Have Faith: Holy roller

Sean McMahon sets his faith to music.

Sean McMahon plays a fundraising concert at the West Tisbury First Congregational Church on June 4 at 7 pm. — Jim Anderson

Around a year ago I wrote about musician Sean McMahon’s Holy Rock and Roll Revival show at the Ritz on Sunday evenings. He and his brother and fellow musical whiz Griffin are usually joined by a drummer and other musicians who might pop in to join them. They play songs like “Spirit in the Sky,” “My Sweet Lord,” and some original songs, like Sean’s own “Servant Song.” I caught up with him over the weekend, and he’s still on a musical journey that is imbued with his faith.

“As a musician serving the community, I’m trying to do this spiritually, but we also have a responsibility to play what people want, and we wouldn’t be good musical servants if we didn’t,” Sean told me. “Another song we do is Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah.’ That’s a spiritual song that is honest. It’s filled with trepidation and in another way, it’s right out of the Psalms.”

I love talking about faith and spirituality with Sean. He has a vision of a sort of church without walls, an openness where he’s free to invite other people in, and share his Christianity and contemplative practice.

Sean’s turned his own spiritual journey up a few notches lately, he explained. He just completed a Foundations of Christian Leadership Conference a week ago in Washington, D.C., and he’s going to perform his original songs and lead a workshop on songwriting titled “Songwriting for Christians Who Hate Christian Songwriting” at the Wild Goose Festival near Asheville, N.C., in July. He’s going to play at a musical fundraiser on Tuesday, June 4, at 7 pm at the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury to help pay his way to the festival (the suggested donation is $15). The participants volunteer for the Wild Goose Festival, and he paid for and attended the Christian leadership conference on his own. He’s serious about developing a progressive Christian presence wherever he goes.

“The angle of the workshop is how to expand the definition of contemporary Christian music, because right now it is a very specific genre that kind of imitates Top 40 radio, in my opinion,” Sean said. “We’re in dire need of more honest expression in Christian music.”

Because I’m constantly Googling, I had to look up the Wild Goose Festival. What fresh ideas! They have a quote on the website from author and activist pastor Brian McLaren that describes the festival: “At Wild Goose, people flock together to celebrate a way of life rooted in faith, justice, creativity, and beauty. It’s like a family reunion where you meet relatives you never knew you had.”

The list of presenters and people involved in the event is an eclectic mix of young tattooed preachers and older, more traditional-appearing clergy, musicians, artists, and activists. I asked Sean more about his own discernment process, and he said that the people he met at the leadership conference were on a similar path to his.

“Like me, they didn’t necessarily have conventional ministries, but are piecing together a ministry according to their gifts and the needs in their community,” Sean explained. “I’m involved in a discernment process, just learning to grow something from scratch. I’m involved with churches on the Island, but it’s self-grown. I’ve been meeting like-minded people and figuring out how to use my own gifts in more sustainable, practical ministries.”

Sean and I talked about why young adults might be leery of joining a church and yet be on a very real search for God, or something that is missing that they can’t quite put their finger on. He told me that topic was a major part of the discussion at the conference. He said that church leaders there said that some of their places of worship spend funds on refurbishing buildings instead of on developing spiritual programming.

“Older generations may have left their churches because their experience was maybe oppressive,” Sean suggested. “I’ve heard from people who say that church just missed the mark, didn’t do it for them … between the standing up and the sitting down, it just didn’t feel authentic.”

Then there’s the fact that as the population ages, there are more and more young people who weren’t exposed to church in the first place. And we have those who go “spiritual shopping,” Sean said.

“There’s a lot of truth to that,” he said. “We avail ourselves of this at our convenience. And there’s the question, ‘Why should we commit ourselves to an institution that’s going to tell us what to do?’ Some say social isolation is to blame. I’m not so sure about that, I see the tide shifting, where there is an interest in the spiritual. But again, we’re shopping for it.”

For Sean personally, he said he’s progressed in his search for ways to express his spirituality and to share it with the Island community. The conferences have built upon his discernment process, he said, and back at home in West Tisbury he’s a father now, and realizes he has to take care of his family. Sean said he takes a risk as a musician by sharing his Christian faith, but it’s part of who he is, just like the music.

“I’ve had opportunities from St. Andrew’s Church and the Gay Head Baptist Church to preach on the Island. Those relationships have helped me develop this muscle, and they’re very gracious to let me do this. But I want to stay in my lane, take my time. I don’t want to bulldoze my way into a church. I want to see where God wants me to be. I know my home is with a guitar and a microphone in front of me. I’ll leave room for the Holy Spirit and improvisation.”

I hear Sean’s words and find myself interested in watching how his journey unfolds. Could he lead a community of contemplative Christians with a penchant for social justice and inner peace on the Island? He’s certainly on a path to follow wherever the spirit leads him.


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