The Tuba in the Praise Team: Mishaps and Successes in Recruiting Church Musicians

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I once had a very earnest sixth-grader indicate interest in joining our church worship team. Upon closer examination of his interest sheet, he had written “tuba” as his instrument of choice. At the time I was partial to electric guitar and catchy bass groves for the sound of our worship team, but I was open minded and agreed to hear the eager youth play his instrument. At the “audition” for the team, he gave a pretty rough rendition of “Go, Tell Aunt Rhodie the Old Grey Goose is Dead.” After thanking him for his time, I explained that I didn’t have a need for a tuba at the present moment, but perhaps he could offer some “special music” one Sunday.

This is merely one of a host of awkward moments for all parties involved at worship team tryouts. In one church, our policy was to involve nearly everyone—even if it meant muting the microphones of tone-deaf singers. At other times, I’ve tried the “American Idol” version of worship team auditions—I always felt I was playing the role of Simon Cowell and people often left with hurt feelings.

It took nearly eight years as a music minister before we developed, what is in my view, a relatively healthy approach to assessing talent and fit of parishioners who were interested in serving on our music teams. Here are four ideas you may want to implement in your own context:

Relationships Matter

This should be obvious, but I’m ashamed of the number of times someone would express interest in joining one of our teams and I had no clue who they were. Many times I found it difficult to have personal interactions with the congregation on Sunday because I was back stage before the service and dismantling gear afterward. If you’re an introvert it can also be paralyzing to walk out into a crowd of people that want to talk with you after you’ve expended every last bit of energy leading music. In spite of the obstacles, it is worth investing in relationships with your congregants.

Commitment Should Be Foundational

Good musicians often come to where there’s good music. Before signing up that phenom college drummer, take time to gage her commitment to the Lord and the local church (this, again, requires investment in relationships). A “stage junkie” mentality can plague congregations. I have found it helpful to rotate musicians off of the schedule to guard against this tendency. When a musician isn’t on stage, I expect them to be in the pews. Make this clear with prospective worship team members at the beginning to head off problems in the future.

Talent is an Essential Ingredient

While I value heart above gifting any day, assessing talent is imperative if you are to build a solid music team. Some churches can be guilty of dishonesty out of fear of hurting a person’s feelings. If a tone-deaf vocalist applies to be one of three singers in a worship band, you should tell him you don’t think this is a good fit for him. We do everyone a disservice when we are not honest about such things.

Remember the Value of the “Primary” Choir

When these moments occur, I’ve often found it helpful to remind the person that he is called to serve in the congregational choir. This is one glaring liability of modern worship bands which often are so loud that congregational singing can’t be heard. Take time to remind your congregation that they are the main choir; step back from the microphone regularly to allow for their voice to take the lead. If you successfully cultivate the voice of the entire congregation, it brings integrity when you remind someone of their primary role in the “music team” that is the entire church.

One Creative Possibility

In the last congregation where I served as music minister, we hosted regular gatherings where musicians and lovers of music alike could spend an evening making (and enjoying) music together. At these “hootenannies,” as we called them, people could share a song they had written, lead us in a song they particularly loved, or simply enjoy the experience. Everyone was encouraged to bring an instrument and/or sing along. These gatherings afforded us the opportunity to build relationships, encourage the creatives in our church, and assess talent in a non-threatening context. They became hugely popular and whenever I had someone express a desire to join one of our music teams, the first thing I would do would be to invite them to our next hootenanny. Tubas were always welcome!

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