- Wednesday, August 19, 2009
The last eulogy has been said, the Scriptures read, and mourners anticipate a quiet, reverential hymn to precede the benediction. Instead, the church choir and band erupt into a pulsating, fast-paced, staccato-cadenced tune called "Death Is Ended."
Its lyrics are drawn from 1 Corinthians 15:15-55:
Behold I tell you a mystery, we will all be changed—
In the twinkling of an eye, and the trumpet will sound—
We'll be raised imperishable
Death—where is your victory?
Where is your sting?
Death is ended! Death is ended!
Death is swallowed up in victory!
By the time the song crescendos to its conclusion, the memorial service has transformed into a celebration, confirming that for followers of Jesus Christ, life begins as death ends. There is some applause and cheering; tears of grief now mingle with smiles and tears of joy, hope surging anew in the hearts of loved ones left behind.
The composer of "Death Is Ended" is James Ward, who has served as a musician, worship leader, and music director for New City Fellowship (PCA) in Chattanooga, Tenn., since its founding more than 30 years ago. The piece was written in 1982, after a young mother and a 5-year-old girl in the congregation had died, along with Ward's brother, Timothy, a victim of leukemia.
"The song came out of our church's life," Ward recalled. "It had been a year of soul-searching in our church and our pastor, Randy Nabors, asked me to write a song to encourage people. It certainly established a personal connection with many in our congregation."
In the years since, singing the song has become a tradition at the decidedly non-traditional New City for Easter and other occasions, as well as memorial services. Composed about the same time as the Broadway hit Fame, the dynamics of "Death is Ended" are reminiscent of the musical's popular theme song—yet thoroughly biblical in its message.
Currently featured in a video on the church's website (www.newcityfellowship.com), "Death is Ended" represents most strikingly the music of New City, a multicultural assembly with a large concentration of African-Americans and a growing number of Hispanics. But it is hardly a stand-alone piece.
On any given Sunday, a New City worship service offers a melodic and rhythmic mix unlike what one might encounter in most congregations, PCA or otherwise: a tune with a bouncy reggae or Caribbean beat, a jazzy praise song, a black gospel ballad, traditional hymns, a funky blues instrumental, Southern gospel, a classical selection, contemporary praise music, or an occasional piece with a Latin tempo.
Accompanying instruments include piano, electronic keyboard, guitar, bass guitar, drums, bongos and other percussion. The music is exuberant and enthusiastic, with many of the worshipers swaying or bobbing to the beat, some even dancing.
Without question, this is a significant departure from typical PCA practice. None of this, however, is either whimsical or haphazard. It's part of a well-conceived, fully integrated strategy for tailoring the overall worship experience to fit the culture of the community where New City is situated.
"Our worship seeks to be cross-cultural, yet flowing out of our Reformed tradition," the church's website explains. "This means that we understand God to be the audience of our worship. Our understanding of the ‘regulative principle of worship' is that all we do in worship must be biblical.
"We believe we are to be courageous to use all of ourselves in worship, so we follow the teachings of the Psalms to use our bodies in such things as clapping, raising our hands, shouting, and dancing. The Psalms teach us to use instruments and call on everything that has breath to praise the Lord. We do not think being truly Reformed means to only use a Northern European 16th-century cerebral style and functional order to worship God."
Ward noted that New City's music philosophy was forged in concert with Nabors, the congregations' teaching elder from its inception.
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