Dear Music Pastors,
This is a difficult letter for me to write. I’m not the sort of guy who easily admits that he’s more a part of the problem than the solution, but sometimes you just have to come face to face with reality. I’ve mined the gold of the Orange County Megachurches, I’ve been the goto guy for startup ventures, and I’ve filled more than a few 401(k)s up with the ill-gotten gains of my lurid exploits. I’ve been a mercenary. A hired gun. A musical “lady-in-red”. A ringer. Simon the Sorcerer to your Apostle Peter.
My name is John Doe, and I did a paid gig at your church. Look, neither one of us is to blame here. I’m sure it started innocently enough; your church made the switch to contemporary music, and you struggled through it for a few months, knowing that you didn’t have the players in your congregation to really make it work. So, you pulled out your little black book, and thought, “Just this once. Just this one time, I’ll call a few guys, I’ll squeeze a little cash out of the choir budget, and I’ll put together a service that just rocks.” So you did it, just that once, and it was like pure Havana Snow on a straight mainline to your groove jones. It rocked. You tasted, just for a second, what things could be like. Then the next week, you went back to your old players, but the luster was gone. You couldn’t look them in the eye. You had tasted the sweet goodness of solid time, tonally appropriate guitar fills, and bone shattering B3 grinds, and anything less just wouldn’t cut it. So you made another call. You shifted the budget around. You snuck another hit. And before long, every weekend service was filled out with pro players, dropping salty chops all up in the Lord’s hizzy, as the kids say.
And think of it from my point of view. I got my first call when I was just 19. I wasn’t old enough to see the consequences of my decision. I needed the cash. I thought that if I just did it this once, I could still look myself in the mirror the next morning. So I took my first church gig. Then my second. Before I had reached the tender age of 25, I was being passed around from megachurch to megachurch like a tawdry girl of low repute at a Sailors’ Ball. I could read. I could improvise. I could groove, I could hang with your soloist when he dropped 3 beats on the way out of the bridge. And more importantly, I had all of the unspoken requirements of the job, things you couldn’t ask a guy over the phone, but were every bit as important; I had no visible tattoos, and looked good in khakis and a polo. My dance card was full, baby.
But now look at the mess we’re in. I have too many friends to count who have “professional musician” on their business cards, but the truth is, all they do are church gigs. I know of churches that would have vibrant and thriving artistic cultures if their musicians would hang around, but they can’t afford to turn down $150 a service from the church down the block. New church plants have to budget for pro players to get their program up and running, because they believe that people won’t show up if the music isn’t amped to 11. People who, with some experience and some training, could blossom into good players don’t get the chance, because the bar to get on the team has been raised too high. And maybe worst of all, it costs you $1200 every single week to put 4 guys on the platform to drop their sticky funk juice all over the tunes. Twelve hundred dollars! Do you know how many World Vision goats you could buy for that kind of dough?
So this is the mess we’re in, and nobody expects the solution to be easy. I know we probably can’t go cold-turkey, because you would lose your job if your music program went from Jarvis Church to Jr. High jam band in one week. And the reality is, as long as you keep calling me up, I’m going to keep taking your calls and showing up. Let me make a modest proposal for how we extricate ourselves from this mess.
Step 1: stop paying “church pros”. I know you have guys on your roster who knock out 3 European tours in a year, and who paved their driveway with platinum records. I’m not suggesting that you cut those guys off at the knees. But the guy who works 9-5 as an insurance adjuster, and the only time he draws a paycheck for playing bass is when he shows up on Sunday at your joint, stop treating him like a pro. If you stop paying him, he’ll go back to his home church, and start investing his abilities back into their program. And who knows, maybe the guys you’ve lost along the way to other paying churches will start to show back up when they shut off the tap, ready to be part of the team again.
Step 2: take that money that you saved by not paying the “church pros”, and start investing it in building up the ability level of your players. Take a cue from Guitar Center: start hosting clinics for your players, Saturday workshops with hardcore session and touring pros who will be a straight adrenaline shot in the arm to your guys. You remember that $1200 you used to pay for a weekend band? You’d be shocked at the guys who would get on a plane and fly out to spend a day with your band for that kind of dough. We’re talking the Modern Drummer centerfolds here, and you don’t think that’ll inspire your guys to practice more? What if, instead of paying a pro $300 for one weekend, you offer to split the cost of private lessons with your volunteer players for 6 months? Things like that.
Step 3: use ringers intentionally, and strategically. Pick a Sunday, and just pack the stage with monsters, I mean sick and vicious. Invite the rest of the guys on your team to show up and be a part of the midweek rehearsal, to sit next to the guy playing their instrument, and to see how they do it. If it works, they’ll learn a lot about what professionalism looks like – inking up a chart, making a mistake and then correcting it, asking questions when charts are confusing, playing with ears wide open. Use ringers to raise the tide of the whole team, not just to pull off one great Sunday service.
I don’t know how this things ends. Maybe I need to just not answer my cell when I know it’s you. Maybe your elder board needs to hold an intervention. At this point, all I know is this: we’ve built some kick-ass services, but no real artistic communities. We’ve produced some monster musical moments, but very few seasons of corporately maturing worship. We dropped some disgustingly hip soul vaccinations on your funky pox, but we … ok, I lost my train of thought on that one.
In all seriousness, this is what breaks me. My friends are slowly dying from lack of a spiritual community, because they spend every Sunday at a different church, and they won’t quit until you stop hiring them. And your friends desperately want to worship in an authentic community led by people who are invested with their trust, but you keep throwing them ringers.