The question surprised me. It was 1986 and I had just performed a Chopin Ballade for Maurice Hinson, a professor at Southern Seminary, as part of a visit to the school. Soon I would be graduating from VCU and was considering pursuing music ministry.
“I don’t know ... I’m here playing for you and checking out the seminary.”
“Let me ask it another way. What do you love doing?”
“Playing classical music and jazz.”
“Where’s the best place to do that?”
“New York, of course!”
“Then you should go there. There are plenty of Christians filling church jobs, but not nearly enough playing in jazz clubs in New York.”
Fast-forward three years — now married to a beautiful soprano, living in Brooklyn, working on a doctorate, and playing freelance gigs. Backstage one night before playing a concert in Montclair the bassist, Jonathan Gilley, and I start chatting. We discover that we are both Christians and tell each other about our churches. Michelle and I were attending Park Slope Baptist Church (membership: 12). Jonathan proceeds to tell me about a new church in Manhattan. What really caught my attention — “they let us play jazz.” Jazz? At church? I’m in! Give me a call if you ever need a pianist.
The first time I played at Redeemer there were maybe 75 people at a 6:30 p.m. service at 87th and Park. The musicians were pros but didn’t consider it a gig. Tim Keller (with hair) delivered a sermon from Ephesians unlike any I’d ever heard — intelligent, with no histrionics whatsoever, and yet deeply moving. For the postlude we played the jazz standard “All the Things You Are.” Afterwards a crowd gathered in the back and Tim took questions from skeptics for another hour.
In the week that followed I couldn’t get the experience out of my mind. Sure, there were things I didn’t like. The songs were cheesy, the prayers felt scripted, and the crowd was awfully buttoned-up. But there was one thought I couldn’t shake — I could bring my musician friends to Redeemer, even the ones who think Christianity is absurd.
Over the next 5 years, occasional subbing grew into a regular position in the band. Michelle started singing in the services. It seemed that everyone was inviting his or her friends and the church grew very quickly. We found ourselves in a rich community of Christian musicians. Redeemer was making New York feel like home.
In 1995 Redeemer began a search for a music director. I thought I had left that path behind in the seminary professor’s office. But now a new thought was planted in my mind — Maybe I could help Redeemer remain a place for musicians (and other New Yorkers) to safely explore the gospel.
I’m so grateful that the elders took a chance on a young Baptist pianist. For 24 years, in 15 or so different locations, I have had a front row seat to watch God at work in the lives of New Yorkers. Outwardly, Redeemer bears little resemblance to the small church that I first played for in 1990. But I can still bring my musician friends. They still let us play jazz. And there is much work left to be done.
So that, Professor Hinson, is what I want to do with my life.