Church Musicians: How Good is “Good Enough”?

June 9, 2011 — 8 Comments

Every time a church music director receives a suggestion from a congregant about a new music team member, there’s a bit of a twist in our stomachs. I need to say this bluntly: non-musicians are not good judges of musical ability. They typically underestimate the amount of skill and diligence required to play in the setting demanded by most churches. They also often assume that if someone is judged to be “not good enough” then the music director’s standards must be too high, the thinking being that anyone with some ability and a lot of good intentions should be given a spot on stage.

Newer musicians themselves often overestimate the progress of their own development. Their actual musical ability is often far less than what they perceive it to be.

My response is usually this: There is no other aspect of corporate worship that is abandoned to people with good intentions alone – why music? So when the situation arises, music directors are often set up for a bit of an awkward conversation.

Musical people generally fall into one of the four following categories:

Beginner
This person has probably recently taken up an interest in singing or a musical instrument. At this stage there is a lot of excitement but very little self-awareness or competence. Beginners often bail when the going gets tough, when the process of learning becomes more difficult than they thought it would be.

Amateur
The amateur musician has persevered through the beginner stage and is becoming aware of their place in the spectrum of competence. This is still somewhat of a probationary stage, but this when they are probably ready to begin playing a small role in corporate worship. Pushed forward too soon however, it can shatter both confidence and the quality of the worship service itself.

Competent
A competent musician is a confident musician. At this stage they’re past having to look at their fingers at each chord change, for example. Having attained this level of competence, they are now ready to start playing a more prominent role in corporate worship, perhaps even to lead a team of their own.

Professional
If you live in a larger urban center you may have access to musicians who make their living playing or singing in a professional band or recording studio in the area. These people can be a great blessing to a music director if they have a good attitude. Sometimes however, professionals are prone to adopt the ways of the culture of idolization in which they spend the majority of their time.

If this is the attitude of a professional you have access to, choose not to access their talent.

There is one more category that I won’t name but will draw attention to: the competent or professional level musician who is a congregation member and a musician in addition to being music snob. (I’ve spent my share of time playing this role.) They attend services and judge what’s happening on stage to be “ok”, but they could certainly do better. So much better in fact that they won’t embarrass everyone else by making themselves known. Until that attitude is set aside, this type of person is of no use to you.

When joining as a new musician, regardless of your level competence, making a first impression as someone who is humble will go a long way with your fellow team members. It also acts as a deterrent to the idolization that people in our culture seem more than willing to engage in when they’re impressed by anyone on a stage.

Don’t give them opportunity to do so by appearing to bask in their adoration. If you become the focus it means that someone more import – Jesus, the one you’re supposed to be leading them to worship – is not.

Our standards CAN indeed be too high, and they are too high when they impede competent musicians from serving God with their talents. If an occasional off note is all it takes to keep someone from worshiping God, the problem likely isn’t with the singer.

But our standards are too low when we allow incompetent musicians to deter others from worshiping God. When we do this we put the congregation in the unenviable position of attempting to engage in worship while being led by someone with a lack of training or ability. We also set the unqualified musician up for embarrassment. Better a truthful word in private than an obvious embarrassment in public.

Having said that, we should not seek to “professionalize” our corporate worship services. Anyone who has attained the level competence required to avoid being a distraction should be put to use. And those who have not attained this level, and are willing to work toward that end, should receive the training they require.

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  • Ag_klassen

    Funny how things work out… I have been struggling for quite a while as to why  ” I haven’t been put to use”.. and than I  come across this article… it doesn’t really clarify anything for me… but a funny coincidence ….. In my opinion , loving to sing and expressing that with a desire to worship God, and feeling as though you are doing a service for the church is a great feeling and not being able to express that desire is a great disappointment, and hard to get over without feeling hard feeling towards the church … i guess what I am saying is that if someone feels their heart strings are being pulled into the direction of musical worship and they are not given a chance, feelings can be hurt and an “unstable” christian can fall into more instability. Maybe we are being too judgemental as to what a good musician is… I am sure to God all songs sung to Him are beautiful… on or off key ~

  • Bill Janzen

    Amen brother.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=677845280 Anny Thiessen

    I really enjoyed this article Michael.

  • http://robrash.us Rob Rash

    Good stuff Michael. Totally agree with the ‘humility goes a long way’… it does!

  • Elena

    Well said, Michael.  At my church we have recently begun a mentorship program for worship arts applicants who are almost, but not quite, at the competent level.  The applicants are paired with a seasoned member of the team for a set period of time.  The applicant attends and participates in the rehearsals, but does not join the team on stage on Sundays.  After each rehearsal, the mentor provides constructive feedback to the applicant and assigns a specific aspect to work on for the next rehearsal.  By the time the applicant has achieved the level of competence required to officially join the team, they have already established a rapport with the other team members and technical crew, and are able to transition smoothly into their new role.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/jd.longmire Jd Longmire

    so – and I hope this comes across as edifying – while I do agree that there are likely folks that have a higher estimation of themselves than they should in terms of their talent level and importance to corporate worship, I also believe that the worship leader has a responsibility to insure that the songs are not so technically complicated that they discourage the talented from engaging – that is, that they are accessible across a VERY broad range of talent levels. The broader the better.

    I have some heartburn with leaders that think in terms of “performers” and being “on stage”, and other similar terms – it tends to reveal a little bit of presuppositional thinking that I don’t believe is the intent of corporate worship and the use of talents.

    In reality, we should always be aware that our “good” is only as good as they can be through Christ – otherwise, all of our “goodness” is as filthy rags.

    The “good work” of any church leader is to identify and engage the people the Lord has gifted in the most appropriate way. The way that edifies the body and equips those saints to the glory of God.

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