“When you’ve nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.”
Alt-Country Agnus Dei
It’s Sunday afternoon in Northeast Minneapolis and people are gathering in a converted school cafeteria for worship at Mercy Seat Lutheran Church. Folding chairs are set up on the tile and there’s a table in front bearing the words “Do This in Remembrance of Me.” The congregants skew young, many wearing blue jeans or hoodies with nary a sport coat or necktie in sight. Over in the corner is Ben Kyle, lead singer of the local band Romantica. He’s got a guitar in his hands and he’s singing something about the “lamb of God” and the “sins of the world.”
Kyle’s presence here is no fluke. Since its inception in 2004, Mercy Seat has been perhaps best known for what they call the “third option” for church music—the first and second options being traditional hymns or contemporary praise music. Instead, pastors Kae Evensen and Mark Stenburg have opted to have the church’s tried and true liturgies newly set to music by local artists. Their list of composers has included, in addition to Ben Kyle, Zoo Animal’s Holly Newsom, Chris Koza, and Scott Munson.
Mercy Seat’s musical approach may seem like a cynical marketing ploy—using indie musicians as bait for church-averse twenty- and thirtysomethings—but though there are many words that could be used to describe the church, “cynical” isn’t one of them. Evensen and Stenburg open the service playfully, with a few minutes of unrehearsed banter. The Scripture text for the day, taken from Matthew, is read reverently, the assembly’s “Thanks be to God” intoned without a hint of irony. Evensen’s treatment of the text in her sermon is a wry, probing affair, expanding the acceptable range of responses to the Bible from mindless acceptance to include confusion, affectionate mockery, and even outright anger.
After the sermon comes communion, the pinnacle of any liturgical worship service. Before the assembly rises to take the sacrament, Stenberg joins Evensen at the front and calls out, “This is the Lord’s table, and all are welcome.” He leans on “all,” and under the spell of that word’s inclusivity regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or sexual orientation, I rise with thirty or so strangers and file to the front to eat a bite and drink a shot of Christ. Read more