"Skeptics, seekers and believers" seems like the kind of text you'd find spray-painted on the side of some pharmacy or flop house for maximum snark. But it was almost the tag line for The Gathering Church, a local worship group that has grown from the Sunday afternoon dreams of a core few to a dedicated assembly of believers meeting in the gym of Creekside Elementary School in Durham.
Now with the release of Hymns from the Gathering Church, a record of favorite sacred numbers performed by religious critics and converts alike, they offer up their most ambitious and open artistic project to date.
The ministry's trajectory has been one of slow and steady growth, adhering to hopes of sincerity and solidarity instead of maxims learned from some how-to book for starting stereotypical churches.
"I think we've always taken the tack that we'd much rather rely on word of mouth and relationships," explains Chris Breslin, the church's associate pastor. "We want to be a part of the community and we want to contribute something interesting and beneficial." For Breslin, that meant putting the incredible resources of the church's music director, lauded local musician and producer Jeff Crawford, to full use.
"When we first started the church, we had a big problem with people singing," deadpans Crawford. That's not to say people sang poorly. Rather, it's that they hid behind the overwhelming influence of "contemporary Christian music," which had left the congregation ignorant of the older, much more raw singing of traditional church songs. This quandary spurred the idea for Hymns.
"Originally," he continues, "my idea was just to record hymns so that people would know the hymns and be able to sing them and could listen to them."
Given the traditional bent of that musical idea, it might be surprising that Crawford's approach for the church itself was very progressive in that he wanted to include those who might not have historically been comfortable within its fold.
"One of the big priorities starting off and agreeing to be music director was to bridge the gap of culture between what's inside the church, the Christian subculture, and what's outside of the church," he says. This has meant everything from playing traditional songs with fresh arrangements and inviting church outsiders to perform to spearheading recording projects like last year's Christmas Nights, a six-song EP of Christmas tunes.
Hymns, like that short record before it, benefits heavily from the church's open door policy to musical contributors. The beauty of new takes on classic songs, like Skylar Gudasz' version of "Be Still My Soul," is a testament to its success. James Wallace is Crawford's partner in Arbor Ridge, a Chapel Hill-based music production studio. He has participated in both projects after gradually progressing from a sometime guest drummer for the church to an almost weekly feature at services.
"What we enjoy about music is the same thing that we enjoy about playing at church, which is the sense of community," says Wallace. "Having the music is a really great way to get younger people to come, to get just a different crowd to [...] come and be interested."
Buoyed by their position as respected music makers and their artistic ambitions, that ideal meant Crawford and Wallace pursued a broad range of collaborators, including people active in the church (Brett Harris and Mark Simonsen), friends who had contributed to Christmas Nights (Skylar Gudasz and Mandolin Orange) and musicians from the broader community (including Phil Cook of Megafaun and Heather McEntire of Mount Moriah). Crawford thinks they agreed in large part because these songs offer some core for contemplation.
"I think people enjoy—no matter what their experience with the actual church is—they enjoy chewing on those kind of tunes," he says.
McEntire's appearance might be surprising to some. Though Mount Moriah's country-graced indie rock certainly approaches a "secular gospel" sound, McEntire's also written at least one song that explicitly challenges the logic of a worldview based solely on an "old good book." But she grew up in the church, she says, so there's nostalgia in these numbers. For McEntire, singing "What Wondrous Love Is This" was about something different than connecting to God, but that didn't make the experience any less affecting.
"To me it was really personal," she admits. "I remember [listening to the final version] kind of took me back to sitting in the pew and listening to a sermon and what I got from that then and what I carried with me and what I want to leave back there in that moment."
The ability of these songs to affect someone so could be read as a testament to the power of the gospel or as further evidence of music's universal power. For Crawford and Wallace, the strength of those traditional songs is no surprise.
"A lot of people have a very negative view of these songs in the church. They think they're tired and old and worn out," says Crawford. "I would love to have people start using these songs again and be a voice for that."
They're also outlets for Crawford, Wallace and the Gathering Church congregation to share their atypically open attitude toward religion and truth. "I feel like that's an overarching point, that there are things in the secular world that can provide spirituality and lessons, life lessons, and there are things from the Bible that can also do that," says Wallace. "The two worlds overlap and the idea that it would be a secular thing here and a Christian thing there is ridiculous. It's never like that, ever."
If that sounds like some newfangled, progressive Church point of view, Crawford hopes it is. Or, as Wallace concedes, "That's not always the way it is; that's the way it is for us."