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When good musicians can’t be found

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Posted by Chris Edwards, 12 Jun 2018

Chris Edwards offers some practical suggestions for churches without suitable musicians.

Music in churches can be hard work at the best of times. For a start, everyone has an opinion, and it’s remarkable how the same piece of music can be simultaneously too loud, too quiet, too fast and too slow! And then there are the multitude of vested interests. (The band that has played together for fifteen years and “clearly” can’t be redeployed without grieving the Holy Spirit. The choir that fights incessantly for its rights. The flautist who absolutely must play on a Sunday morning because “that’s how she worships”.)

But if musicians can be hard work, then being short of them can be hard work too. Many churches in that situation simply feel trapped. The hardworking musicians feel trapped by a sense of impending burnout, conscious that if they’re ever away for a weekend then everyone is left in the lurch. The church family feel trapped: perhaps they’d love to sing some more contemporary music but they don’t have anyone to lead it well…and how will they ever attract the kind of musicians who could lead it, when their music is like it is at the moment? And the minister feels trapped, especially if he is not himself the musical type. He knows the musicians are doing their best, but he also knows the reality that the church’s music is off-putting for visitors and not serving the congregation well. What can be done?

Consider your options.
A few conversations around the pews may reveal musical gifts hidden in the woodwork. Be aware that the musical status quo can make it difficult for people to volunteer their services: they don’t want to tread on toes, they’re not sure they’d be welcome, and they definitely don’t want to get lumbered with a headache! But if there is a sense of a fresh start, they may be much more willing. And remember that this is about quality, not quantity. Far better to have one or two people at the front who can sing and play well (and are doing it for the right reasons) than five or six who don’t know what they’re doing.

What about backing tracks? Many digital organs can be loaded up with pre-recorded hymns, and you can buy various packages of instrumental accompaniments online. Some will make you cringe, but others are musically highly respectable and run very straightforwardly from an app or computer. Alternatively you can build your own collection: for example, Sovereign Grace Music sell their album tracks with the vocals removed (visit their Bandcamp site).

But before you assume backing tracks are the bright new future, just a word of caution. First, a backing track will only sound as good as your PA system. Second, you still want someone leading singing at the front - someone who knows the track inside out. Third, consider what you stand to lose. Probably a big slice of good repertoire, for starters. And the ability to lead a song differently according to its place in the service, or what’s going on in your church family. The backing track doesn’t know about the family tragedy a few days ago which makes In Christ Alone especially poignant, for example.

Moreover, beware of buying into the myth that good church music is all about having flawless musical execution up at the front. Your church is actually already full of musical instruments: as many instruments as you have members. Each person brings their own voice; and those are the most important instruments in the church. It was John Piper who said that he wants people’s abiding memory of the music in their (mega)church to be the sound of their congregation singing. We must cherish the Ephesians 5 picture of music sung by the congregation, both ‘horizontally’ (to each other), and ‘vertically’ (to the Lord).

So, backing tracks may be your perfect solution - at least temporarily. But perhaps you could also sing a cappella - at least some of the time. Of course, this suits some styles of music better than others. And it really helps if you have some decent voices to lead. But singing a hymn well can sometimes be easier unaccompanied than with an organist who is clearly struggling.

Keep the main thing central.
There is a great danger that, in a panic to get “better” music, the most important things get lost. Yes, your church wants skilful musicians. But far more than that, I hope it wants musicians who love the Lord Jesus and have a biblical view of what church music exists to do. Aim first and foremost for that. Don’t put the wrong people up front, or you’ll just store up problems for later.
In our music-saturated world, wise ministers will regularly be teaching the whole church family what God thinks about music. And, finally, they will:

Invest in training.
When the problems of next Sunday’s music seem so urgent, don’t underestimate what God might bring about in 5 years’ time, if you pray hard, plan well, and keep plodding in the right direction. Make sure everyone involved in music is getting regular training, for example at the conferences organised by Music Ministry.

All church musicians need love and encouragement. Some will benefit from the specific loving encouragement to get some lessons. Decent vocal coaching can work wonders relatively quickly. Perhaps your church’s 5 year musical plan needs to include young teenagers, whom you can encourage to learn an instrument for the glory of God, and steadily disciple as Christian musicians of the future.

Yes: church music can be hard work! But it’s also one of the Lord’s greatest gifts to his people. It’s well worth investing in.

And don’t go it alone. If there’s a larger church nearby whose ministry you respect, don’t be afraid to ask them for help. And not just for the loan of musicians to save your Sunday! Rather, seek out a longer-term partnership of training and support that will steadily help get your church’s music flourishing, to the glory of God.

Chris Edwards is a final year ordinand at Oak Hill College. Before that, he worked in music ministry at All Saints, Crowborough, and Jesmond Parish Church, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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