Everyone tells lies. Don’t believe me? You are probably forgetting about one of the most common kinds of lies: the kind you tell yourself. We lie to ourselves all the time, because it’s one of the ways we cope with a complicated and demanding world. Church musicians are just as susceptible to getting caught in our own lies as anyone else. This article outlines three lies that I feel are most destructive to those who serve the church, plus my ideas for how to push back at them.
Lie #1: The world doesn’t care about church
I think it’s fair to say that most people who choose to work for a church believe in the value of what they do. However, many of us underestimate the importance of the church in the wider world. Perhaps the worst offenders are folks who have attended the same church for a lifetime and lament that it’s nothing like it used to be. They long for a return to a time when everyone went to church; it was just something people did. Growing the church is much easier (and more fun) in an environment like that. Nowadays, it seems that attracting new worshippers is too difficult, especially in “old line” Protestant churches with aging demographics.
I want to propose an alternative viewpoint. There is no doubt that a variety of cultural factors, such as the decline of public life in general, have contributed to the decline of churches. However, this doesn’t mean that these churches are any less valuable to those who attend them. Church provides an experience that can’t easily be replicated elsewhere. This is especially true of worship models that favor active participation over passive consumption. In such an environment, people have the opportunity to create the experience, not just observe it. The world at large provides plenty of opportunities for entertainment, but few for creativity.
And so, if “old line” churches want a strong membership roster, they must embrace their own authentic role in spreading the Gospel. Churches offer a communal worship experience that can’t be replicated in a living room TV broadcast. (Sorry, Robert Schuller.) It is by distinguishing itself from the world as a whole, not by conforming with it, that the church does its best work.
Lie #2: Recruiting new choir members is too difficult
Whenever I hear this complaint, the first thing I want to ask is “by what standard?” Keep in mind that the number one factor affecting the size and composition of your choir will be the congregation as a whole. If overall church attendance is trending flat, then you’re actually doing pretty well if your choir gains a member or two each year. Likewise, if you can keep your choir attendance steady in a shrinking church, you’re also doing pretty well. Sometimes we get frustrated simply because we apply unrealistic standards. Keep this in mind when you’re measuring success in recruiting.
One of the main points I address in my eBook on success and fulfillment is the need for directors to internalize the basic concepts of selling. Selling is a scary idea. It encompasses a large variety of techniques, some of which repel anyone subjected to them. First, focus on building familiarity with your program. As Jeb Blount explains in Fanatical Prospecting (a great book on the sales process), familiarity is the key to opening doors to new prospects. Blount refers to this as the Law of Familiarity: once your prospect has crossed this critical threshold, s/he is much more likely to have a conversation with you about joining your group.
In other words, instead of “pitching” your program to everyone you meet, you’ll build familiarity first. Ask church members what they would like you to produce. What would they like to see more of? What can they do without? By asking these questions, you build both trust and familiarity. Asking questions works well, even if you’re speaking to someone who knows little about what you do. When it is time to pitch, you’ll have a much better idea of what people value. You’ll be able to put it in their own words.
We church musicians have one huge advantage in selling, which is that we believe in what we sell. I can sincerely say, for example:
- Nearly everyone feels a little nervous about joining the group, but few of them ever regret it.
- Many folks have remarked to me how much they enjoy the routine of a scheduled weekly activity. (Bowling on a league, of all the things I’ve done, has taught me this the most.)
- Members of the group tell me how much they enjoy learning and progressing, even though it is difficult sometimes.
Lie #3: It doesn’t matter if I prepare because no one will know the difference
This is one of the worst attitudes a person can have about their work, and it’s inexcusable. To say that it’s not worth preparing for worship, for choir rehearsals, and other events is to say that our people aren’t worth it either. No matter how finely tuned your skills, it’s important to practice them regularly. Think about the difference between a great preacher and mediocre one. It largely comes down to rhetoric and delivery, both of which require faithful practice. Which preachers do you find most compelling? I bet they’re the ones who preach the most often—even if that means preaching in the bathroom mirror sometimes.
And so it follows that if you only practice your hymn-playing during services, you greatly limit your potential for improvement. You starve your congregation of the opportunity for a vastly improved experience. You also ensure that you will never do your best work. This is a problem in itself, even when your mediocre work is acceptable to others. Doing your best work even ten percent of the time provides vastly greater fulfillment than doing it never.
Churchgoers often lack the vocabulary to articulate the differences between one leader and another. But this doesn’t mean they don’t notice the difference or don’t care. For example, without any specialist knowledge, one past volunteer choir member told me “clearly this isn’t just a Sunday job for you.” I’m not really sure what I did to prompt such a comment, other than prepare carefully for each rehearsal and each worship service. Sometimes that’s all it takes.
From time to time, we all end up believing the lies we tell ourselves. They make it easier for us to excuse bad behavior and to justify bad choices. Whenever you catch yourself thinking one of these three falsehoods about church work, step back for a minute. Remind yourself why you do what you do, and keep in touch with that sense of purpose. It will help you do your best work and dismiss the lies that hold you back.
Ready to take your church work to the next level? If you haven’t already, sign up for my newsletter. I’ll send you the “Big Three” articles I feel are most important when you’re starting out.