“Okay, let’s get going!” said Hans Daniels (whose DJ handle is Hans Solo) after being introduced at the start of the service, cranking up the beat — and volume — and eliciting a whoop that filled the bright, airy sanctuary. “Blessed Be Your Name” quickly became “B-B-Blessed Be Your Name,” and congregants started cha-cha dancing in their seats.
The concept may have been radical at the 125-member church a decade ago, when worship meant a piano and traditional hymns. But in order to keep its doors open during a period of churn in American religion, the Arlington church has changed its pastor (three times), rebuilt its building, overhauled its services and now finds itself in one of the epicenters of young Washington life.
And to people younger than 30, the drums and electric guitars of the contemporary rock that dominates much of American Christianity are not only not edgy, “but for them, it’s like singing hymns,” Daniels said. “Why does the music you worship to and jam out to have to be completely separate?”
Music is perhaps the most powerful spiritual tool there is, and experimentation is hardly rare for institutions trying to connect with a fickle public. Sixth and I synagogue in Chinatown puts racily dressed klezmer rockers on its altar, and the Community of Hope AME in Hillcrest Heights incorporates a go-go band, an improvising rapper and Christian hip-hop.
A DJ seems like a reasonable next step, particularly at a time when they are filling concert halls and festival lineups, seen in some circles as artists in their own right.
Yet a sole DJ, up there with his big foamy headphones in the spot usually reserved for robed choirs and clergy, raises questions: Does one person (doing a job most people associate with weddings and nightclubs) turn the service into a performance rather than a prayer? Or does it simplify a stage that has become visually busy, like some sporting events?
Daniels and associate pastor Stephen Taylor, who came up with the idea of “Church Remixed,” see it as the latter.
“This is such a pushback — where are all the musicians, and it’s just one guy? — but I think it’s what we need, instead of all this ‘let’s add another singer and someone walking back and forth!’ ” Daniels said before the service. “When I’m singing in church, I’m either looking at the screen or my eyes are closed.”
Taylor’s sermon in a way mirrored that idea, positing that early Christianity was a simplified alternative to ancient Judaism, with its 613 mitzvot, or directives of things to do or not do.