashes a smile. She explains that the pastor starts them on a musical path that they all know and understand. After it gets rolling, the pastor will sing a line from something else, or a thought, or a prayer that sends the group en masse in that direction.
“We call that a medley. Snippets out of different songs, on the pastor’s time, in the melody he is creating. We call that a move of God. Now, if you go to the Baptist church they will have rehearsed those songs 16 times. Ours is based on a call and response.” She sings: “If you call on Jesus (changes her voice) He will answer prayer.”
The entire room is going full tilt boogie now. My emotions get ahead of me. Pastor Michael Page has a fine, durable tenor. He sings and dances for all he’s worth. He is slender, in black slacks, a gray print long sleeve shirt, and a charcoal vest. Pastor Michael will eventually require a towel, which he will drape around his neck. After singing, for the next hour, the pastor preaches, the Hammond organ rumbling like thunder beneath his words or stabbing out little earthquake accents. Pastor Michael ranges from soft to blood-curdlingly loud three times during this sermon. He laughs and he cries.
He passes the microphone to church members, and they sing too. No sign of stopping. These are working class people who are not musicians per se, but they have beautiful, rich voices. This music could as easily be happening in a wood frame church in Alabama as it is here inside a re-purposed retail storefront on El Cajon Boulevard with faded Visa/Mastercard stickers on the front windows. And all through the service, a toddler, a boy, sits clutching a pair of blue drumsticks. He is perched on the bench next to the B3 man. He does not take his eyes off of Larry the drummer while he plays. And for this child, this is how it begins.