Sacred Meets Secular at Roots Revival
One downtown church is building community by erasing the lines between secular and religious music.
At a Roots Revival service at Centenary United Methodist Church Sept. 17, about 50 worshipers sang a bluegrass version of “They’ll Know We Are Christians,” followed by Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5.” During his message, guest speaker Rev. Brian Combs, pastor at The Haywood Street Congregation in Asheville, called on the congregation to talk about their personal work experiences. He quoted Henry Thoreau when encouraging them not to “live lives of quiet desperation.” A guitar, bass and mandolin strummed in the background as worshipers took communion.
Roots Revival meets every Wednesday night at 7:30 at Centenary United Methodist Church on 5th Street.
Rev. Sarah Howell, the Associate Minister at Centenary, is the primary preacher and pastor for Roots Revival, which began in December of 2012. The Martha Bassett Band — Martha Bassett, Sam Frazier and Pat Lawrence — form the group of core stringed instrumentalists who play for Roots Revival. Bassett and Senior Minister Dr. Mark Ralls came up with the idea for an Americana/bluegrass service about three years ago. Bassett has been involved with Centenary for more than 20 years, and said this was her opportunity to give back to the church.
“We thought [this type of music] would resonate in this region, and that it would resonate with a lot of different people,” Bassett said.
Howell said it was curiosity that got people coming to the first few services. She said many people appreciate hearing the traditional hymns of their childhoods mixed with secular music.
At first, Howell and Bassett were not comfortable with the idea of secular music in a religious service. After they incorporated the Rolling Stones “Shine a Light” into the first service, however, Howell said she knew it fit well with what they were trying to do.
Bassett said the “edgiest” song they have done to date is the XTC song “Dear God.” XTC was a new wave English rock band whose song is considered an “atheist manifesto,” and contains lyrics questioning the legitimacy of God and the Bible. Roots Revival used it to assist with a discussion about belief vs. unbelief.
“I like the casualness about it,” longtime church member Judy Ditmore said. “I also like that everyone comes to communion.”
Opening communion to everyone is a practice of the United Methodist Church, but it is especially appropriate for Roots Revival. Its congregation is comprised of people with a variety of religious backgrounds, including Jews, spiritual agnostics and atheists.
“I never assume that everyone I am speaking to is a Christian,” Howell said. She said that after one service, a Canadian secular Jew told her it was the first time he has ever felt comfortable in a church. “It’s important to be in communion with people who disagree with you,” Howell said.
Bassett said that Roots Revival goes deeper into difficult discussions than other services. “It’s a service that would be hard to do on Sunday mornings,” Bassett said. She said that having it on Wednesday nights allows for people from the community and from other churches to participate.
Roots Revival has received a $4,500 grant from the Yadkin Valley District of the WNC Conference of The United Methodist Church to take Roots “on the road,” and teach other churches how to set up similar services.
“It works here because we have great musicians here,” Howell said. “When we talk to other churches, we want to make sure that they are doing what they are best equipped for in their area.”
Roots Revival Choir sings “On the Rock Where Moses Stood”