Playing for the King

Jazz, Jesus and an unusual mission


“Oh, could you please bring this to France? The spiritual needs are so great, and the people have a deep love for jazz music.” The Frenchman’s eyes told me that my hobby had connected with his passion: reaching the hearts of his compatriots with the gospel.

In January 2010, Rev. Michel Viguier, pastor of Eglise Protestante Evangelique de Toulouse and vice president of the C&MA in France, visited Western Pennsylvania. After getting acquainted, our conversation had turned to jazz music.

My hobby is playing jazz guitar and putting combos together for community concerts, occasionally inserting jazzed up hymns and a brief gospel presentation in my program. Although jazz music was born in America, it is much more popular in places like France. In my 30-plus years as a pastor, church musician and educator I have had a heart for reaching people both locally and globally.

I have preached and taught on five continents, but that conversation with the French pastor gave me an intriguing idea. I began to recruit Christian semiprofessional jazz musicians willing to self-fund a short-term mission venture, to share sacred truth through what the Church too often deems a secular means: good ol’ American jazz.

The French people are traditionally resistant toward Christianity. Many distrust Christians because before the French Revolution, the religious élite and French royalty lived in wealth while commoners starved. By the nineteenth century, an anti-clerical strain of Enlightenment philosophy, which had helped to spark the revolution, had become highly regarded throughout society. If the French have any spiritual interest, they usually return to the traditional religion of Catholicism, since the evangelical church is viewed almost as a cult.

Our mission was to play American jazz standards in the Alliance church facilities, drawing people into a place they would not normally visit. During the concert I made a gospel presentation, and church pastor briefly promoted church classes and events. Members of the church also networked with the newcomers in the audience before and after the concert.

We were billed as the Joe Barth Quintet. Rev. David Clark, on tenor saxophone and clarinet, pastors the C&MA Church in Richland, Washington, and is an adjunct jazz history instructor at Columbia Basin College. Rev. Jon Mutchler, our pianist, pastors Ferndale C&MA Church and is the son of famed jazz educator and big band arranger Ralph Mutchler. Bassist Clayton Wick is a retired engineer, and drummer Tommy Mutchler is Jon’s college-aged son. The five of us had never played together until we met in Paris on this trip. After only one rehearsal, we did six concerts in eight days.

Our first concert was at noon in La Defense, the business section of Paris. The church provided lunch for the office workers while they enjoyed the music. The next evening we did three back-to-back concerts at Genesis, a former jazz club that is now a ministry center in the heart of Paris. The small club was crowded, with many more people listening outdoors. Some remembered the former establishment and wondered if it had become a jazz club again.

“One of the major goals of Genesis is to create bridges with the city to develop relationships with people,” said Tim Meier, a C&MA international worker in France. “About half of the people at the jazz concert were from outside our church community. This has spurred us to think about new initiatives with music at Genesis.”

The next day we traveled by train to Toulouse and did concerts with gospel presentations in three C&MA churches. Dave Clark had the opportunity to give a jazz history seminar in one church, and I lectured on jazz guitar history at a local university. Our final concert was at the C&MA church in Poitier, central France.

This was truly a wonderful experience to use music as a tool for evangelism. Missionaries throughout France were pleased with the connections that were made with local unchurched people. “The guys kept saying, ‘This is not a typical mission trip,’” recalls Alan Clason, C&MA field director for France. “And they were right. It was a very unusual mission trip, but one that fit our post-Christian context perfectly.”

Joe Barth, DMin, is a contributor to Just Jazz Guitar magazine and the author of Voices in Jazz Guitar: Great Performers Tell about Their Approach to Playing (Mel Bay). He is the pastor of Slippery Rock (Pa) Alliance Church, 50 miles north of Pittsburgh. Dr. Barth is also a visiting professor at Jaffray Theological Seminary in Indonesia.

Heart and Soul

I played guitar in high school and college in the Los Angeles area, where I grew up. I had a particular love for jazz and popular music, and since Southern California was the seedbed for contemporary Christian music in the early seventies, I enjoyed playing guitar in a Christian jazz rock band called Eschatos (derived from “eschatology”). We opened for many Christian artists and speakers popular in that era: Love Song, Barry McGuire, Agape and others. We even opened for Billy Graham once! At age 23, while a graduate student in music, I joined the faculty of Crafton Hills College, moving more toward choral conducting and away from guitar.

I was called to the ministry in the late 1970s and served as a music pastor until I earned a second master’s degree from Western Seminary (Portland, Ore.) and began teaching at Multnomah School of the Bible. From there, I joined the faculty of Simpson College (now Simpson University, Redding, Calif.) and was a music pastor at a C&MA church in the East Bay. Having given up the guitar, my focus was on directing church choirs and preaching an occasional sermon in the evening service. In the late 1980s God called me to pastor the C&MA church in Bellingham, Washington.

In the mid-1990s I went through what my wife, Lynne, refers to as my “midlife crisis” and decided to teach myself jazz guitar. When we moved to Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania, I began forming jazz combos and doing community concerts. Just before I moved I began to write for Just Jazz Guitar magazine as a hobby. The writing has grown, and now I have multiple articles in every issue and have met many famous jazz guitarists, sharing the gospel with about half of them and even leading some to Christ.

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