Category Archives: Experiences

Constructive Criticism

If you have been in leadership of any type at any level for very long, you have received constructive criticism. When we hear it, we may question how “constructive” it actually is. One thing is certain…..it’s criticism, and it can be hard to accept.

It seems that in music ministry, everyone has an opinion.  Add to that the large number of amateur musicians who see no difference between their skills and that of a professional and you have a formula that’s ripe for lots of commentary.  “That tempo was too fast!”  “The key is extremely too low for the congregation.”  “You really should consider using more hymns for our blended congregation.”  “You really should consider using more contemporary music for our blended congregation.”  “Have you considered stepping down from the ministry?”  All the while, we are diligently trying to lead the people of God into authentic worship in the best way we know how.

As the criticism flies, we must be careful to guard our response. There is a tricky balance between exercising authority and assuring the members of your congregation and worship team that you are sensitive to their concerns.  For the past few weeks, my local congregation has been studying the book of James using Beth Moore’s wonderful DVDs. As I have continued to read the book and faced the above criticisms this week, I was reminded of what James 1:19-20 advises:  “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this:  Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.”  I’m thankful that this week, I have kept my mouth shut and my ears open.  Then I’ve been able to take all the constructive criticism to the Audience of One and ask for His feedback on the situation. As always, He continues to give direction, clarity of mind, and perfect peace.

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Offertory: More Than Background Music

Every week in churches around the world, a musician plays a selection while the collection is being received from the congregation. This piece of music is generically referred to as the offertory and is a difficult moment for the church pianist. Despite their best efforts, many in the congregation consider the music as an intermission of sorts during the service — an opportunity to greet those around them who came in late, discuss lunch plans, and get ready for the REAL purposes of coming together week after week: the congregational singing and the minister's sermon. While it is not my intention to lessen the importance of any other part of the service, I firmly believe that the offertory should be treated as something more than just background music.

Scripture tells us to make music on the organ and high sounding cymbals. In the Old Testament, professional musicians in the role of the priesthood spent countless hours in rehearsal and preparation to lead the people of Israel into the courts of the Lord. Musical worship was an important and highly reverent part of the praise of Jehovah that involved both the performer and the audience. Regardless of the quality of the music being played, it is offered to the Lord as a sacrifice and is intended to assist the listeners to enter into pure worship.

Responsibility for the success of the weekly offertory lies with the performer as well as audience. The soloist must make a significant commitment to prepare themselves musically and spiritually each week before playing. Presenting selections that have not been adequately prepared or do not require our very best (whatever our technical level) is less than what our awesome God is worthy of! Additionally, it is just as important to seek the direction of the Holy Spirit when selecting an instrumental solo as is the selection of the congregational worship songs. Unless we as performers view the offertory as a part of the worship service that can be powerfully used in ministering to the hearts of sinful man, neither will the congregants we serve.

Congregations have more influence over the quality and worshipfulness of the offertory than they often realize. While a pianist is concentrating on the task at hand, he or she is not deaf. I have often been tempted to comment on the conversations that I have heard while playing in the middle of service: Pot roast sounds wonderful for lunch……No, I CAN'T believe she actually wore those shoes with that skirt…….Do you need to run home and set the VCR since you're probably not going to get home in time to watch your favorite show? (Just to be clear, these are all conversations that I've heard clearly from the audience of various congregations that I have played for.) While I'm sure the intention is not to seem unappreciative of the labor required to prepare the arrangement (if you think these works are just pulled out of the air each Sunday, ask your pianist about their weekly preparation for these 5 minutes of playing!), the constant conversations can make the most mature Christian musicians among us wonder if it's really worth all the effort since no one is listening.

In case it's not abundantly clear, let me point out a few reasons why conversations should not occur during the offertory (or other parts of the service for that matter!).

  1. It's distracting! Although you may not be trying to listen, others around you are. Your conversation is interrupting them. We do not know what God may use to minister to the hearts of hurting people in our midst — a vocal solo, a devotional thought, a single sentence in the sermon, or *gasp* an instrumental solo. Additionally, there is a good chance that your conversation (which is louder than you realize) is distracting the soloist as they are offering their worship, especially if you are sitting in the congregation near them or are a member of the platform party.
  2. It's irreverent! Our entire gathering is considered an act of worship to God, who is to be the focus and center of our time together. Everything we do and say should continue to draw the focus to Him. Everything else can wait for 90 minutes. If it can't wait, I think it might be time to reconsider our priorities.
  3. It's simply rude! Have you ever had someone talk to their neighbor while you were giving an oral presentation? It's probably one of the most frustrating experiences a speaker can have. The lecturer wants to do nothing more at that moment than sit down and stop talking. Just because a pianist is not looking at you while playing doesn't mean that we're not aware of the extended time that your attention is elsewhere.
  4. It's not worship! There's nothing more to really say here. If you didn't come to this place to worship, why are you here?

I'll be the first to admit that there is some level of frustration that has developed over the years as I have played numerous solos in multiple churches around the world. For many years, I hated playing them because I felt no one was listening. Finally I decided that I was playing to bring honor to my Heavenly Father who could hear through all the noise of the congregation and would receive my sacrifices of worship when offered with a pure heart. Still, I long for the day when musician and audience together focus their hearts and minds on the worship of the King through instrumental music, corporate singing, and the declaration of Truth. When we are consistently focusing on our Risen Savior with unity of mind and purpose, our time together will be touched by Heaven as we begin to experience new depths of worship–the heart cry of the people of God.

Musical Prelude

Do you remember the first Sunday you stood before a congregation to lead them in worship? Perhaps your hands begin to sweat again merely at the thought of that first experience. Have you ever wished that you knew then the many lessons you have learned since about worship, leadership, and music? I certainly have! That wish is what brought about this blog.

I first became involved with worship and music ministries as a child of ten. I had taken piano lessons for several years and found myself thrust behind a console piano and told to play. I knew nothing about chord progressions or improvising. All of my training had been classical in nature – if the notes weren’t written on the page, I didn’t know what to do. Despite my protests, I found myself sitting behind the piano on a Sunday morning and was simply told to “follow” the guitar’s lead (whatever THAT was supposed to mean)! Soon I found myself given the responsibility of leading the music for the congregation. How I wished that there was a manual of some sort to help me navigate this overwhelming and incredibly important ministry of the church. Sadly, I have not found a book that adequately addresses the many multi-faceted issues a music minister will face weekly. When I commented on this absence with a dear colleague recently, she challenged me to begin writing the missing volume. My solution is “Music for the Master”.

This blog is not intended to be the final statement on all things related to music ministry. If you have served in this position for any length of time, you know that our challenges morph regularly with changing musical styles, congregations and worship settings. We deal not only with issues related to music making; we also have to address issues related to theology, leadership, evangelism, and finances on a regular basis. Although I have been serving as a worship leader in either a volunteer or paid position for over 21 years, I do not pretend to have learned all the lessons needed for this massive job. My hope is that “Music for the Master” will become an active dialogue among those who currently serve as music ministers as well as those who sing or play at a local congregation and those who are simply passionate about worship ministry in our churches. Although my background is with the Church of God of Prophecy, I believe that many of the issues we will be discussing together will be applicable across denominational lines as we all pursue a single purpose: to better equip ourselves and our team to more effectively make “music for the Master!”

Take a few minutes and leave a brief introduction in the comment section below. Where are you serving currently? Are you the minister of music or do you hold another position? What is an issue you would like to see us discuss in the weeks and months to come? I’m looking forward to lively discussions, knowing that “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” (Proverbs 27:17, NIV)

Kennith