Posted In: Church Music Ministry


Church Pianist Challenge: Disruptive Congregation

July 27, 2017 - By 

This is the first in a series of articles I will be writing about challenges facing church pianists today. It grows out of this article, which seemed to hit a nerve.

Church pianists are valuable resources to the church. Just ask someone who attends a church without a pianist, and they’ll tell you how important they are!

When a pianist prepares an instrumental solo, what’s involved? Many things. Initially, there is the time investment to peruse and discover new and appropriate repertoire. Then there is a financial investment made to obtain this music. Finally, there is the mental and time investment for preparation, which may include many hours of rehearsal. Add to that the stresses of performance, like perhaps dealing with the quarks of a less-than-ideal instrument, awkward or difficult page turns, air handlers blowing your music everywhere, or coping with stage fright and performance anxiety.

All of this, so that the congregation can take part in a special aspect of worship through music. Scripture is replete with God’s desire for instrumental music (2 Chronicles 29:25-28; Psalm 150; Revelation 5:8, 14:2-3, 15:2-3). Psalm 33:3 seems to have a directive specifically for instrumentalists: play skilfully and loudly. The passage seems to emphasize a need for precision and confidence. When this is achieved, an opportunity for worship (minus the distractions) exists for those who listen.

I also think you can make a case that, when instrumental music is not accompanying singing, it ought to be used to remind us of songs the congregation already knows, so that the truths of those songs can be non-verbally communicated (reminded) through the music. Not everyone sees it this way, and there is certainly room for varying viewpoints. Bottom line: the music serves a purpose.

If a congregation is unengaged, uninterested, or otherwise distracted, it will deflate any purpose of the instrumental worship. Ultimately, a church pianist is not responsible for the behavior of a congregant, any more than a senior pastor is responsible for bad behavior during his sermon. It’s important for pianists to remember this. We should be very thankful for pianists who dutifully perform their responsibilities, regardless of the attention level, response, or outcome. They have the right perspective. They are ultimately playing for the Lord, and they are grateful for the handful of people who “get it,” and find encouragement and worship opportunities through their keyboard artistry.

A congregation that is disruptive during an instrumental offertory simply doesn’t understand the opportunity for worship they are carelessly discarding. A church pianist would be wise to work with the leadership of the church (the pastor, the worship pastor, the song leader, etc.) to identify the problem, and seek appropriate resolution. Perhaps a song leader merely needs to occasionally remind the congregation that the offertory is not filler, but rather an important part of service. If there are “main offenders,” they need to be gently and personally approached, and dialog should take place to find a solution.

What else can be done to emphasize the spiritual ministry of the instrumental? Make lyrics available to the congregation, whether on overhead projected screens, or in the bulletin. Even if lyrics to the entire song aren’t practical, include just the refrain, or a main thought from the text. In addition to helping emphasize the meaning of the music, this might just help with quieting people down.

Pianists should also evaluate their playing. Listen to recordings of your performances. Ask some questions to help when evaluating. Is this arrangement interesting? Is it unnecessarily lengthy? Am I playing with expression and dynamics (or am I just pounding)? What can I do differently to build more engagement into the mix? Would I enjoy listening to someone else play this?

In my experience, the prelude and postlude serve as background music, and talking by an entering or exiting congregation is expected. I plan accordingly. But for offertories, we still regularly feature the instrumental solo, and our congregation knows this is an opportunity to worship God through their joyful giving in the offering plate, and through thoughtful meditation of the Scriptural truths presented through the message of the song being played. It is our prayer that we will point people to Christ through our ministry.


Challenges facing church pianists

June 26, 2017 - By 

Church pianists are amazing people! They solve problems you didn’t even know you had. (Such a great t-shirt line!)

I recently posed this question on my Facebook page: “What challenges do you face as a church pianist?” There were many responses. It was surprising. You can view the post here for yourself.

I decided to break down the responses into common categories, and include them here. I will post the challenge, and then include some personal observations. Here goes:

People talking during the instrumental offertory. So, apparently this doesn’t¬†just happen at my church! ūüôā The prevailing consensus is that it really comes across as rude, especially to the performer (effort, time investment, etc.), and to the purpose of the offertory (to minister through the message of the song).

Phasing church pianists out. Many churches are transitioning from traditional music to contemporary music, from the traditional choir and orchestra, to a few featured voices and a band. As a result, the trend seems to be putting church pianists out of a job, or at least out of a job as they knew it. Some fortunate church pianists will adapt, although not always happily. Others will be out of a job. It certainly doesn’t feel good to have a ministry that is no longer needed.

Finding music that works. While some have difficulty finding more challenging music (publishers seem to be publishing more intermediate level music, no doubt because it probably sells better), others have trouble finding music that isn’t too difficult for them. I’m pretty sure this is a challenge that faces all musicians, and each musician has their own method for finding the music that works for them.

Finding music that works for the musicians they serve with. Many church pianists are involved in the planning and preparing of church music for vocalists and other instrumentalists. It can be challenging finding music for your musicians, especially if they are not all studio musicians. ūüôā Less experienced musicians will need easier music, or music that is simplified. It sure would be nice to have a go-to resource that would provide such music, or at least point people in the right direction.

Training future church pianists. This is such an important endeavor, something that today’s church should take a long and hard look at. There seems to be a distancing from education in the church. While the church’s purpose is not primarily education, it is undeniable that the church should have a role in training future church musicians. Specifically, church pianists face the challenge of how to convey their artistry and years of experience to young learners. A further challenge is finding opportunity for these young learners to participate in worship, so that they have the chance to gain experience and grow as a church musician.

Lack of dedication from other church musicians they serve with. In my experience, church pianists are some of the most dedicated church musicians. I’m not just saying that because I am one. Really. It can be very discouraging when another scheduled musician chronically cancels at the last minute, or half the choir doesn’t show up to rehearsal. Added to this challenge is the fact that most church pianists aren’t in a position of authority to deal with this issue. In most cases, other than appealing to the church leadership (worship pastor, choir director, pastor, etc.), they very often have no recourse and must altogether keep silent on the matter.

Too much of their time monopolized. I can see this. If a church has only one pianist, my heart goes out to that pianist. No doubt they are asked to play for every service, for multiple elements in each service. All of this takes rehearsal, and often, much preparation is needed before rehearsal can even happen. This has got to be a big challenge for many church pianists today.

Maintaining their own spiritual heart, even when called upon to regularly perform. Some find it easy to maintain a heart of worship during a worship service in which they are significantly involved. But others are more naturally distracted by their craft and artistry. For the latter, the challenge is to maintain times of personal worship outside of the worship services, so that when they are called upon to “perform,” their relationship with the Lord is where it should be. (Don’t let that word “perform” throw you. The distraction doesn’t come from trying to perform, but rather from the attention needed to stay focused and execute their craft well with excellence.)

Other challenges that were mentioned are trying to keep your music fresh and current sounding, tactfully helping weaker musicians without coming across as arrogant or being offensive, people trying to have full-on conversations during preludes or postludes, those pesky page turns in the wrong places, and of course, nerves! Humorously, someone said they have a shaky music stand, so they have a hard time reading the notes that are jiggling all around. ūüôā

I’m convinced: being a church pianist is not for the weak of heart. There are genuinely difficult challenges for those in this field. I’d be interested in learning of other challenges you face as a church pianist. Even more importantly, I’d like to know how you overcame some of these challenges.


Why Choir?

January 18, 2017 - By 

Recently, a friend of mine sent me an article on reasons why it’s a good idea for a church to have a choir. It was a good list. You’ve seen these types of articles, haven’t you? I gave it a read, wondering if I would discover something new, or at the very least find something that confirmed my already opinionated thoughts on the matter. (After all, the choir is a big part of my ministry.)

What stood out, however, was what was missing. I wrote my friend back: “It’s a good article, but the author missed the most important reason to have a choir: it’s God’s idea.”

It’s true, there are a lot of good musical, social, and spiritual reasons to have a church choir. As another friend recently reminded me, choirs are the quintessential “small group” of the church, offering tremendous opportunities for worship, edification, and spiritual growth. And this is all true and important.

But to me, the most compelling reason to have a choir is simply because it was God’s idea. From the early beginnings of organized Temple worship (2nd Chronicles 5:13, see the whole chapter), to the mass choir of eternal worshipers (Revelation 7:9-12), God has implemented, accepted, and enjoyed the ministry of the choir of believers.

Can a modern church truly be a New Testament church without the ministry of the church choir? Sure. Church plants and small congregations may find it to be low on the list of their immediate priorities. But eventually, as a healthy church grows numerically and spiritually, it would be wise to evaluate the validity of the church choir (even if it could really be called an ensemble).

And it would be a good idea… because it was God’s idea.


The Wilds Music Conference

January 15, 2016 - By 

Over the first week of January I had the privilege of attending the Wilds Music Conference at the Wilds Christian Conference Center in Brevard, NC. I was given the opportunity to speak at a few of the workshops, which was a lot of fun. I met a lot of great people who lead in their various music ministries across the country. It was great to connect, meet new friends, and renew old acquaintances.

The topics I spoke on were about church administration. My first session was a “nuts and bolts” session, which basically went through everything we do as ministers of music. My second session was more of a philosophical discussion that tackled two main areas: turning from a performance mind-set to a worship mind-set, and the idea that we all lead out of our calling. My third and final session was a potpourri of tidbits I’ve learned and done through the years.

Whenever I’ve attended these sessions, I’ve always felt like I could walk away with one or two nuggets that I could take back to my ministry and incorporate. And that was my goal for the participants in my sessions. From the feedback I heard, people seemed to appreciate the content.

While I was there, I was able to “hob nob” with some ministry friends. I’d like to make you aware of their ministries, though I suspect most of you are already¬†familiar with them. Read more…


The right way to worship

November 11, 2015 - By 

In his article, “Is All Worship Equally Acceptable to God” (here), author Tim Barnett reminds us that if nothing else, the stories of Cain & Able (Genesis 4:1-5) and Nadab & Abihu (Leviticus 10:1-3) teach us that there is a right way and a wrong way to approach God in worship.

A further study of the Tabernacle worship, and then later the Temple worship, replete with significant detail regarding the the worship of God’s people, indicate that God sets a high priority on the way in which we approach Him. God makes a way, and we are to follow it.

Throughout the history of humanity¬†God has relentlessly pursued Read more…


Can you hear the crickets?

October 29, 2015 - By 

It’s been sort of quiet around here. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been busy, however. Besides my family responsibilities (you do know my wife and I have four children age nine and under!), and my full time job (music minister at the church), I’ve been keeping the side projects rolling. I can’t divulge all the details, but I can give you a glimpse of what’s coming up… Read more…


Playing Second Fiddle

September 29, 2015 - By 

There’s a quote on the internet that I thought was great, and it is relevant¬†to music ministry in addition to many other areas of life.

The second fiddle. I can get plenty of first violinists, but to find someone who can play the second fiddle with enthusiasm–that’s a problem. And if we have no second fiddle, we have no harmony (Leonard Bernstein).

As it relates to church music ministry, I think this is a huge concept that we all need to get through our heads. Starting with the leadership. Read more…


Building a great choir

August 21, 2015 - By 

When it comes to the volunteer church choir, I’ve come to the conclusion that a “great choir” is a choir that worships God passionately with excellence. It’s a choir that understands its role as a collective worship leader, leading the way to the very throne room of God. And I’m always interested in what will make the choir (or any music ministry team) be a place or ministry that people¬†want to be a part of; where they are humbled and honored to be involved. The truth is, I want that for myself.

I’ve read this great article about how to build a great choir by Mike Harland here. You should give it a read!

He talks about a few important ingredients, and I’ve added some of my own thoughts below: Read more…


Music ministry interview

August 20, 2015 - By 

I was recently interviewed about church music ministry by my friend, Mark Martin, who is also involved in church music ministry. For both of us, it was our first attempt doing this sort of thing with Skype, but we had fun talking about things that music directors like to discuss.

Here are the topics we discussed:

  • My¬†approach to a music ministry kickoff.
  • What got me¬†started arranging piano music.
  • What are some keys to having a growing committed¬†orchestra ministry.
  • Ideas for writing for an orchestra.
  • A notation software feature that will help you if you don‚Äôt know an instrument‚Äôs range.
  • Whether¬†you need to be a theory geek to be able to write music.
  • How long it takes me¬†to write a piano arrangement.
  • My¬†answer to the question, ‚ÄúWhat action can we take to lead church music with skill and authenticity?‚ÄĚ

So head on over to Mark’s site and watch this 35 minute video.

Also, you should know, Mark has recently begun selling sheet music on his website, and he also has a free piano arrangement that you’ll want to get! His arrangement of “My Jesus, I Love Thee” is worth checking out, too.


Memorizing choir music: confidence & freedom

May 7, 2015 - By 

Recently I was talking with a friend about music memorization. He’s seemed to have mastered the skill; I’ve never been good at memorizing vocal music. I can remember back to my college choir days, having to memorize multiple songs for one of the regular vesper programs we participated in, and thinking, “I must be the weakest link here. I hope I don’t sing and unintended solo someplace!” I’m not sure how I ever survived that.

Then there was the time when I was singing in a trio for a church service at my first ministry. We got up the nerve to sing the selection by memory. But that was before lyric slides (those wonderful “cheat sheets”), and let’s just say it was so bad, that all three of us laughed our way through the final stanza. Collectively, we couldn’t remember any of the lyrics. What a hoot!

So, yeah. I shy away from memorization. Read more…


Why have an instrumental ministry?

April 17, 2015 - By 


Choose any 10 piano solos (for $3.99 or $4.99), and automatically receive 50% off at checkout. Visit the sheet music store.

As an instrumentalist often involved in church music, I am intrigued by this question: Is there still a place for instrumental music (solos or ensembles) in our modern worship services?

With the rise of the ever popular praise band and concert driven services, instrumental music seems to be replaced with… yet another song in the set. Many contemporary churches¬†have done away with this element in the worship service.

But many churches still have slots for the solo instrumentalist or group instrumentals. Many churches continue to grow and develop a church orchestra. This is certainly reflected in the musical offerings of many publishers. It seems the majority of the mainstream publishers still include orchestration sheet music as a companion product to choral anthems. The fact that people flock to this website from all over the world has to say something about the viability of the church instrumental program.

In our church, the instrumental ministry is alive and well. Here are a few benefits of such a ministry: Read more…


Worship Leaders Lunch

February 21, 2015 - By 

I’m always looking for ways to grow our ministry team members closer together. A group that is talented and gifted can work well together, but I find that the closer their relationships are, the team works even better together. We’re a family, after all. And families spend time together and get to know each other… warts and all. Read more…


Pagan church worship?

December 29, 2014 - By 

I admit it, I did read this article:

And I did not agree with it. (Imagine that!)

I approach church worship ministry, as those of you who know me will know, primarily from a traditional point of view. Our church doesn’t have a praise band; we have a choir and orchestra. So we don’t deal with some of the scenarios that were mentioned in this article.

However, I’m not really sure I agreed with the premise of the article, which basically tried to show us that music isn’t really a way to enter God’s presence. Read more…


It’s fall, but you would think it’s Christmas

October 27, 2014 - By 

It is fall‚ÄĒone of my favorite times of the year. But while many of you are picking out your kids Halloween outfits or making big plans for Thanksgiving dinner, music directors such as myself are busy sorting out all the details for their music programs. Oh, I’ve made time for late-night campfires and s’mores with the kids, the fall festivals (there are some many to choose from!), apple cider (a must in our home at this time of year!) and the seasonal Krispy Kreme donuts. My wife is particularly awesome at making sure our family enjoys all this and more!

But in addition to all that, here is what’s been on my plate: Read more…


Hosting a successful choir kick-off

August 22, 2014 - By 

Hosting a choir launch (or, choir kick-off, as we called it for many years) has several benefits:

  1. It’s a great way to make a fresh start and begin a new wave of momentum for your music ministry.
  2. It provides an opportunity for you to invite new choir members to “try out” the choir ministry of the church.
  3. It serves as a fantastic fellowship opportunity for your choir members.
  4. It allows you to introduce new music, or present a new Christmas musical or other large work you will be presenting.
  5. It gives you a chance to introduce new service opportunities and impart your vision and philosophy for the ministry and future of the choir.

Our launch usually begins around the beginning to mid-August, around the time that schools are starting back up. Read more…


What the hymnals vs. screens debate says about us

July 30, 2014 - By 
Amazing Grace

Last week there was a flurry of activity on the internet over this popular article that gave reasons for using hymnals, as opposed to screens, in worship. I shared the article on my Facebook page with the following comment:

I’m not sure I agree with much of this article. It’s amazing how passionate people can be about their preferences.

The second part of my comment was primarily aimed at the comments section of the blog post. I felt the author was well reasoned and balanced in his approach, though I disagreed with most of his points.

If you wonder where I stand on the hymnals vs. screens debate, I mostly take a middle of the road position. Read more…


Keyboard artistry that enhances the worship service

July 23, 2014 - By 

More and more churches are finding creative ways to use music in their worship services.

My background is in a more traditional evangelical-type service. At the beginning of a worship service, the song leader would step up to the pulpit, welcome the people, and ask everyone to turn to hymn number 341, “Such and Such Gospel Song.” We’d sing three stanzas (omitting the third, of course), and then the music would stop. Unless there were several hundred announcements to give, he would then ask us to turn to hymn number 299, “Other Gospel Song,” and we’d sing three stanzas of that one.

I’m not really mocking the traditional way. In fact, I have been a part of that style of service for years and years, and was even involved in planning and implementing that type of service in the past.

But many churches have found a better way, and if often involves the church pianist.

Here are ways in which churches are using keyboard artistry to enhance worship services:

1. Instead of starting and stopping between each songs (especially songs strung together, often called a “set”), church pianists are now called on to provide transitions between songs.

This often involves the ability to modulate, navigate between diverse meters, and change moods as appropriate. Some church pianists are able to improvise and have no trouble with this. Others will need to develop this skill, and until they do, can write out their transitions or have someone write them out for them.

Transitions can be as short as one measure (especially when the keys and meters of both songs are the same), or may take two to four measures. (Usually, the shorter the better.) Having the ability to “vamp” (continuously play a one- or two-chord pattern) allows the song director to share a few words of testimony or “set up” the next song. Transitions will need to be longer if the congregation is using a hymnal; using screens (which allow you to switch between lyric slides quickly) allow for shorter musical transitions.

2. Instead of silence during pastoral prayer or special moments of reflection, church pianists are encouraged to provide soft “mood” music to set (or really, continue) the spirit of the service.

Providing these special musical touches throughout the service can add a dynamic element to your worship experience. Writers of musicals and cantatas have long understood this. It’s not a manipulative move to fabricate¬†or drum up emotionalism. Rather, it’s an opportunity to set and continue the tone of the service, much like the goal of the instrumental prelude.

Places in a service that a church pianist might do this include pastoral prayers, the closing prayer and/or invitation time, baby dedications and baptisms. Music is usually slow and simple (and beautiful), and always played softly so that the person speaking can always be heard.

As a church pianist, if you are interested in using these methods, it often will involve a conversation (or series of conversations) with your leadership. Some leaders are uncomfortable with this and might find it a distraction. But if they are looking for ways to add an additional dimension to the service, I’m sure this will be a welcomed addition.

What are some other ways you can use your keyboard artistry to enhance a worship service? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Leave a comment below.


Preparing for big church events

April 21, 2014 - By 

It’s been awhile, so a blog post is long overdue. I’ve been tied up with a lot of things going in my life lately. Here’s a quick list of things going on: our newborn (well, now he’s 11 months old) who we absolutely adore (but he’s crawling now!), some big events at church, several big publishing projects, and many other things.

Not the least of which was my newest digital piano project “Blessed Assurance”. This piano collection, released the beginning of February, has quickly become one of the most popular projects on my site in the two and a half months it has been available. And for the rest of the month of April, you can get it for 20% off the original price (use code APRIL20 at checkout). Check it out here.

This past Sunday (yesterday at the time of this writing) was Easter Sunday, and that’s always a big day at our church (as it is for many, I’m sure). We celebrated the resurrection in a few special ways: a musical that we presented Saturday and Sunday evening, and we hosted two identical Sunday morning worship services, giving our folks some options with flexibility for their Easter Sunday plans. We also saw it as a way to “make room” for the potential of even more worshipers/seekers than usual, as Easter is a time when more folks come to church than the normal Sunday morning crowd.

While the Easter musical was more of a dramatic production, with choir, orchestra, drama, stage lights, with a culmination of the gospel message, our Easter Sunday morning services were more congregationally focused, with an emphasis on congregational involvement and a strong gospel message.

I’d like to offer¬†a few thoughts on preparing for big events in your church, especially from a musical planning perspective.

First, take time to dream about what your final product (production) will be. In order to strategically carry out a vision for a big event like Easter, you need to have a vision in the first place. (Profound?) Once you know what you want, you’ll be able to begin planning and implementing. I’ll be honest, sometimes that vision changes over time, especially as personnel and ability changes and as new ideas come to mind. Be flexible enough to consider changes as you go along.

Once you have your goal, then you can begin implementing your game plan. Here’s a rundown of what I do. It may not seem like the most orderly process, but it has worked over the years.

Prayerfully select a program that fits your needs, abilities, and desires. This is done several months in advance. Seek guidance from other staff members and those you trust. Consider variables, such as adapting a work, adding to it, drama or simple narration, etc.

Once a choice has been made, order your products. Make sure to order extras for your tech teams. Consider purchasing rehearsal CDs, printed materials, etc. All of this should be done with plenty of time for preparation of your people.

Come up with a promotional plan. Handouts? Tracts? Tickets? Invite cards? Mailers? Billboards? Radio ads? Facebook advertising? And the list goes on.

Recruit¬†your key volunteers. These are your go-to people who you know are dependable and capable. In church ministry, these people are the brains behind your operation. Who will lead the drama? Who will accompany the choir? Who will handle sets, costumes, makeup, lighting, sound, etc.? Do outside professionals need to be consulted? Who will your soloists and actors be? Auditions? Will you hire a few musicians to “round out” your orchestra? Will teens be invited to participate? How will you involve all age groups in your ministry? (Since this big church event is for the entire church, it seems fit that members of the entire church should be involved.) These are all questions you should answer.

Develop a rehearsal plan.¬†When will you begin rehearsing for the big event during regular rehearsal times (choir, orchestra, ensembles, soloists)? When will all of your extra (we have sometimes called them “bonus”) rehearsals be scheduled? Tech rehearsals? Drama rehearsals? Dress rehearsal? It is helpful to have this ahead of time as well so your musicians and actors can know what they are getting into, and what their expectations are.

Work your plan.¬†Make it happen. Stay faithful to your plan. Be flexible, though. I have had to add an extra rehearsal because I simply did not schedule enough rehearsals and the particular program was more difficult. I have also had to eliminate rehearsals, because the choir was ready ahead of time. This last Easter, I was going to cancel our last rehearsal, but at the last minute I decided to keep it. I’m glad I did because it was our best attended rehearsal (besides the dress rehearsal), and we were able to work out some “kinks” that would have otherwise wasted time at our dress rehearsal. Sometimes you just have to play these things by ear.

Elicit¬†suggestions and ideas from outside sources.¬†I confess, I often skip this step. Not because I want to, but it’s often not on my radar. But bringing someone in for the final rehearsal to give ideas and feedback is a good idea. I’ve even received helpful advise after a first performance and been able to make helpful changes going into the final performance. But it’s good to get ideas and suggestions from someone who hasn’t been in the trenches with you and who can give the kind of first response that is helpful and constructive.

Don’t¬†allow the PROCESS to overshadow the PEOPLE.¬†One final thought:¬†You are called to serve people (and serve WITH people), not a big church program. No, the big church program should be the way in which you serve people. It’s all about the journey, right? A choir member’s daughter is taken to the hospital for weeks on end with the final results coming back with little to no answers as to what her critical problems are. Another choir member’s daughter who is battling¬†cancer is rushed to the hospital with the flu the day of the opening program. Another choir member’s father passed away following the first program. This is just a small glimpse into what various PEOPLE in our ministry went through this last Easter. Life has its challenges and hardships. We must balance all the demands of ministry, and strive to keep people first. We are not always perfect at it (no, we will fail often), but our desire is to serve and be the hands and feet of Christ.


The Privilege of Practice

March 28, 2014 - By 
A guest article by Joseph M. Martin, Director of Shawnee Sacred Choral Publications

We live in a time when¬†immediacy is an essential¬†element of the culture. A¬†“drive-tnrough, instant gratification”¬†philosophy has¬†permeated almost every¬†area of life. As choral directors,¬†we are in competition¬†for time and attention in a¬†very crowded marketplace of¬†other activities. The little amount of rehearsal time we¬†are granted is often peppered with mental and physical¬†fatigue, along with singer indifference and negativity. In¬†the wake of these realities, it is often challenging to inspire¬†people to musical and spiritual integrity.

While this situation is our new reality, I am often left¬†wondering if we have lost something important in¬†this quest for expedience. Is it possible to balance our¬†crowded calendars and still find meaningful moments¬†where we can stimulate a deeper appreciation for our¬†gifts in the sacred arts? ls there a way for rehearsals to¬†become more than note learning and logistics and to¬†truly be episodes of “seeking and finding” the greater¬†reasons for our musical impulses? Can we recapture the¬†call to devotion that is the heart of worship preparation?

Rehearsal is essential to the church musician. It takes time for message and music to find each other and for artistry an ministry to entwine in the heart. Our time of gathering together for preparation can be filled with much greater meaning and purpose. Our practice can actually be worship!

It is in these times of committed attention that we experience¬†that moment when music and message combine, producing in us the joy of illumination and the challenge of¬†service. The inner beauty that comes from celebrating the¬†gifts we are entrusted with allows us to truly understand how¬†to strive for “excellence without arrogance.”

A group of church musicians from the United States was¬†invited to visit communist China. During their time in¬†China they were to sing at some of this nation’s “approved”¬†churches, and to off er a cultural exchange and ministry of¬†encouragement to the minority Christian church. Money¬†was raised and plans were put in place. The arduous task of¬†organizing a trip of this magnitude was a great effort, but it¬†provided an exciting opportunity to take one’s music beyond¬†the walls of the local church to truly reach the world with the¬†message of hope and love.

The day of the planned worship service came, and there was¬†great anticipation among the members of the visiting choir.¬†They had traveled far, and now all of their prayers and¬†preparations were about to yield fruit. They rose early and¬†drove to the church to warm-up and become acquainted¬†with the venue. When they arrived, the choir director¬†became aware of music pouring forth from the church.¬†Confused at why the sounds of a great crowd of singers¬†should be spilling from the sanctuary, the director had¬†terrible thoughts. “Were they late?” “Had the service¬†already begun?” “Had they traveled across a timeline¬†during the commute that morning?”

The director was despondent at the thought of having miscalculated the time, but it was clear the worship service was already in progress. Had they really missed the pinnacle reason
they had travelled to China? Had all that preparation been for naught?

Hoping to apologize and explain the reasons for their tardiness,¬†the director wall<ed into the back of the auditorium and¬†saw the fully engaged congregation singing with gusto one of¬†the great hymns of the faith. Searching the scene, he eventually¬†caught the eye of one of the church’s pastors, and soon¬†they were talking in the wings of the sanctuary.

“Pastor, we are so sorry for being late. We were completely¬†unaware of the time difference and we are heartsick that we¬†have arrived too late to participate as planned in the service.”

The pastor reached out and took the director’s hand in a¬†gesture of welcome and said, “You are right on time,¬†my friend. You and your group are perfectly fine and on¬†schedule. There is no need to worry.”

“I’m afraid I do not understand; the church is full of people¬†and the worship service has clearly already begun,” the director¬†said.

The pastor smiled and said, “In China, the Christian¬†congregations meet an hour before the service to practice¬†the hymns so that our offering of song will be acceptable.¬†We want to give our best to the Master.”

Stunned and stirred by the pastor’s remarks, the director returned¬†to the bus and shared the extraordinary story with his¬†singers. The choir was deeply moved by this congregation’s
sign of devotion and commitment to worship. It was a lesson they would never forget.

I think there is much to learn from this amazing story. It was¬†not the product or performance that ministered to that group¬†of American singers, but it was the people’s purity of purpose¬†that penetrated their hearts. This group of Chinese believers,¬†while oppressed in their own country, treasured each opportunity¬†to sing together of their common faith in Christ.

That which we take for granted was a treasure of great worth to that persecuted church. How rich is this lesson in humility for our own music ministries!

So let us celebrate the privilege of practice! Not that we should be prideful in our musical advancements or mesmerized by the echoes of our own voices, but that through our committed preparation, may we present a worthy offering to the Giver of the Song. May we, like that far away group of singers, tune our hearts and prepare our praise so that when we worship, we give only our very best to the Master.

[Originally published in the Inside Newsletter of Shawnee Press and Hal Leonard publications. Reprinted by permission.]


When poor health keeps you away

January 27, 2014 - By 

Recently I had a bug that kept me out of church on Sunday. It wasn’t fun, but it was especially disappointing because it fell on a Sunday, “game day” in the ministry.

You know, missing Sundays‚ÄĒin my line of work (the ministry)‚ÄĒis never fun. Just ask my wife; I have to really be out of it for me to not attend on Sunday. Yes, I know it’s part of my job description, but every part of my being hates it! (Maybe that’s an indication that I’m in the right line of work?) I can count on one hand how many times I’ve missed Sunday worship due to illness.

Being sick on Sunday made me think of a couple of things…

It’s a real disappointment to prepare, or ensure that everything is prepared, for Sunday, and not be able to participate. It really is. Time, effort and toil have been invested. On the other hand, it’s such a blessing to know that my responsibilities were aptly handled by more than capable people who were willing to step in on a moments notice. I am so thankful for them!

I missed worshiping my God with my church family. I was able to have some extra “God an I” time while I was sick, but it wasn’t the same. I recently spoke with a woman who’s husband says he’s a Christian, but doesn’t go to church because he doesn’t feel it’s necessary. I couldn’t disagree more. Not only are believers instructed in the scriptures to “do church,” but there are so many side benefits to regular church attendance (fellowship, meeting new like-minded people, iron sharpening iron, growing in your walk with God, a better understanding of scripture, accountability, encouragement, and the list goes on).

I think there’s a hint of truth in the saying: “You don’t truly know what you have until you don’t have it anymore.” For me, this last Sunday was a good reminder.


Are the chords in the hymnal optional?

January 8, 2014 - By 
Amazing Grace

As a church pianist, do you like to alter what you play from the printed hymnal version? Maybe you like to add your own unique chords as a soloist, or while accompanying your church’s congregational singing. But is it a smart idea to change the chords found in your hymnal?

Well, it depends.

If you are playing during a worship service with other instrumentalists (and vocalists), then no, those chords are probably not optional. If you start altering your chords, you’ll clash with the other instrumentalists, because chances are they won’t be playing the same chords as you. At that point it will become a guessing game that could end very badly. That’s why it’s wise to stick with the hymnal harmonization, each player using the same harmony, weather by hymnal or lead sheet.

But if it’s just you, then go for it. Changing the harmony for an instrumental solo is a great idea, especially because hymnal harmonies are usually basic (and often predictable). In fact, when it comes to arranging, this is one of the most effective ways to be creative and fresh: change-up the chords and chord progressions.

If it is just you as a pianist or organist accompanying the congregation, then it depends (again). If the room is filled with people who read parts, and everyone is following along in the hymnal, it’s probably going to be a good idea to stick with what’s written. However, if your congregation is singing lyrics projected on a screen, and most are singing the melody, then it might work well to change the harmony. I often do this in our church during the invitation hymn, when I’m the only one playing along with the congregation. It’s very effective, and the audience enjoys singing along with the new songs.

The bottom line? You don’t want to be distracting. Rather, you should be enhancing the overall worship experience.


Why I don’t waste my time with the so-called worship wars

September 21, 2013 - By 

There are many reasons why I don’t get involved with the so-called worship wars. I don’t know, maybe the older I get, the less dogmatic I become. I’ve never been one to be very competitive, and I have a nearly genuine phobia of confrontation. I just hate the whole idea of brothers and sisters in Christ fighting a war. We’re actually on the same team (in a real war, but not against each other), and the idea of fighting each other never really resonated with me.

I’m not recommending the “put your head in the sand” option, either. I think you should know what you believe, and what’s right for your ministry. But I’ve come up with a very good reason why the so-called worship wars are a waste of time:

You have more important things to do.

You really do.

It may sound clich√© to some of you, but it’s solid truth: People are dying and going to hell every day. That’s a very sad, sobering truth. I am continually confronted with it. Believe me, the worship wars have no effect on it.

You have a family that needs you. No matter where you are in family life (a child, a couple, parents with small children, parents of teenagers, parents of older children, grandparents, etc.), your family has a set of individual needs that uniquely involves you. They need your time, attention, and investment… not your dogma.

You have a sphere of ministry. Whether you are in full time Christian ministry, or you have a career in the workplace, God has rightly gifted you for the people you can influence. You need to be ministering to these people, and there is little the worship wars will help with here.

There are many godly people who have devoted their life’s work to the worship wars. I don’t mean to diminish or undermine them in any way. But for you and me‚ÄĒpeople in the trenches‚ÄĒlet’s not waste our time with it.

Let’s move forward with God’s plan for our lives.


Our church Christmas program for 2013

September 4, 2013 - By 

I’m a huge fan of published Christmas musicals. For our church, they have worked well. This year, I wasn’t able to find the right fit for our church. There were a lot of very nice programs published this year, but none that were going to work for us.

After a lot of prayer and counsel, we decided to develop our own. So here’s what we came up with.

But first… some disclaimers.

1. I’m not an expert. (If you follow this blog, you’ve heard that before.) This is the first time I’ve done this (except for maybe a college class project). While I think it’s going to work, I have no guarantee until the final product. Stay tuned.

2. You probably won’t like all of my music selections. We’re all adults, right? So if you don’t like something, I promise it won’t hurt my feelings. If it’s ideas you’re looking for, just replace a song with a similar one that will fit your particular church’s needs. Make sense?

3. My assessments of each of these songs has been made prior to working on much of the music. So don’t take my word for everything. Check it out yourself.

So here’s what we did: We found a lot of songs that we liked, and we’re weaving them together with narration and drama. Tools you will need: (1) access to good Christmas songs that your choir/orchestra can do and your congregation will appreciate and‚ÄĒin some cases‚ÄĒbe able to participate in, (2) be creative enough to at least adapt other dramas to work for your program, if not develop your own drama.

In our case, I found all of the songs I wanted to weave together. Then, I began working with the drama director to develop the story line. We adapted narration from other musicals, and we came up with a good bit of our own drama/narration.

So here are the songs we chose, and the basic order. (Keep in mind, there is narration and drama throughout.)

Come Messiah King
(Vader, arr. Rouse, new arr. from book by same title/Praise Gathering) – This has narration during the opening music. Basically it’s prophecy about the coming Messiah. Song theme: our desire for Emmanuel to come.

This song is very worshipful, and will be a unique way to open the service. It involves congregational participation, as it’s an easy chorus to pick up. Also, this particular arrangement ends with the full orchestra playing a stanza, a great way to feature your orchestra.

Good News Medley
(arr. Hammerly/Lifeway Worship) – Song theme: Rejoice! He has come!

This is upbeat and lively! It involves a mixed trio towards the end. We’ll modify it a little mainly by removing the drums and skipping the gospel show choir effects.

Glory All Around
(Singer/Lillenas) – Song theme: The glory of God with us, and what His birth means to us.

This has a children’s choir part, and a child solo part. This is a jewel of a song; really sweet. It will likely be a highlight of the program. We’re going to have a 12 voice children’s ensemble sing instead of full choir because we’re looking for a specific sound.

It’s Still the Greatest Story Ever Told
(Gaither, arr. Kirkland/Praise Gathering) – Song theme: A recollection of the simplicity and significance of the nativity story.

This is just a great song, and a great arrangement. (Our choir sight read it flawlessly.) It’s just a nice arrangement. We’ll be able to have some unspoken drama unfold during it, as each stanza portrays a different aspect of the nativity story.

Love Came for Me
(Wexelberg, arr. Fettke/Lilleans) – Song theme: Here we have what the Christmas story is all about‚ÄĒGod seeking us.

This song is very poignant, and contains a beautiful low voice solo throughout. Any Fettke arrangement is a choral treat, and this is no exception. The orchestration (Mauldin) is phenomenal also.

Christmas in Heaven
(Johnson, Marino, arr. Keveren/LifeWay Worship) – Song theme: reminiscing the loss of loved ones during Christmas.

While this songs placement (and usage) is uncertain at this point, it’s a great song that sympathizes with those who are going through pain this Christmas due to the loss of a family member or loved one. This time of year can be lonely for such individuals. The melody on this song seems a little tricky, but worth overcoming if the message is important enough to you (which it is for us). It has a solo in it.

There Is Nothing Greater than Grace
(Hall, Phelon, Mizell, arr. Clark/Lillenas) – Song theme: How do you minister to those going through unimaginable loss and trials? You share God’s grace with them.

I love this arrangement because it has the chorus of “Grace, Greater than My Sin” in it. It also has a solo. This is a powerful song.

The Face of Grace
(Black, Storie, arr. Duren/LifeWay Worship) – Song theme: The precious baby face on which Mary gazed was the face of grace.

This is an alto solo feature with choir backup. The clever lyrics remind us of the grace God has given us through this precious baby boy born at Christmastime.

What Will You Do
(Clydesdale/Word Music, from the musical, “Searching for the King”) – Song theme: You have to make a choice: choose or reject Jesus.

This is an incredible children’s song (with choir backup) from a musical we did a few years back. We’ll have our full children’s choir sing this; they love it! It also has some child solos in it.

10,000 Reasons
(Myrin, Redman, arr. Wise/Word Music) – Song theme: Praising the Lord

I have been looking for a way to introduce this song to our congregation, as I know it has the potential of quickly becoming a favorite. It has a very memorable melody with great thoughts found in the text. I’m not going to lie: the ending is crazy hard. I’ve wanted to give up on it a number of times, and so has our choir. But once we master it, I think it’s going to be one of those things that we’ll be glad we worked on.

(Hoagland, arr. Hamilton & Hoagland/LifeWay Worship) – Song theme: No matter what, God is with us!

This is just a HUGE song. It will be a big piece in the program. I don’t want to give away too many details about our program, but if you are interested in seeing what ours will look like (sans the singing Christmas tree), then check out this video.

Let the Bells Ring Loud
(Keveren, Marino/LifeWay Worship) – Song theme: Be joyful for Christ has come

I love the gusto in this song! We’ll probably cut much of the introduction, which has a narration that we’ll eliminate. But this will be a great closing song which involves full choir, orchestra and children choir. The choir’s last note is only 4 beats. Our choir is accustomed to me holding things out longer than I should (haha!), so we’ll probably hold this for at least 8 beats, if not 12.


Facial expressions and the church musician

August 8, 2013 - By 

Recently a college traveling singing ensemble ministered at our church. Their presentation was very good, but what stood out as remarkable was their facial expressions. Especially the one lady on the end. I was sitting behind her slightly to the side, and from my angle I could see that she was beaming from ear to ear. And it wasn’t fake. It was like this genuine outflow of joy and grace that permeated through her entire being. It really added a neat dimension of expressiveness to the presentation of the group. I think it even made me sit up and listen a little more closely.

And then the thought immediately hit me:

How can I get my choir members or ensemble members or soloists to minister with the same level of expression.

How can I have better facial expressions? I suppose a question like that assumes that such behavior can be trained or developed. But that’s fake; and that’s not what I want. I want the real thing. And I think everyone listening to the song wants the real thing. They want an expression that says, “This message I’m singing is real to me, and I’m not sad, mad or indifferent about it. I’m passionate about it.”

Now obviously not every song is going to invoke joyful emotions. But I would venture to say that the majority of our church songs give strong reason to rejoice. And yet so many of us (myself included) give little thought to the manner in which we are expressing the songs.

Inevitably, facial expressions flow from what’s on the inside‚ÄĒthe heart. If I am to adequately express the hope and joy of my Christian faith, I need to first make sure things are right in my heart. That’s going to take time and effort. But it will be well worth it.

I can still hear some of the lyrics sung by that young lady with the beaming smile. And I think the truths are a little bit more meaningful to me because they were expressed from a heart right with God, and passionate about communicating His truths.

By the way, a friend of mine recently posted this video on Facebook: ( Notice their facial expressions. Of course, they may just be enjoying the music a whole lot; it’s very enjoyable. But they do have great expressions. (Disclaimer: some of my friends may find this arrangement too contemporary for their taste; admittedly, it would not be a good fit for my church.)