To Church Musicians from a Church Musician

Defining Terms It's interesting that the term "Church Musician" is a thing, because two words together have rarely carried such enormous weight as these.

Church: - could refer to something generally "religious," - something established as a tax write-off, - to the body of Christ, - to a sect of cultish crazies, - or really any number of things in between.

Musician: - Someone with a penchant for understanding melody, harmony, and expression of feeling through tonal quality, - a person connected to some abstract muse or well of inspiration, - or (in some people's minds) simply someone possessing the skill of playing an instrument.

Church Musician: - Someone who plays music exclusively in churches - Someone who plays music, and church happens to be one of the places he plays - Someone who learned 4 chords and finds it acceptable to consider himself qualified to lead people before the Creator of music with no discernable passion, no evident display of intentionally honed musical skill, and the acceptance of a complete lack of innovation for the sake of perpetuating an increasingly stale "genre" of musical expression.

Music in Church

"The Church" remains today one of the most misunderstood things around, especially in a society completely saturated with it. A church is a place you go, a building to have a wedding in, redemption for Saturday night, the place that houses a man who does exorcisms, a brick-faced structure with a steeple, a clever source for punch lines on boards out front trying to convince you to venture inside, etc. Church is an event to invite your "lost" friends to. An alternative for teenagers to hanging out downtown in parking garages.

Church is safe.

I'm not going to build the case for "the church is not a building, it's the people" here, because it has been done a thousand times before far more eloquently than I would, and frankly I just don't feel like getting into it (because I'm trying to make this week's post shorter than last week's 2100 word colossus).

But I will come out and say that I believe that the church, even in a somewhat dumbed-down context, is extremely important. We have a luxury that is unprecedented and not by any means universal. Especially in the South, we have incredibly nice buildings where we are free to gather, teach, worship, and pray as we please, whenever we want. In this context, as has been standard since the formation of the church, it is important to note the importance and place of musical worship (I think of Paul and Barnabas singing in jail). Music is used because it offers connections that words cannot muster to the Divine, and has been proven to be so for ages. Worship is not Music, though Music can be used to worship. Again, I've talked about this before, and often, so I shan't do it again here.


This it the age of Youtube, where you can learn literally anything in the amount of time it takes a video to buffer. Guitar, piano, calculus formulas, bombmaking, DIY robotics, film editing, sound recording, etc. You name it, there's someone there to teach it to you for free. It is a seriously wonderful thing (which I say without even a taste of irony), the age of knowledge and information, because nothing is out of the realm of possibility.

What IS a problem, however, is the idea injected into the collective consciousness that knowledge = expertise. Or even proficiency. "Master modal scales in ten days!" boasts one video on Youtube. "Learn how to play Lead Blues Electric guitar!" "Understanding Jazz theory." We operate under the assumption that knowledge a musician makes.

Further than that, we classify music (correctly) as art, and art (incorrectly) as un-critiquable. I'm not getting into Aesthetic discussions of art vs. craft, because I believe that each requires portions of each other to be true - and music is certainly a shining example. The assumption is that music can't be "better" or "worse," simply "different" or "more approachable" or "prettier sounding." It's untactful to say "that sounds terrible," for it will be countered with, "well, you just don't understand."

It's easy to fall to this relativistic trap with something as objective as music because there's not a commonly accepted standard for "goodness" or "badness." For example, one can judge how good or bad an archer is by how many times he can hit a target from a certain distance. A mathematician by if his solution checks out with the equation. A basketball team by if they beat other somewhat equally matched basketball teams.

So does it make a guitarist a good guitarist if he can match a guitar solo with 100% accuracy? Does it make a song good if it gets caught in your head? Or is music judged based upon what it is designed to be: communication? Do we connect with music because of the technicality of its performance or because of the emotion it conveys?

And could it be said that the better musician is the more "natural" one, that isn't stuffed with theory and filled with scales and surrounded by black dots and stems on staved paper? Or does it require a bit of effort and attempt to supplement the talent that already existed? As a music major in college, I averaged 3-5 hours a day in a room with a metronome, a guitar, and a piece of music. While I do not ever pretend to even be close to the best in the room, I do feel as though considerable effort merits considerable respect, much to the dismay of current hipster art culture. It is not merely enough to be good - you must be consistently good and demonstrably innovative... and innovation only comes with knowing what has been, which only comes through practice and study.

Church Musicians

So we have arrived at last. The point of the verbose lecture.

I have perhaps mentioned it before, but something a few years spoke volumes about the state of church musicians (or at least those involved). The Black Eyed Peas were delivering a remarkably underwhelming halftime performance during a Super Bowl and one of my friends tweeted: "It sounds like the Black Eyed Peas hired the church sound guy with a 'great heart.'" I enthusiastically chuckled and gladly retweeted it, because it says something about the expectations and the skill level of church musicians. That kind of thing can be said and not be untrue because we have lowered our expectations in order to allow those who want to help out a shot at doing so.

Do not misread this: I am incredibly grateful for volunteers - without them, next to nothing in the church would get accomplished. But I think that there is a compromise to be made and an expectation to be raised. Simply because somebody is not being paid for something does not mean that they are to be excused from professionality and criticism. We dont' know how to say "no" to people because we are afraid of hurting their feelings. Because we feel as though we can't infringe upon that "uncritiquable" strata of art creation. After all, that is elitism and elitism is bad.

But if I were taking volunteers for a medical clinic and found somebody who was inept at even drawing blood, I would have no problem saying he is not a suitable candidate to remove an appendix.

Similarly, if I were approached with two guitarists to play one Sunday morning, one a veritable virtuoso from birth, who can play a piece of music after simply listening to it once who hadn't so much as hit "play" on that week's set and another who sat and struggled through that set hour after hour until it was a part of him, I would take the latter every single time. Struggle produces beauty and competence, encourages humility, and mirrors the kind of professional attitude expected in every other walk of life.

Just because someone's a great carpenter doesn't mean that I'll give him credit for a house he didn't work on. Just because someone is a naturally great walker doesn't mean he deserves praise for walking well.

Especially in the church, for the reason that you should do ANYTHING in the church, excellence in all fronts should be expected. In the "Christian" music industry, infamous for its sub-par quality lyric and song content, we should have extra motivation to produce the best possible product, spiritually AND physically. Don't pretend that there's not a difference between a good band and a good "Christian" band (though this playing field is quickly leveling out and is not nearly as universal an assumption as it used to be). Don't pretend that there's not a difference between a good movie and a good "Christian" movie. And don't let anybody tell you that you can't be the one to raise these expectations.

Hamilton Barber

The subject of this page is an introverted writer/musician/lunatic from Chattanooga, TN who dabbles in lexical dexterity, unorthodox thoughts on prosperity, and being overwhelmingly undeserving of the privilege of waking up every day. He hopes that everybody who reads these words takes them to heart and leaps higher than he ever could. He reads, thinks, and speaks too much; he listens, works, and loves too little; and he says “I” entirely too often. The words on these pages are not his: they are the words that were given to him.