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Music is at heart of ‘Imagine Worship’ at Slyvan Abbey

Music is at heart of ‘Imagine Worship’ at Slyvan Abbey

Church Vitality Missions and Outreach
The Main Street Gazebo in Clearwater is the stage for Imagine Worship@the Abbey.

Talk about a soft sell.

Sylvan Abbey United Methodist Church in Clearwater is offering its community the chance to gather in an informal setting to listen to accomplished musicians perform a mix of secular and Christian music and see what happens.

They’ve been doing this since November, with great results. People keep coming back, and new ones show up.

Keyboardist Robin Swenson and guitar vocalist Janelle Sadler serenade the public at the Main Street Gazebo.

This service, called Imagine Worship@the Abbey, started in the Fellowship Hall with a meal and music. Keyboardist Robin Swenson and guitar/vocalist Janelle Sadler performed tunes such as “It’s a Wonderful World” and “Stand by Me” along with original praise songs.

Attendance has grown steadily, especially during the month-long April concert series held on Thursdays at the Main Street Gazebo near the water.

“We wanted people to come to hear the music so we could get in front of people who might never come down our street to our church, or those who don’t go to church or who have never been to church,” Pastor Chuck Smith said.

“We started with 14 people in November, and during April at the Gazebo, we’d be in front of 50 to 70 people. We count the people who come from beginning to end, or who drift in for 15 to 20 minutes and those who come late.”

Sometimes it is hard for people to put a toe in the waters of worship, so this makes it easy for them to take a chance. “We’re reaching people who bring their own lawn chairs and sit across the street or those who just stand to the side and listen, ” Smith said.

The musicians entertain, and Smith offers a short talk. Water is available, and they pass a collection bucket. It’s low key, unlike the traditional service at the sanctuary of Sylvan Abbey.

“We’re very proud of our 11 a.m. service, and this isn’t meant to take away from that,” Smith said. “It’s just much more relaxed.”

Sadler and Swenson's outside concert series ran through April.

Not just anyone can get up on stage and pluck a guitar string and sing and build an audience. Smith said Swenson played with such bands as the Four Seasons and Three Dog Night, and his wife Janelle has been a professional singer in the area for many years.

A quick look at some videos of their performances proves their drawing power.

“We were lucky to get a program that is so professional and well done,” Smith said. “When we started this thing, we wanted it to be really good.”

The Imagine service will soon return to the church to escape summer’s brutal heat, but the show will go on. So far, one man drawn by the music has come to church services, joined and has become very active. But Smith said it’s not about the numbers or the novelty.

“It’s kind of an under the radar. If God wants this to work, then it will work. It’s about the people and the fellowship.”

And the music.

—Anne Dukes is a freelance writer in Atlanta.