On a chilly, pre-Christmas Wednesday night, members of Durango Vineyard Church filed into the cafeteria of Escalante Middle School for weekly services.
After a brief social time before services began, the church band took the stage to kick off the evening. Not unlike many bands you see downtown, this one featured a keyboard, drums, bass, guitar and a singer – and amplifiers and colored lights.
The group played for the first 20 minutes of the service, and the churchgoers were on their feet, singing along to the three songs the band played. And if the parishioners didn’t know the lyrics, no problem: The words were broadcast on two screens set up on either side of the stage.
This setup is an evolution of the church band. Where once there may have been an accompanist on a piano or organ while the congregation sang hymns from the pews, many churches are building bands as a way to foster a deeper connection with attendees.
Winston Sollay is the lead singer of the Durango Vineyard band. He’s also the Christian-based church’s full-time worship leader at the church and worship pastor at a Vineyard Church in Grand Junction, where he leads its band as well.
Sollay, who learned to play guitar at age 11, said he leads his all-volunteer band with an eye toward the care of its musicians.
“Being a part of church for a while, I’ve experienced burn-out, which is basically, you’re on every week, they always need you, so I sort of take the approach of I really want to care for people who are playing and so, if it’s between my bass player or drummer staying healthy and not feeling overworked, and not having a bassist or a drummer on a Wednesday, I’m going to pick the health of my drummer or bassist all the time,” he said. “Sometimes, the music will suffer, but I’m in it for the long haul and for their health. Here in Durango and also in Junction, there are about 30 volunteers each, so that gives me the ability to have a really good rotation of band members.”
It’s that ability to have enough volunteers to rotate that is an important element for the band at Durango’s Grace Church as well, said Keith Alewine, who has been music pastor at the church for the past 13 years. In the band, he also plays acoustic and electric guitar, and he agrees that it’s important to have a good group to work with. At Grace, Alewine said there is an audition process to be in the band, and he tells potential members that it’s a pretty big commitment: There’s practice for a couple of hours Tuesday nights and a run-through before Sunday services.
“When I’m meeting with new people who are considering joining the team, I would usually say it’s eight hours a week,” he said. “We are really looking for people who are heartfelt in their music and certainly competent. We’re looking for a mixture of talent and the heart.”
Alewine said the band tends to vary from week to week, which means so, too, do the instruments, “typically, your usual: drums, bass, guitars, keyboards, piano, singers,” he said.
And sometimes, the instrument can tend toward the unusual.
“I have to brag that we have had a theremin,” Alewine said. “One of the musicians in the band, her husband built it for her, so we have featured a theremin. Rarely, we’ll have horns. As far as a band, we’re more of a team that rotates players on and off the bench as needed. That affects the sound, but it also kind of keeps it interesting.”
For the two music directors, the evolution of the church band – and the music being played – is an important part of connecting with those who come to services.
“For me, the reason why a church band is important is I want us to look at ourselves as door-openers,” Sollay said. “It’s sort of this idea that connecting with God is a really difficult thing to do, especially with all the confusion in our culture of who God is, what God is, if he’s important at all, if he exists at all. And then pair that with the busyness of life and how people hardly have time for their families or vacation, much less God.
“The goal of the worship team is to be a door-opener to invite people in to say, ‘Hey, look, this is a great for you to connect and meet with God. So what we’re going to do is set aside this time and we’re going to open the door for you and you come in. If you want to, that’s great, if you don’t want to, that’s totally OK. But the door’s open. We want to open it for you.’ So with that, my view of worship is that worship is not necessarily in the context of music and in the context of the band; worship isn’t a thing that you do, but it’s like this place that you go with God. There is the musical side of it – yeah, you’ve got to practice, yeah you have to memorize certain parts of the song or know your part, but ultimately, you’re doing all that so that you can enter into this place. You can go and be with God.”
Sollay said he carefully selects the music his band plays so everyone can get something from it.
“Along with being a door-opener, you really want to sing songs that are pretty familiar, so you’re not just standing there like, ‘Oh, another original,’ so you never really connect with the heart-level because you’re just trying to keep up with the words,” he said. “So a healthy set in my opinion is one original song, something historical, then something from a few years ago, that’s an older, more popular Christian song; and then something really new and mainstream.”
He said it’s important to have a really healthy balance of music because unlike a rock band where a certain demographic shows up, at Durango Vineyard, “we’re trying to open the door for the person who was raised in the Catholic Church only singing hymns; we’re trying to open the door for someone who only listens to Christian radio; we’re trying to open the door for the person who thinks you should only be writing new songs.”
Displaying the lyrics for worshippers serves an important purpose, Sollay said.
“Part of the point of having the lyrics up is so one: people can actually see and think about what they’re singing, and hopefully, it’s Scripture, so it sticks with them throughout their week,” he said. “But then also two: the whole idea of being a door-opener. What are things between you and walking in? Is it that you don’t know the words? Problem solved. Here’s the words.”
And at Grace Church, music does play a big role, but there’s more to church than that, Alewine said.
“It plays a prominent role on Sunday mornings when we meet. But there’s a lot more to the life of the church than that. On Sunday mornings, it’s quite a big part of what we do,” Alewine said. “I would say in the American church, music has become quite a big deal. Music is certainly a way to connect with people once they’re there. I don’t know that people are coming because they think there’s going to be a great band at church, but the music does connect with people.”
For Alewine, a band, and music in general, illustrates a much bigger philosophy.
“There’s a reason, right? I really believe that people are born with creativity just waiting to find a voice in the world,” he said. “And maybe if you put it in Christian terms, I think the God that made us made everything, and put it into motion. He’s the creator, and so we look around and it’s easy to see that creativity. And the cool thing is that we think that he made us in his image. And so it’s very natural for humanity to want to create, too, so, music, art, business, construction, cooking, I think we prove this image within us every day.”