Not good enough to play in church?

Much ink is spilled about the tension between progressives and conservatives in the world of church music. I have written more than my share on that topic but today I want to talk about another uneasy tension that exists in church music: the tension between trying to hold high standards and giving anyone a chance to participate.

You guys know what I mean. You have probably been in a church where five minutes before the service, the song leader says something like this: “Anyone that wants to come sing in the choir tonight is welcome.” A joyful noise quickly ensues–joyful but definitely noise. That is one side of the equation.

You have probably seen the other side too: the church where the music is basically run by professionals. To sing in the choir requires an audition. To play an instrument basically requires a music degree. To sing a solo requires ten years of opera experience. There is no noise in those churches but sometimes there is a bit of perceived elitism and class warfare. Feelings get hurt when people are told they are “not good enough” to participate.

So where should the line be drawn? Here is my opinion: there is no one correct place where the line should be. You could make a case for either side. For example, ministry should be love-driven. I Corinthians 13 says that the best of music that is based on a foundation other than love is useless. Love is about people. People should be encouraged and have opportunities to serve. Children should have the opportunity to be trained. And that means that the church should be willing to accept less-than-perfect music.

On the other hand, the Bible has references to the idea of high quality in music such as Psalm 33:3: “Sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.” The whole idea of verses like I Peter 4:11 is that we should figure out what our gifts are and serve with them. The NT church model is based on people with various skill sets coming together and working together. In other words, it is absolutely reasonable for a church to take the position that just wanting to play an instrument is just not quite good enough. A bit of skill is prerequisite.

I had a recent exchange over this issue that made me rethink it. Someone came to me to discuss why I was not including her children in a music group I was in charge of. I saw her point and I don’t fault her point. Ministry should be love-driven and it really is hard to demonstrate love when you basically have to tell someone they are not good enough to participate. And as she mentioned to me, when I was a child, someone gave me the opportunity to participate. That was critical to me growing as a musician.

But on the other hand, from a pragmatic standpoint, the group I was working with just had to have a certain skill level of musician because of how we were doing it. I told her that her children were welcome to participate in a lot of music groups in the church but that particular group was not for them. I was not wrong to tell her that. My point is as valid as hers. It is not a stretch to say that the Bible teaches that corporate worship should be done as skillfully as possible by people that are gifted in music.

This is just one of those areas where many of us can agree to disagree. I won’t call you wrong if you are more inclusive (willing to sacrifice quality to get more musicians participating) if you don’t call me wrong for holding musicians to higher standards. It is a preference issue but I hold myself to a high standard and I want to work with musicians that hold themselves to high standards.

One of the things I have realized over time is that it is ultra-difficult if not impossible to tell someone they are not qualified to play in a particular situation and have them not walk away angry. And of course, it is even worse if you have to tell parents that about their children. If you are looking for tips on how to do that, you have come to the wrong place because I am not good at it. I have the utmost respect for church music leaders that have to deal with that regularly and do it gracefully.

For those of you on the other end either as a musician or the parent of a musician, let me give you a few thoughts.

1) You have to start somewhere. A dozen years ago, I was in a church with great musicians. I was a decent musician but I rarely played in church. I was however asked to play for a college/career class on Wednesday nights. I did. They asked me to play for the children’s Christmas programs. I did. Sometimes I was asked to play the choir practices (but not the services). I did.

If you are not playing on Sunday morning in your church, go ask where help is needed and play there. Maybe it is for a Sunday School class of six people. Maybe it is a nursing home service. Don’t be too big for that–someone has to do it. That is where budding church musicians can get great experience.

2) Demonstrate you are willing to work. It takes a long time before a church musician is really at a level where it is acceptable for them to just walk into church on a Sunday morning and expect to play. I am not sure that we actually ever fully arrive at that level. If you want more opportunities as a church musician, here is a thought that is sadly becoming more and more out of vogue: get the music ahead of time and take it home with you to practice. And while I am on the subject, come to practices and be there on time. 

3) Don’t get bent out of shape; just get better. Be realistic about where you are. I know that is hard in a society that is currently obsessed with the idea that a high self-esteem magically overcomes a lack of talent and hard work. But if you struggle to play the music in a particular group, don’t get upset if you are asked to step out. Take it as a challenge to improve. Neither we nor our children are born with a right to participate as musicians in church. There is no mandate that all musicians should get to play in every service.

Musicians, if you follow these tips, I don’t guarantee you will get all the opportunities you want, but do them because it is the right thing to do. And from my view on both sides of the equation, following them will really help you. As a leader of music groups, I have a very hard time telling anyone no that has the right attitude and works hard. I will bend over backward to keep them.

That being said, I am a realist. Navigating this issue is messy in the best of situations. I have never been in a church where there were not problems and hurt feelings over which musicians were playing and when. All of us need to take a deep breath and acknowledge that our views on this issue are based to a large extent on preference rather than right or wrong.