Musical Mediocrity


A few months ago I visited a church with a musician-friend I know.  I’ve been to this church before.  They are well established in the community near where he lives, have great Bible-oriented preaching and a warm friendly environment.  So, when my musician-friend began looking for a church to call home I recommended that he visit this church with me and check it out.

He visited twice and then stopped.  I asked why.

I could tell he was uncomfortable communicating his answer but eventually he told me. He said that it was great that the church was near his home, had a great reputation for service to the community, had Bible-centered teaching and was friendly and inviting to newcomers. I waited for the other shoe to drop, he continued “but during worship it seems like the musicians are holding back, almost like they don’t want it to be too good.”  He continued, “that drives me crazy!  I can’t go there!”

Wow!  I was floored.  Initially I didn’t get where he was coming from. This church had so much going for it and he didn’t want to go there over the musicians? It was hard to comprehend. But after thinking about it more I began to understand where he was coming from.  In fact, I was embarrassed that I failed to see with accepting and accustomed eyes what was apparent to his fresh eyes.

I recalled a previous conversation I had with some staff and volunteers at the same church.  I was helping them with their video production and I was told by leadership to reduce the number of camera shots of the musicians onstage.  They did not want to bring attention to the musicians because they felt to do so would be distracting to the congregation and therefore take attention away from God. 

I then thought back to another occasion at the same church where the Worship Pastor instructed the musicians, “no more guitar solos.” The reasoning was similar to the camera shot discussion. It seemed they felt the greatness of God which should inspire awe and wonder when worshiping in His presence was somehow threatened and jeopardized by things like camera shot selections and music arrangements.

In discussing the matter with my friend looking for a church he said his feeling had nothing to do with the musicianship or skill of those leading worship, it had nothing to do with the size of the church, the lack of moving lights or haze; but it had more to do with how he interpreted the musicians apparent lack of enthusiasm and passion. He made the point, “no matter what style of music, rock, pop, jazz, classical, whatever; it is clear when a musician is giving everything they got, playing/singing to the best of their ability, leaving it all up on the platform” He saw (and heard) what I failed to see, the end-result of the camera selection and no-solos edicts. The musicians were underplaying. My friend was not looking for the guitarist to break out into a Kirk Hammett-esque (Metallica) inspired guitar solo in the middle of Lincoln Brewster’s “Today is the Day,” but he didn’t want the entire guitar part eliminated either. The point my friend was trying to convey was if over-playing is self-aggrandizing sin what is underplaying? It seemed to him neither was honoring to the gifts and talents God gave them.

Then He said to them in His teaching, “Beware of the scribes, who desire to go around in long robes, love greetings in the marketplaces, “the best seats in the synagogues, and the best places at feasts, “who devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. These will receive greater condemnation.”

Mark 12:38-40 NKJV

In Mark chapter 12 we find Jesus teaching His followers about the pride and arrogance of the religious leaders of the day (v38-40).  In the context of this blog post, Jesus was talking about people who performed religious obligations, service, worship for self-aggrandizement. Their service was for their own benefit and as a result Jesus called them hypocrites.

And in the very next verse the Bible relates the story of the poor widow who placed in the offering all the money she had, just two mites. Of her Jesus said,

“Assuredly, I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all those who have given to the treasury; for they all put in out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all that she had, her whole livelihood.”

Mark 12:43-44 NJKV

It’s clear Jesus taught religious service for self-aggrandizement-sake is sinful, but might service offered with a self-imposed mediocrity be too?  It’s wrong to pursue excellence just to show off how great we are, but I believe it is also wrong in our abundance of capability to do only the bare minimum which the Law requires.

In a similar vein to my friend’s comments about the musicians holding back and playing down, I’ve seen other peculiarities over the years at some churches. For whatever reason some church do not budget for the eventual replacement of AVL equipment. It would seem that just because a speaker is installed in a church, it should never wear out. When equipment eventually fails (and it will), it becomes an emergency. Similarly special events suffer from a lack of planning. Instead of beginning discussions for Christmas months before in August and Easter on January 2nd planning is done at the last minute, as if being sensitive to the Holy Spirit is synonymous with being unprepared.

In the story of Christ’s feeding of the five-thousand (John 6:1-13), where the apostles could only muster together a young boy’s meager supply of five biscuits of bread and two small fish, Jesus was not teaching the disciples, “don’t worry about planning because I happen to have mad-instantaneous culinary skills which will take care of the problem,” nor was he teaching “don’t worry about budgeting 200 denarii for each public rally to cover craft-services because budgeting is not all that important or needed in churches.”  Jesus was teaching that whether in abundance or in insufficiency, “bring everything you have to Me.”

We cannot use God’s provision of miracles or His promise that His word will never return void as justification for us giving less than our best. Our responsibility, just like the widow’s, is to bring to Him all we have, “our whole livelihood” to whatever degree we are afforded it, not just a part of our capability out of an abundance nor motivated by self-aggrandizement, but rather humbly, wholly and sacrificially exhaustive.

Tom D'Angelo

Tom D'Angelo has worked in television production and AVL corporate theater for nearly four decades. He is Emmy Award nominated (Best Director category, Mid-Atlantic) and has been part of various teams nominated or winning national Emmys.  As the Media Director at a megachurch in the 1980’s he developed a love for the Church and church performing and technical artists.