An Open Letter to Music Pastors

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.

-ml

43 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Music Pastors

  1. jeremy

    Is this real? Does this really happen? Have you seen the recent article on CCM on iMonk’s (Michael Spencer) blog? It’s very good and has a similar subject stream, though more along the actual CCM scene…

  2. aly hawkins

    Yes, it really happens. No, it’s not “real” if by that you mean did a ringer really write it. (Though I would consider Mike a ringer musicianship-wise, he has a steady job as a music pastor. But I think this post has some interesting implications for “paid ministry”, too. Hmmmm.)

  3. ash

    Mike, I see several “across the board” changes that would have to occur in order for this shift to work.

    1.) The congregation would have to stop watching television, renting DVD’s and going to the movies for at least two years. We are so accustomed to being entertained, that we are unable to separate musical quality from quality of worship.

    2.) Ministry leaders would have to stop programming music around the sermon. We have a culture of teaching Pastors who are accustomed the “worship team as jukebox” paradigm. Volunteers do not play passable versions of the latest CCM hit.

    3.) Board members would no longer be allowed to buy the latest Mercy Me worship project or listen to K-GOD (or whatever the local Cumulus Corporation station is…) and make special requests.

    4.) We would have to consider the possibility that we’ve worshipped music and entertainment over the God who created these things.

    Barring these four minor changes, I think we’re good to go!

  4. michael lee Post author

    Jeremy – yes, I spent several years as hired gun making the OC megachurch circuit. And yes, there is a circuit, and yes there are guys who make their living riding it.
    .
    Ash – I totally hear you. There is a huge problem with congregation and pastoral perceptions when it comes to musicianship. I think most pastors believe that the only difference between a David Crowder CD and their Sunday morning band is the local church worship guy doesn’t know how to equip and inspire his volunteer team (whatever that means).

  5. jeremy

    WOW! Yeah, I meant is the scenario (rather than the letter) real, and I think I’m disturbed! Please don’t take offense as one who “worked the circuit”…I think I’m disturbed with the whole culture that produces it, and not necessarily the hired guns.
    .
    I saw this in some way at the megachurch I came from here in DC. The band at this church is a permenant fixture of the genX ministry and has “stars” from the former band Circadian Rhythm and both the lead singers have produced albums. The band is very amazing musically and singing there is like going to a Passion concert…
    .
    I’ve since moved on, as you know to b-mac’s church, where the band and singing isn’t as polished. Somehow I like it much better, though! It is more earthy, organic, genuine, and real…kinda like family, rather than concert.
    .
    thanks for the education!
    jeremy

  6. Morphea

    I would only hire on at churches if they’d let me put Jesus lyrics to Depeche Mode and Joni Mitchell covers. I’m so out of the CCM world now that I wouldn’t know a Christian artist if they shoved a mic up my nose. This from the lady who went to college with Jars of Clay…Cerise

  7. Morphea

    Aly, you REMEMBER that I had the soundtrack tape to “Galileo” and used it at that class talent show? “Ask me just how much I love you – you are starlight, I’m Galileooooo”. Oh, the humanity. ‘Course, you did an interpretive dance to “Walk Like an Egyptian”…good times, good times.

  8. Joshua Blankenship

    Interesting, well-articulated post. And nice to hear it from someone with enough knowledge to have an educated viewpoint. I know we pay our players, and they are professional level, sick and viscious and occasionally dropping things that make you make ugly faces to your musically knowledgeable friends, but they’re not ringers. They’re dedicated church members who give, serve, and would be here whether they were on stage or not. Striking that balance (while being on the lookout for other church members to develop into similar roles) seems to be a rare thing indeed.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

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  10. michael lee Post author

    I think it’s funny. They always seem to dig random posts up from the basement that I’d forgotten about.

    Thank you, archival spammers. Thank you.

  11. june

    I don’t think I’m an “archival spammer” but I admit, I just found this entry the other day and liked it lots. Of course I wasn’t going to post though because I figured doing so would only reveal how utterly out of the loop I am…er wait… I mean, WAS! But now that I see others (ok, other.) have also recently visited and commented, I feel free to reveal my interest in this particular post. (It’s nice to have a little company when I venture out of the cave once a year.)

    Anyway, this has long been a topic of discussion around our house and while the B and I can always talk about it at length, we have never come up with any solutions such as you outlined here. I like ‘em. So Michael, given that you wrote this 8 months and 3 weeks ago, can I safely assume that all of your ideas have been put into national, if not global, practice? Thanks for solving this problem for one and all. I’ll sew you up a cape real soon!

    For reals, seems like a good plan. Now to implement it…

    Do people really still say “Keep it real?” Wow. I AM out of it.

  12. michael lee Post author

    June

    I was thinking about this just this past weekend, actually, while I was playing with two very, very good ringers at our Easter service. I think, at least at our church, we’ve tried to strike a balance that hits some of these things.

    I know it’s not perfect yet, but I watched on Thursday night as the hired gun guitarist stayed around after rehearsal for about 20 minutes to show some things to the 19 year old kid who is our steady player. I think we’re doing a decent job of not just hiring in talent for one day, but putting our volunteer players in situations where they learn from knowledgeable (and humble) pro players.

    So, hopefully we can build on that. And, lest anyone should get the wrong idea, we hire players maybe 3 or 4 times a year. That’s very, very few World Vision goats.

  13. michael lee Post author

    and june, robbi is an actual spammer. Before I removed it, his email link pointed toward a mortage insurance site, or something like that. So, archival spammer = actual spammer who tags old posts, not just someone who finds old posts and makes insightful comments on them. You are always welcome to do that.

  14. june

    Michael,
    Glad to hear that your church has in fact put into practice some of your good ideas. Indeed, humility is the key in so many ways…hmm…I’d wax eloquent on that but I can see our youngest presently digging up the seeds I recently planted in the back yard (or, as you might call it, the back 40 of our alpine estate) so I must be brief.

    Ok, now that I see him golfing the blooms off the pansies (hey, if you can’t afford actual golf balls…) I’ve completely lost all train of deeper thought. Perhaps I’ll have a thought worth sharing again sometime…how’s 2008 look for ya?

    So, a spammer is somebody who posts on a blog just to get a link to their own random site included on said blog?? What’s the world coming to…

    Oh, and your WV goats reference reminded me that whenever Brian comments on the vague (Vague) possibility of ever owning an uber-expensive car, I merely say that once he has made his peace with God and the starving children of the world, he should feel free to go ahead with that idea. Is that very Proverbs 31ish of me?

    Ok, a large rock was just hurled against the french doors. To mothering I must get. Really, really like your music at church ideas. Really.

  15. june

    Well golly, thanks Michael. I feel like I’ve been invited to the prom…by a guy who is on the chess team and in the band.

    …which is a good thing…I married one of those guys!

    I’ll register as soon as I’m done with the dishes, and changing diapers, and the painting project, and making the bed (yes, I know it’s after 4pm)…

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  17. Larry

    I agree that it’s time to stop worshiping the music and worship the Maker. I’m 55 years old. While working on my Master of Church Music degree (1975) I wrote a term paper called “The use of Pop, Rock, and Jazz in the Church.” NONE of my church music professors thought much of it. Does that tell you how far we’ve come? I was very progressive in taking current music and either using it as-is or changing some lyric to church-ify it. Well… I think maybe we’ve come TOO far in making music in the church “relevant”. If you can’t tell the difference between church on Sunday morning, and the Nokia Center (Dallas area) on Saturday night, I think there’s a problem. If the music is so loud, radical, and overly rocked that you can’t understand the words, what’s the point?

    “It’s the MESSAGE, stupid.” We need to say to ourselves over and over. The mode, media, and music will all change with time. But if the message is lost, so will be those who hear it. And I thought getting the saved was the point of drawing them in, right?

  18. Morphea

    Well, sure, but I’m not in agreement that the words to church songs are the only thing that matters. Music in religion is used to evoke (in my opinion)an emotional state – lyrics would certainly provide focus, but if someone’s really into stuff that sounds like Rob Zombie and will argue to the death with you that that’s their idea of beauty, how displeased will god be if that’s what’s played in a service of like-minded Christians? You think god will care if they’re moshing and thinking about Jesus? Moshing…do they still even do that?

    Cerise

  19. Chad

    [quote comment="59195"]Well… I think maybe we’ve come TOO far in making music in the church “relevant”. If you can’t tell the difference between church on Sunday morning, and the Nokia Center (Dallas area) on Saturday night, I think there’s a problem. If the music is so loud, radical, and overly rocked that you can’t understand the words, what’s the point?

    “It’s the MESSAGE, stupid.” We need to say to ourselves over and over. The mode, media, and music will all change with time. But if the message is lost, so will be those who hear it. And I thought getting the saved was the point of drawing them in, right?[/quote]

    Hey Larry,

    First and foremost, let’s all give props to the pioneers who saw the writing on the wall in the 70s and started the church music revolution. I cannot imagine the conversations you had with your elder boards back then… wow.

    Here’s my question? What makes a song, “Christian?” Is it lyrics? A well focused, up front vocal? Is it chord structure or melodic content? Hang with me here, I’m not trying to burn you or be pedantic. I am really thinking about this, and it’s absolutely real to me, in my everyday. I am a songwriter and professional musician… and I’m a Christian.

    The reason I ask these questions is that I hear what you’re saying… it’s the message. I want to examine some of the negative side effects that come with that philosophy. Mixers actually refer to “The Christian Mix,” which means that the vocal is WAAY out front, dominating the whole thing. Even Christian Rock Bands sound like singer/songwriter demos.

    One of the other negative side effects I see is the lack of unresolved tension in Christian Music, specifically CCM pop. Most great art portrays conflict or as my Theory 1 prof used to always say, “The ongoing flow of tension and release.” Very few Christian artists have the courage to deal with enresolved tension, which, IMO, nueters “Christian” art, because it’s simply unable to ring true. Yes, Jesus resolves tension… but he created a fair amount as well, and promised a Christian life filled with rewards beyond comprehension but also… trouble.

    These musical differences between CCM and mainstream are plain as day, once you have ears to hear. It kills me when people get hyper defensive of CCM, claiming that there is no quality difference. You could play me 8 bar sections of pop vs. CCM songs with no lyrics and I betcha I could pick them out 90% of the time. We have crafted for ourselves…. a genre. We have our own little section at Best Buy. CCM often outgrosses Jazz, but gets hammered by Country.

    Then there’s the whole, “Crossing Over,” thing. If a band that breaks through on a CCM label (which are all owned by major secular corporations, BTW) they will always be ghettoized by the mainstream music fans, no matter how many hits they have on the radio. Jars of Clay will always be a CCM band. They were actually quoted once as saying they choe to enter CCM because they thought it would be easier to get their breaks. They made their bed, and mainstream success has eluded them since their first record.

    A shame… because they’re a great band, and always have been.

    Ok… what’s my point… I don’t have a point. I wonder things like this… what would happen if a band wrote parables instead of praise songs? What would happen if the Christian community decided it was ok for the songwriter not to feel any better by the third chorus? What if Christian writers were given the creative freedom to write… Psalms?

    Nah. Won’t play on The Fish. Let’s spin that Point of Grace track again from ’97. That kills with the Precepts crowd.

    Sorry. I’m bitter. I visited a megachurch last weekend.

  20. Bret

    Wow. My eyes have been opened to a whole new way to empty my music budget. I’m a worship pastor in Lincoln, NE, and I can say (quite honestly) I’ve never even heard of hiring musicians for a Sunday morning. The thought never crossed my mind! Granted, Lincoln isn’t exactly a hotbed of budding music, so professional musicians are probably not as common here as they are in Orange County.

    I pray our volunteer roster never depletes, because now I’ll have this dark option to contemplate as a solution.

    I think some of your suggestions at the end are right on. I want our church to be about building COMMUNITY, and I never want to turn us into a Sunday morning club where people gig and then move on.

    Thanks for the thoughts.

  21. Steve

    Great article. I have been on both sides of the equation. I was a “hired gun” for several local churches and volunteered at my home church until finally becoming a volunteer worship leader. Now I am a full time worship leader for a church that is associated with Bayside Church in Cali. That is the church where Lincoln Brewster leads worship. (CCM artist with the current #1 song as of this post)

    I write all this not to debate the CCM sound or its relevance, believe me I have my own issues with that, but rather to encourage other worship leaders out there that it is possible to have a killer worship team full of volunteers. At Bayside (and my church) it is nearly 100% volunteer and the sound and quality of the worship team is IMHO one of the best in the country. If you need proof, just check out Lincoln CD “All To You – Live”. Just preview some of the tracks and know that everything you hear on there is from volunteers (with the exception of the drummer, who was hired as a staff member not a contracted musician, and Lincoln himself).

    This is done by developing musicians and singers, encouraging teamwork, keeping a spiritual focus, and having a reasonable expectation of quality. Bayside is a church of 8,000 and they do it. I work for Bayside Central Roseville, a church of 250 and we do it. There are many other things that are done, but I just want to ecourage anyone who might need it!

    Steve

    P.S. I know all this because I was the volunteer keybaord player on the Lincoln’s CD.

  22. Chad

    My sister in law goes there. :) She loves your church, and she’s a baby Christian, so that’s good.

  23. Stefanie

    What about all the pros who may someday know Christ as a result of their being hired at a church? Hmmm…More food for thought. :)

  24. Chad

    Stefanie,

    It’s a fair question. Can I ask if you’ve actually seen this happen? I followed your link and it seems you attend (or are employed at?) a large church in San Diego.

    To answer your question from my perspective, as professional worship leader for the past 8 years, the scenario you described would be the rare exception to the norm. Most of these guys play at all sorts of different gigs for all sorts of different folks, so I see them mostly fuzz out on anything other than the chart in front of them and the other guys in the band, almost as a self-defense mechanism. I know one cat who’s played from everyone to The OC Gay Men’s Chorus to the Crystal Cathedral to an Orthodox Jewish band and all points in between. At some point, I think you just develop a filter.

    I think, and I don’t want to put words in Mike’s mouth, that he is making an observation about professional musicians who work the circuit and are already believers, and how it negatively affects their spiritual walks as well as ultimately harming the productivity of the in-house talent at the given church.

    Don’t be a stranger… you’ve raised an interesting point and I’d like to hear more of your thoughts. Welcome to The Roadhouse.

  25. michael lee Post author

    I saw that happen one time, where someone who was a hired gun in a church became a believer, and had his life turned around. It was in a church that hired in pro players, but used the same ones every single week, and a real sense of community grew up around the people in the band.

    But, I think that’s the very rare exception, and not the norm. If you have more stories, I’d love to hear them.

  26. kat

    i completely agree with you. especially the “equip and inspire” comment. i grew up as a pk in a mega church,hearing the pastor say he wants to hire people that “have the right vibe” and people that he “has chemistry with” what the heck does that mean? i’m still not quite sure. i suppose i’ll get back to you when i read it in the bible somewhere.

  27. michael lee Post author

    Ah. Does this mean you won’t be hiring me to come play keyboards for you? Because I totally didn’t mean any of the stuff in this letter, man.

  28. Chad

    It just means that I’m diving headfirst back into the oh so familiar waters of my 20s. :)

    It’s a good thing, but like all good things, it can be complicated.

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