When my family moved from our lifelong home of Baltimore to Charleston in June of 2014, we knew exactly no one in the Lowcountry. Indeed, that was part of the plan — to cast off the comfort and safety of a lifetime of family, friends and connections and embark on a journey of exploration.
What would it be like to start over with a clean slate in a place known for its beauty, history, charm and hospitality? Would we find new friends, new schools and a new church?
Church is important to us. It always has been and not just so we could check off a box each Sunday morning. When it’s done well, it’s less about the building or a service and more about people, growing, serving and being served. It’s about living life on a deeper level with people.
Our search began as most do — with Google — and the results were encouraging. We found and visited a few large and vibrant churches in Mount Pleasant, where we’d settled down and were blown away by wonderfully produced services with rockstar worship teams and compelling teaching. There were programs for everything, including classes and youth groups for our eight and ten-year-old (at the time) boys.
Then we remembered a recommendation made by a friend of a friend, suggesting that we visit a new 100-member Anglican church that met in a community’s pool house. As we were walking into St. Thomas’ Church, not knowing Anglican doctrine any better than Mandarin Chinese, I remember telling my wife under my breath, “I’d love to go to a small church, but there’s no way the music will be all that we hope.”
Before you judge — this comment, while selfish, was not as condescending as it might appear. A lifelong musician and music-lover, it is music that has long been the foremost conduit for spiritual awakening in my life. It’s rare that even the most well crafted sermon brings a tear to my eye, but the first three chords of a powerful song can render me speechless.
For me, there’s something about inspired creativity that connects me to the Creator. There’s something about great art that transcends my insufficient intellect and helps me glimpse the Divine. It helps me understand the enormity of it all without fully comprehending.
So as we wrote our nametags and awkwardly mingled in the direction of a few empty folding chairs, my expectations weren’t too high for the music. Until it started. The music wasn’t just good — it was exceptional, even transcendent. The liturgy, with which we were entirely unfamiliar, was woven poetically into the service, in step with the music as its partner.
Instead of a few tunes playing the role of icebreaker at the front end of the service, there were six or seven songs shared throughout the gathering, serving roles like praise, reflection and exultation. The songs, some of which I knew, took on new life through the artists’ unique interpretation. Two guys, playing guitars and singing, their inseparable harmonies evincing uncommon familiarity.
After the service, I had to satisfy my curiosity and soon learned that the musicians, Shane Williams and Warren Bazemore, were not new to one another or the music scene. The former front men of Silers Bald, a national touring act signed by a major label, Williams and Bazemore are now known as Finnegan Bell. Settled with families in their native South Carolina, they still write and play music … and not just in church.
Part of the vision cast by St. Thomas’ rector, Hamilton Smith, was that the church’s primary form of service to the community of (North) Mount Pleasant would be through the arts — and not just art labeled as “Christian,” either. Williams became the second employee of St. Thomas’, charged not only with being the architect of Sunday morning’s worship, but also serving the broader community however and wherever music is enjoyed. Finnegan Bell, therefore, is just as comfortable at The Royal American, The Windjammer, Awendaw Green, The Music Farm, The Dinghy or on the back patio of The Rusty Rudder as they are at St. Thomas’.
But where I’ve seen St. Thomas’ Church do something I didn’t know church could do is at this historic site of The Society of St. Thomas and St. Denis Parish in Cainhoy. Here, at the site of the 309-year-old church, the youthful St. Thomas’ and Finnegan Bell host concerts in conjunction with the religiously unaffiliated Awendaw Green, drawing national music acts for sold out “STAC House Shows.”
These aren’t veiled evangelical Trojan horse events. It’s just what happens when a rock band inside of a parish church with a heart for the arts invites the community to enjoy creativity at its finest.
This is church? Yeah, this is church.
Tim Maurer is an advisor, speaker and the author of Simple Money. He lives with his family in Mt. Pleasant and is a regular contributor for CNBC, Forbes and Time/Money.