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Blog // Artistry
September 18, 2006

The Plight Of Church Musicians

Musicians play a crucial role in the way contemporary churches attract and keep followers. But the way they are treated and the limited concern for the well-being raises a lot of questions.

A few years ago I was asked by someone I’d studied with at college to book a band for a big young adults event for a church denomination. I asked one of the best church musicians I knew. He helped organise a really good, mostly professionals, including PA.

In rehearsal, the band played and sounded fantastic. The event was scheduled for a Saturday night Since these guys were professionals that many they would be foregoing paid gigs. So, I negotiated some pay for them from the denomination.

The event was a success. Numbers exceeded expectations, the band were excellent and everything went smoothly. At the end of the night, when it came time to pay the musicians, the organiser came up to me and said the budget hadn’t worked out the way they expected. They couldn’t pay the band what they had promised. He tried to hand me a significantly lower amount and fully expected this would be fine. I still can’t believe that he said, “they’re musicians,they’ll understand.”

Why Do Churches Do This To Musicians?

Does the church do that when hire other profressionals, like lawyers or plumbers? No. At least, not without agreeing first that the time was some kind of donation.

For that event, the preacher was paid, of course. His pay wasn’t renegotiated.

The church, or at least the branches of the church I’ve been involved with consistently do this to musicians. It’s expected that musicians will give up their time for free. And scant regard is given to the stress they face or whether the conditions under which they often make music in church settings are good for their well being.

Most contemporary churches rely on a volunteer group of musicians. But their services re never really free. Someone paid for the time and effort that went into learning to play and the instruments you see on stage to make the music. Also the musicians often disproportionately donate funds of the PA and other sound equípeme but the church relies on.

Often congregants are quick to criticise anything they don’t like about the music or the way it is played. It’s no wonder so many musicians get quite emotional about the situation. A significant number would be happy to see music cut from church gatherings.

Music Is Not A Gift It’s A Skill

Part of the problem is the way churches talk about music. They call it a gift. It isn’t. Music is a skill. I know quite a few good musicians. I’ve met some great ones. Not a single one had the ability to make music land on them as a gift from heaven, like the dove at Jesus’ baptism.

They all worked very hard to a quite the skill they have with their instrument.

Spiritualising a talent as a gift absolves churches from having to think about the cost paid and sacrifices made in acquiring that skill.

Every good musician I’ve met has worked hard – very hard and paid a high price for their craft. Natural ability is a very small part of the equation. The bulk of it is down to perseverance and sacrifice.

It doesn’t stop there. The gift language implies a spiritual debt. This is why most churches feel musicians owe their churches free service.

Don’t believe me? Try being a musician who politely declines an request to play in church. Or who feels inclined to teach sunday school, work in pastoral care, or heaven forbid, to preach. Guilt, judgment, and shame will be the response.

The Price I Paid To Play In Church

When I started attending church I didn’t play at first. It didn’t feel right to be up on stage when I didn’t understand the faith. And there things about my relationship with music and playing live that I wanted that faith to help me understand and deal with.

But, people kept saying I had a gift. This felt odd. If anything the time I’d dedicated to getting good at guitar had more to do with wanting girls to notice me than anything else.

The coaxing and compliments were intoxicating. Just shy of one year after starting to go to church I was up on the stage. There was no coaching or mentoring. No encouragement to slow down and work on developing my spirituality first.

Learning To Be An Unmusical Musician

Doubling down on my mistakes I cut ties with the musicians I used to play with. This seemed to fit the church ethos I found myself in. There was encouragement to “reject worldliness.” But, it was musical suicide. I stopped growing as a musician or enjoying the music I played.

After a few years I decided to play less and got back into teaching guitar. It’s painful to talk about it now but I came so close to giving up. Playing in church was joyless. It ran counter to all the fun and creative things that had inspired me to pick up the guitar. And you were constantly subject to people’s judgment and criticism – most of whom knew or understood very little about art, culture, or music.

Music Is An Important Part Of Church Marketing

Contemporary churches overemphasize the role of music. Church leaders are desperate to have dynamic and attractive music in their church. It’s part of the church’s marketing – the way it draws in new followers.

This puts a lot of pressure on musicians. It’s not unusual for church leaders to talk musicians out of other ways of service, making them feel like the only way they can be good Christians it to play music.

This leads churches to not care enough for the spirituality of their musicians and even to develop coercive relationships with them.

Dropping the language of gift would be a good place to start. Music is a craft, a skill, a talent. Musicians need to develop their spirituality. And like other artists, that spirituality will have a unique and sensitive nature. And musicians who work professionally should be treated the same as any other kind of professional.

Pete Lev 18 years ago

Thanks – thought provoking post. Just yesterday a friend told me about 2 of the musicians at his church having a crisis of faith,so this is timely, especially the notion that:
“playing music in church may be in conflict with what they need for their spiritual development”. I think that churches are often good at “using”musicians and artists but bad at nurturing them!

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