Saturday, January 28, 2012

Bluegrass Jams and Church

As my seven readers may know from looking at my profile, one of my identities is 'mediocre musician'. One of my favorite things to do, musically, is to go to bluegrass jams. Basically, what happens at a bluegrass jam is that people sit or stand around and play bluegrass songs. By and large, anyone can show up at a jam ~ doesn't matter whether you're a great player, or just starting on an instrument.

I'm not a very good bluegrass musician, but in the years that I've been going to jams, I've gotten good enough to be able to at least keep up in most circles. So I felt a little bit off balance last week when I went to a jam and felt like I didn't completely fit in. It took me a little while to figure out why, but here's what I think.

I showed up to the jam just as it was starting, and it was obvious that everyone else who was there knew each other. They were calling one another by name, talking about their life beyond that night, and asking about mutual friends. Even as other people showed up, it was obvious that everyone there knew everyone else, that they saw each other regularly in that venue, and that they interacted with one another in other settings as well. Out of probably 12 to 15 people who were there that night, there was only one who I thought might not be a regular … and she was the only person who said anything to me all night.

Once the jam started, the group was mostly playing songs I didn't know. I'm competent enough to be able to keep up with the chord changes for new songs, and confident enough to know that if I can't play the song, I'll sit it out. The thing that bugged me, though, was that I know plenty of songs (just not the ones they were playing). I would have been happy to call, and lead, one of the songs I do know. But in that circle, no one invited me to suggest a song, and it didn't feel like anyone cared that a stranger might have something to offer.

It felt to me like this group held a jam so that they could see each other, and the music was of lesser importance than their already-established relationships. I felt like an outsider for the whole night, and I felt like they didn't care whether I was there or not. The only thing anyone said as I was leaving was, “He's not coming back, is he? I'm going to take his chair.”

I'm not too bent out of shape about this experience. This jam happens in a town that I hardly ever get to, so it's not likely I'll be going back. Plus, there are a few other jams that I get to which are much more friendly.

The folks at the jam I frequent most often go out of their way to welcome new people. Beyond just welcoming, they do whatever they can to involve everyone fully, no matter who they are. When someone new shows up, everyone introduces themselves. The leader (jam host) makes sure the new person has an opportunity to receive communication about what's happening in the future, and the leader makes sure everyone has something to drink and a place to sit. Other than that, the leader is no different from anyone else in the circle.

Essentially, it feels like everyone is there because they love playing music, and the folks at this jam go out of their way to encourage others to be part of this jam because they love what happens there.

From what I can tell, there's one critical difference between this group and my recent new-jam experience. In my regular group, people are happy to see friends, but they're there to play music ~ and if new people show up to play music, they're immediately equally part of the group (whether they're beginners or experts).

The other night, I stumbled in to a place where people who happen to play the same kind of music like to hang out together and play that music. If someone else who also likes that music happens to show up, they can join in the playing. But since it felt like the primary reason to be there was for people to see their friends, there was no real reason to be excited about new people (who aren't their friends) happen to show up.

There's a huge difference between being excited about seeing friends, and being excited about the activity. There's no reason to invite or welcome strangers into a circle of friends; the stranger is, by definition, not part of the circle of friends. But when a group is motivated by the activity, they're more likely (without even thinking about it) to want to get anyone and everyone to participate in that activity.

This one simple experience is changing, and reinforcing, the way I think about church. Too often, it seems like church is about doing something with friends. When we get together, we're happy to catch up with people we know. It's usually fine if others show up, but we don't tend to go out of our way to make sure they're fully able to participate, and it's usually months before we invite them to share their gifts.

When we talk about church being a 'family', and when we concern ourselves primarily with the programs and activities which are geared toward people who are already here, we necessarily become insular, self-centered, and unwelcoming. I wonder how many people walk away from our congregations like I did from that jam the other day ~ feeling like an outsider, ignored and undervalued.

When what we're doing becomes more important than who we're with, we can't help but to want others to participate. We can't help but to invite people to show up with us. We can't help but to open the circle a little wider, because we want everyone to be able to have access to this thing (whether it's music or Gospel) that we love so much.



  1. Beautifully put, gives all of us something to think about in church and at other gatherings.

  2. We enjoyed having you jam with us this past Tuesday night. When the Catholics and the Lutherans can play "Losing My Religion" together it is pretty cool. What is really funny is that you and I are officially old and frowned upon by our children who apparently think we are 'wanna be" rock'n rollers who are cutting into their "texting time" we are in good company since Bruce Springsteen has the same problem ;-) I really hope to see you playing with us more!