Garage Band Church: Dr. Duane W. H. Arnold PhD
I was eleven years old. Like most of the rest of America, I was parked in front of our black and white television. It was February 9th, 1964. Like visitors from another planet, The Beatles appeared on the stage of the Ed Sullivan Show and life would never be the same.
I wanted it all – the hair, the boots, the attitude. Most of all, I wanted to be in a band.
After months of not so subtle hints (read “continual badgering”) my birthday present was unveiled in the basement – a four piece drum set by Ludwig in black oyster pearl and a card for six months of drum lessons. I was ecstatic. Even better, my drum teacher was cool. It says something about the the innocence of those times that somehow (I still don’t know how) my teacher later convinced my parents to allow me to accompany him to a night club to see James Brown and his Famous Flames. I think the excuse was that it would help my playing to see a professional drummer! But, I digress…
So, I had my drums and my lessons. All I needed now was a band. Thankfully, my friend across the street had the same idea. He had just been given an Epiphone Wiltshire electric guitar (sure wish I had that today) and a Fender Deluxe amp (likewise). He had even mastered three chords! Not only that, his older brother said he could sing. Finally we found a friend in school whose parents agreed to buy him a bass (a nondescript Japanese model) and a Vox AC15 amp. Our singer, however, did not have a microphone. We saved our allowance money, put it all together and bought a second hand mic for $12.00. No PA system, but we could plug the mic into the second channel of the Fender. We had a band.
We got together for our first rehearsal. We thought maybe we could play a Beatles song… we couldn’t. So, someone suggested “Louie, Louie”. We tried playing it. We were terrible! We kept trying. In garages and basements around the neighborhood the noise was deafening. We switched rehearsal venues according to the patience of parents and siblings. Eventually, we even added a couple more songs to our very limited repertoire but, to be honest, I’m not sure we improved all that much. I think we played at least one birthday party in a basement – repeating our three songs twice!
We were a garage band, the same as countless others across the country. Most garage bands weren’t very good. Most didn’t go anywhere. Some, however, kept at it. They kept rehearsing, playing and improving. People like Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen come to mind. They didn’t start off with a great deal of promise. Their equipment was pretty bad and they had a lot to learn, but they had to start somewhere. That “somewhere” tended to be a less than flashy or professional garage band where, along with the bad music, there was also a good deal of joy and learning.
The music industry has changed and music has changed with it.
We live in a day of professionalism and spectacle. Artists with a modicum of ability and/or talent are often ushered into a recording studio, linked up with a team of writers, producers and publicists. Stage designs are created, image makers are employed and, skipping the fabled 10,000 hours of paying dues, they are unleashed upon the public. If they crack the charts, great. If not, they will be set adrift as there are dozens waiting in the wings to take their place. We no longer have the patience to see a garage band emerge, play terrible venues, write bad songs, then better ones and finally take their place on stage. We want it now…
Unfortunately, this modern model has all too often been applied to the church.
My first church started with a Bible study with four people in attendance. I had seen Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa and thought, we can do that. We met in the living room of the house I was renting. I had a big Thompson Chain Reference Bible… and very little real theology. I must confess, I’m glad there are no extant tapes of those Bible studies, because I wasn’t very good. In fact, there were times when I must have been terrible. We went verse by verse, book by book, just as I was taught. I ordered tapes from Costa Mesa and listened to them almost to the point of memorization. I had a friend who played guitar and led the singing. (A very new Christian, for special music he once introduced the Poco song, “She’s a Barmaid in the Honky Tonk Downstairs”, as an allegory of Christ and the Church!) All this being said, we learned, we grew together and we loved each other as brothers and sisters. In time a Christian coffeehouse was opened and, a bit later, we purchased a derelict UMC church which we filled with an active congregation. Eventually, with a bit more theology and reading under our belts, we even became a eucharistic and liturgical faith community.
Looking back, I guess that we were sort of a Garage Band church. We made loads of mistakes, we weren’t very glamorous and, in the beginning, not very professional. I’ll have to say, however, there was a good deal of joy and learning all through the time that we grew together, as individuals and as a body of believers.
Now, if we sought advice today about starting a church, I imagine it would begin with a demographic study of a particular town or city as an “ideal location”. We might attend a Willow Creek conference. We would have to think about a multi-use building (not too “churchy”) and then assemble a “ministry team”. We would need a pastor, a teacher, a counselor, a Christian Ed director, a worship leader and a nursery care director. Parking would need to be convenient. Sound equipment and stage lighting with suspended screens at the side and overhead would be a priority in the auditorium (“sanctuary” being considered far to “churchy”). A Public Relations person or agency would handle the roll-out of the new church. A key member of the “team” would be in development, i.e. fund-raising. We might even succeed in planting and growing a church. We could be known for a great praise band (“some of them went to Berklee, you know”) and our dramatic Sunday morning events. Maybe…
Or maybe, just maybe, we need some more Garage Band churches.