Format: Sound Plus Doctrine PodcastDownload Session
If you’re a musician in your church, how should you think about your role? What’s your purpose? How is playing on Sundays different from playing as an artist or for a concert? In this episode of Sound + Doctrine, Bob & David talk about these and other topics crucial for anyone who plays in a band for their church.
David Zimmer: Hello and welcome to the Sound Plus Doctrine podcast. I am David Zimmer.
Bob Kauflin: My name is Bob Kauflin.
DZ: And we are so happy that you would be joining us.
BK: We are. We are.
DZ: Today, Bob, we are going to be talking about the role of instrumentalists in our church gatherings.
DZ: I have been playing an instrument in our church gatherings for the past 15 years.
BK: Oh, 15 got it.
DZ: Though I do look much older.
BK: Well, yeah, not that old. [chuckle] I do, I look old.
DZ: And so I’ve been sort of on both sides, and I would imagine you’ve been on both sides, playing an instrument and leading worship.
BK: Very much so.
DZ: And so I just feel like this would be a topic that… We could go anywhere on this topic about instrumentalists in the church.
BK: Yeah. A lot to cover.
DZ: But to hone in this conversation, I wanna ask, what do you think the main role of the instrumentalist is in our gatherings? And does that differ from what the worship leader is doing, or the role of the person who’s leading the worship? Does that make sense?
BK: Yeah. I think they’re related, because often the person who’s leading the singing is an instrumentalist, so there’s… Same function. I think, as you look through Scripture, the question we’re asking is, “How does God want instrumentalists to function in the gathering of His people?” And before David came, King David, there’s not a lot of reference to music, in the gatherings. He is the one who really made much of music being played during the sacrifices, that’s where you see this shift. And when Israel experienced revival, music would always be involved. The law would be involved first, the Word of God, but then music would be a part of that. You see that in any of the revivals that the kings led, Josiah, Hezekiah, and other guys. [chuckle] In the New Testament… It’s funny how when you are on a podcast, your mind just goes blank. [laughter] It’s just like, “What are the names of the…
DZ: ‘Cause you’re talking to a microphone?
BK: I don’t know what it is. But anyway, in the New Testament the emphasis, as in the Old Testament, is on singing, not so much instruments. You have a few psalms that talk about timbrels and lyres, and you have Psalm 33, “play skillfully unto the Lord.” You have Psalm 150 that talks about cymbals, “loud, crashing cymbals.”
DZ: Clashing cymbals.
BK: But the overwhelming majority of the direction is for singing. Well, that’s certainly the case in the New Testament. So, I think we can gather from that, that the purpose of the instruments is not to be an entity under themselves, but to support faith-filled, engaged, passionate singing. We’re not competing for time or space in the meeting. Instruments really do serve the purpose of directing people to the place where “the Word of Christ can dwell on them richly.” That’s what’s supposed to be happening, Colossians 3:16. Ephesians 5 talks about “being filled with the Spirit,” but that’s also happening as we’re addressing one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.
BK: As an instrumentalist, and I’ve been playing the piano for 58 years, a long time, probably longer than you’ve been alive, I don’t have to use all my skills in a meeting. In fact, I shouldn’t use all my skills ’cause it would become distracting. What I wanna do is use my skills to that end, to where I can support and encourage and complement the singing that’s taking place. That’s really the role of an instrumentalist. Regardless of what you play, an organ, a piano, a keyboard, a synth, a base, an electric guitar, acoustic guitar, violin, whatever it is, we’re trying to help people focus on those words in an emotionally driven and emotionally responsive context, music, so that those words have a greater impact on their emotions, on their minds, and ultimately on their lives.
DZ: In a church that just has one guy that has an acoustic guitar, and that’s all they have accessibility to…
BK: Which describes a lot of churches.
DZ: Mm-hmm. And a church that has maybe multiple bands, it’s the same function of the instrumentalist and the worship leader to be doing that. Now, how would you do that with just an acoustic guitar on a Sunday or just a piano on a Sunday?
BK: Yeah. I think it’s almost easier in those contexts. You don’t have to feel like, “Oh, I’m not a band, I can’t make it happen.” Well, no, actually you can make it happen, ’cause all you’re gonna provide is the key that the song’s in, the tempo the song’s in, and in some ways, when the song starts and when people start singing, I was gonna say, in some ways, the volume of the song. If you’re playing loud, then people should be singing loud, those kinds of things. But whether that’s a massive band or just one instrument, your goal is the same, you wanna encourage that singing.
BK: I was talking to someone the other day, and they were telling me about someone from a larger church who had been speaking to them about certain things to do with the instruments. And the guy from the larger church said, “Your church is different, because you actually wanna hear the congregation sing. We don’t. We wanna make the band loud so that it kinda… It helps people feel safe so they can sing.” No, that’s… We are singing to one another, and we are meant to be moved by the sound of those voices. God created us in such a way that the sound of people singing… It’s different from playing a piano, playing a violin, playing a guitar. That’s something you do with your hands. But singing actually engages your lungs, it engages your body in a more comprehensive way so that we are affected both when we hear singing and as we sing.
BK: Man, if you’re just… All you got is your guitar, that’s all you need.
DZ: Well, something you said, just like, “We don’t wanna hear ourselves singing,” I think that’s such an interesting perspective, because I think that maybe a church that you don’t have access to a lot of different instrumentalists, there can be a temptation to feel like, “This is so bad. All we hear are ourselves, and we don’t sound good.”
BK: And that may be true. You may sound horrible.
DZ: And that may be true, but that feels like… But it feels like that’s what drives the worshipful experience, is that, “It sounds good, and we sound good, and we sound good together.” And you see a lot of “worshipful experiences” online where there’s thousands of people. And, yeah, it would be awesome to be singing worship songs with thousands of people.
BK: It’s great.
DZ: But in our week-to-week context, that’s not the case. And so how would you address it? What would you say to a person that says, “I feel unco… Even in a Bible study, I feel so uncomfortable singing because it doesn’t sound good.” And it’s not… It’s just one guy leading on a guitar or one guy leading on a piano, and he’s not doing a good job.
BK: Yeah, yeah.
DZ: And the key is too high, or whatever it is, but… Yeah. How would you address that? You say, “Singing… We’re gathering to sing.”
BK: Okay. We’re moving a little bit from the role of the instrumentalist, but that’s okay, I like this direction, because it does speak to us as worshippers. In other words, those who are being led, those who are part of the congregation. Yeah. And there are a lot of people who say, “I don’t wanna be heard.” The question is what’s… Well, one author put it like this, “The question is not, ‘Has God given you a voice?’ but, ‘Has God given you a song?'” Which I love that distinction. Not everybody… Very few people have a great voice. I don’t think I have a great voice. I’ve sung for years leading congregational worship, but I don’t think I have a great voice. It’s okay, it’s fine. But a lot of people think, “I don’t have a great voice, so how can I sing?” Well, if worshipping God through song is about the quality of your voice, well, then a lot of people are dismissed.
DZ: “I’m out.”
BK: Yeah, yeah. “Who cares?” It’s not about that. It’s about a life that has been changed. It’s about a soul that was condemned to eternal torment that has been forgiven. That’s the song we’ve been given, the song with the redeemed. And I love this passage in Psalm 40 where David is talking about his deliverance. And he talks, “I waited patiently for the Lord. He inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog. He set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.”
BK: I don’t know what kind of voice David had, probably he had a good voice, I don’t know. But he gets to the middle, and he says, Verse 9, “I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation. Behold, I have not restrained my lips as you know, O Lord. I have not hidden Your deliverance within my heart. I have spoken of Your faithfulness and Your salvation. I have not concealed Your steadfast love and Your faithfulness from the great congregation.” Just phrase after phrase, “I have told… I have not restrained… I have not hidden… I have spoken… I have not concealed… ” And then you think, “What is causing this, this exuberant response?” Verse 11, “As for You, O Lord, You will not restrain Your mercy from me.” I just love that. “Your steadfast love and Your faithfulness will ever preserve me.” So, what motivates our songs is not, “Does my voice sound good? What would people think of me?” It’s, “Has God shown mercy to me in an unrestrained way?” You know what? That’s gonna make me wanna sing.
DZ: Yeah, that’s so good.
BK: So we just gotta remember what God has done and not necessarily how we sound.
DZ: That’s so great. And I think that’s really helpful for people that feel that way in their context, like, “We don’t have a huge band. We don’t have a lot of instrumentalists.” And so I just think that reorients all of us, that we’re all worshippers, we’re all responding to the work that Christ has done through us and in us. I was happy that we went on that little…
BK: Yeah, yeah. No, that’s good.
DZ: Tangent. To bring it back, how about focusing on instrumentalists? You’re an instrumentalist in your church. Okay, my role is to encourage the singing of the congregation, but how do I think through, like, “I wanna have the coolest tone.” [chuckle] “I’m bringing some sweet gear into the context.”
BK: Yes, yes. Praise the Lord for sweet gear.
DZ: “I’m working really hard to perfectly play the lead line that was sent to me a week ago, and I’m gonna nail it on Sunday, and it’s just… ” How do you encourage any instrumentalist who is feeling that way of this is also… Maybe take it a step further. “This is an outlet for me to play my instrument.” How would you encourage those instrumentalists?
BK: Wow, wow. Well, you mentioned a couple of things. First, the last point: “This is an outlet for me to play my instrument.” You should do something else, I would say. Find some friends to play for, do a street corner or something. Do something. Don’t come on Sunday mornings thinking, “Hey, I get to do my stuff here.” Because there’s a purpose to it. And I’ve had to talk to instrumentalists on teams I’ve led, saying, “You know what? This isn’t like the… ” They’ll come in, they’ll just start riffing off some John Mayer tune or something, whatever. It’s like, “This isn’t the place where we’re gonna be playing our bass licks, our fastest riffs, or whatever. This is a place where we’re trying to serve congregation.”
BK: That’s the first thing I’d say. However, I really appreciate it… Just take an electric guitar player, I really appreciate it when an electric guitar player has nice gear, nice guitar, knows how to use it, and I don’t have to give him a lot of instruction about, “Can you do this?” I like electric player who can play textures, who can play leads, who can do strumming, who knows what part to fit in.
DZ: That takes time.
BK: It takes time, it takes practice. Absolutely.
DZ: But for an electric guitarist, I think it’s an encouragement to them, or to a drummer, or to a bass player, that it’s not just plug in and play. You can actually invest some time and…
BK: Oh, absolutely.
DZ: Yeah, that’s what you’re saying.
BK: Yeah, yeah.
DZ: You can invest energy into trying to make it sound good and learning the parts.
BK: Yes, yes.
DZ: But it’s the motivation, I feel like, is…
BK: Why you do it.
DZ: What you’re getting at.
BK: Yeah. I think there’s the phrase that’s been most helpful to me in this area is something that John Piper said. “We wanna play with undistracting excellence.”
DZ: That’s so great.
BK: Again, not to pick on electric guitar players, but if you’re just getting started on electric and you don’t… Maybe you know your chords, but you say, “This sounds very well and just it always sounds the same,” it might be undistracting, but it’s not excellence, necessarily. And then on the other hand, if you know your gear, and you’ve got all these pedals, and you’re doing this all kind of effects and stuff, it might be excellent, but it might be distracting. So, we’re really looking for that sweet spot of undistracting excellence. Of course, if you’re a synth player, for instance, and you know a bunch of sounds and you’re always trying out new sounds, “Hey, I want this,” again, it might be excellent, but not undistracting. You could also be a synth player who doesn’t know the sounds very well, and it’s always the same, just always that same passage… That’s all pretty much all I do. Maybe undistracting, but it’s not really excellent.
BK: So, we should all, as instrumentalists, be working for that place where we can play with undistracting excellence. You talked about learning a lead line or learning a part. If you really wanna do that well, and if that’s the way your team is set up, your band is set up, where they want you to learn a specific part, you should learn that part as well as you can. Give the time to practicing it, knowing it by heart, I would say. Not just playing it right once, but playing it right a lot of times. Someone said practicing… “Don’t practice till you get it right. Practice till you can’t get it wrong.”
DZ: Can’t get it wrong, yeah.
BK: So helpful. And that means that you might spend two hours getting ready for Sunday morning. Whereas, an experienced guitar player might spend five minutes or no time. They just maybe walk in on Sunday morning and know the part. Just hear it, do it, “Okay, I’m good.” So, it depends on where you’re at in your experience maturity level.
DZ: Right. And would you apply the same thing to vocalists as well, coming in with some level of preparation before?
BK: Yes. And again, it depends partly on how experienced you are. Pros can come in… Studio folks, they can come in and see the part, do it, perfect. It’s like no practice, “That’s what you want me to do? Okay, great.” Most people aren’t like that. Now, for us on a Sunday morning, Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville, we work a lot of stuff out on Sunday morning. I expect people to be familiar with the parts, familiar with the songs, but we’re gonna change stuff on Sunday morning. I might say to a… We might work out the parts right there. And we’re putting them in specific places and… But that requires being able to do it on the spot and remember what you’ve done, which we don’t always remember what we’ve done, but that’s okay.
DZ: Right. So, the role of instrumentalists are that undistracted excellence. You’re trying to use that to serve your people, serve in the singing.
DZ: Because if it’s undistracting and it’s also excellent, it’s just going to enhance what they’re doing.
DZ: Whether if it’s just a piano, or whether it’s a full band.
BK: A full band. And I’d say that if it’s a full band, your role changes, because if I’m… If it’s just me on piano, sometimes I lead contexts where it’s just me on piano, I’m playing the whole time. Except when we’re doing a cappella, which I’d always encourage churches to do at some point in their meeting, a cappella, just hear the voices. But if it’s with a band, you know what, there are times I don’t have to play. And it may be hard for me even after playing all these years, but there are times I’ll just pull my hands away from the keyboard and get, “You know what? Guitar has got it. I don’t need to play here.” Same thing with acoustic.
DZ: Yeah, it takes really… It’s a lot of listening, yeah.
BK: And that’s hard to do sometimes, but it helps generate this awareness of the lyrics by having different instruments accompany. So, that’s another way we can be… We can think differently about what we’re doing when there’s a bigger band.
DZ: Yeah. Talk about a cappella. Talk about how many times that you would maybe go to an a cappella section in a gathering. And have you ever done a Sunday gathering all a cappella?
BK: No. But that would be pretty wild. I know there are churches that do it every Sunday.
DZ: Yeah. No, yeah, so I guess I’m just getting us back, again, to, “Okay, we’re gathering to sing. We’re gathering to sing these truths. And we’re not… It’s not gathering for loud music just for music’s sake. We’re gathering to enhance what we’re singing about.”
BK: Enable the Word of Christ to dwell in people richly.
DZ: Right, yes. One of the best ways of doing that could be through a cappella. But how do you decide, “This song has such a great arrangement. Why are we going to a cappella?” Or, “Why are we always going to a cappella on the fourth verse?” or whatever. How do you think through that?
BK: Well, my thinking changed through leading the music at a conference called Together for the Gospel, which is a gathering of mostly pastors. I did that seven different years, we have a few albums out, Together for the Gospel, I think we did four. Worked with Mark Dever who encouraged me, whenever we sing a traditional hymn, to sing the last verse a cappella. I said, “Mark, isn’t that a little predictable?” And he said, “Just do it. Let’s just do it.” In his low voice, “Let’s just do it.” [chuckle] So, I did. And he said, “We wanna make a point that it’s not always the band that brings the excitement and the enthusiasm when we’re singing. It really can be just the voices.” And I learned through that, that it’s true. I also think you can end a song with a band and the voice, and it’s… It’d become this overflow of the singing and people, they clap to the Lord, and they shout out things, and this overflow of what we’ve just sung, these truths that are resonating in our hearts, and we just wanna say a little bit more about that.
BK: But there is something equally powerful, and at times more powerful, just hearing the voices sing. I think for many, for decades, I thought… I gave a head nod to a cappella singing. Maybe once every quarter or something, we do some a cappella. But it was really… It wasn’t until the last 10 years, I think, where I’ve really seen, “No, this is a really valuable part of what the church does every time we gather.” So, it might be… I would say we probably sing a cappella two or three times every Sunday. It might be the end of a song that’s fast, but you end the song, and then you sing the chorus a cappella, just the voices. And when I mean a cappella, I mean like a cappella, like no instruments. And then you might do it for another song, you might do it at the end of a slower song, but there are just opportunities where you sense there’s faith in the congregation to sing, there’s this overflow, and you start, and you just let them sing. And if you’re in a big church, that can be hard to do.
BK: But here’s… I wanna share a story that I think everyone can relate to. We’re at a conference one time, about 3000 people, lost power. And we just did the entire thing a cappella. At times, I was leading through a bullhorn, one of those loud… Is that what’s it called, a bullhorn?
DZ: I think so. Oh, my goodness.
BK: Yeah. And I had so many people come up and say, “That was one of the most moving times of congregational worship I’ve ever experienced.” It’s like, “Really?” I thought it was great, too, but that… What’s happening is we’re just aware of each other, we’re aware of the songs, and we’re aware of the truths we’re singing, which is what has happened at Together for the Gospel. We’re in a crowd of 12,000 people, and it’s just the voices. And you’re thinking, “This is so powerful.” Because we’re not being blown away by the drums, we’re not being blown away by the electric sounds, or the synth pads. It’s just the truths that we’re singing. It’s true, their voices, it sounds great, but it’s the truths we’re singing.
DZ: Yeah. And that is such a profound point, that it is our unity in singing together. It’s our union in Christ and our union together of us lifting our voices all in one song.
BK: It’s so powerful.
DZ: To play devil’s advocate, what about we flip that? And I’m an instrumentalist at my church, and that person, that same person comes up to me every Sunday and says, “You’re playing too loud, you’re always playing too loud.”
BK: Well, if you’re a drummer, that’s probably true.
DZ: I knew that was coming, I knew that was coming. No, but I… I know that it is about singing, and as an instrumentalist… So I’m aware of that.
BK: It’s a great question.
DZ: The motivation is there. It’s not just a place to come and jam, I know my role. But I’m doing the best I can to enhance that. But there’s the congregation either coming up or someone that’s constantly saying that, “You’re playing too loud, you’re playing too much.” And then it feels like, “I can’t hear myself sing.”
BK: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
DZ: So, flipping that on its head…
BK: No, that’s… I don’t think that’s devil’s advocate. Those are great questions to ask.
DZ: How do I respond as an instrumentalist if my motivation is to be serving, but that seems like it’s all about the singing, like just play, don’t play.
BK: Yeah, yeah, don’t play. Yeah, and I’ve been in churches where the instrumentalist might as well not play. You can barely hear them, and they’re not really leading congregation, it’s just… I’ve experienced that as well. And I think they’re not benefiting from all that instruments can contribute to a meeting in those settings. First, don’t make decisions based on the opinion of one person. If it’s not a group of people or not your leaders, your pastors, whatever, who are saying that, run it by other people, and make sure that that’s really true.
DZ: That’s helpful.
BK: Two, be aware that there are a lot of factors for why something can seem loud. Sometimes it’s the frequencies. Certain frequencies can be emphasized in a vocal or guitar in the, I don’t know what range, 2-5K range, or maybe the 1K, just something that’s harsh and it sounds loud. It might be that, it might be EQ issue. If it’s a lot of people and if it’s something that you’re aware is not an EQ issue… Say you’re a drummer, I would say, “You know what? Try something that’s gonna help you play softer. Use rods, use brushes.”
DZ: Yeah. It’s been exactly what you said.
BK: You’re a drummer. You do that.
DZ: Yeah, exactly what you said. It’s a cymbal frequency. You can have darker cymbals. It could be a resonant issue, where you can tape the drums. There are so many ways that you can get creative while also being patient with them.
BK: Yes. Yes, yeah, yes. And one other thing I’d say is make sure that when you are increasing your volume, that you are doing it to support the congregation and not to lead them, overpower them.
DZ: That’s good. Yeah, that’s really good.
BK: That can be effective as well.
DZ: That’s really good. I think that takes listening.
BK: Yeah. And you have to hear your congregation. Side note, if you have in-ear monitors, make sure you have a congregational microphone where you can hear the congregation. Some people take one monitor out. I like two ’cause it gives you the benefit of stereo, you can pan your instruments and stuff. But make sure you can hear the congregation, or really you’re just almost performing for them. If you can’t really hear them, you’re not really… How do you know if you’re supporting them if you can’t hear them?
DZ: That’s great. Just in closing, Bob, what final encouragement do you have to instrumentalists in their church? Maybe instrumentalists that have been serving for a long time and feel, I don’t know to use this word, but undervalued, underappreciated, they’re just trying to serve. Maybe it’s a worship leader in a small church, and he just leads every single Sunday, and he’s feeling burned out. What encouragements do you have to any instrumentalists in their Sunday gathering?
BK: Yeah. I think of the story of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume. And Judas said, “What’s going on? Why is she doing this?” I don’t remember where it is exactly right now, but Jesus said, “What she’s done is a beautiful thing. And wherever the Gospel is preached, her story will be told.” And CJ, my senior pastor, preached a message on this years ago, where he called it extravagant devotion. And he said, “The Lord loves extravagant devotion.”
DZ: I love that, yeah.
BK: And so I would think of what you’re doing as just extravagant devotion.
DZ: I love that.
BK: You’re not pouring it out, you’re not pouring your talents out, it gets out for recognition. That’s not why we serve. You’re pouring yourself out because Jesus has poured Himself out for you. That’s what our motivation is. And if that’s our motivation, His mercy… He will not restrain His mercy from us. He has not restrained His mercy. Jesus came, He lived a perfect life so that He could die on the cross in your place, and die to take your punishment, and rise from the dead. That’s unrestrained mercy. That’s why you play. And so, yeah, it’s great. We’re meant to be encouraged. God gives us grace through encouragement. But if you’re in a situation where you’re not being encouraged as often as you maybe would hope to be encouraged, know that God sees what you’re doing. And if it’s a response to what Jesus has done, it brings glory to the Lord. And really, that’s what we wanna do. We’re playing for the audience of one. We want the Lord to say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Well done, good and faithful servant.” So, don’t lose heart. And you don’t know what the Lord is doing. People don’t always express their encouragement, but He’s working through you.
DZ: That’s wonderful. That’s so great. I really enjoyed this conversation. I know this podcast went a bit longer than our other ones, but I’m thankful for you, Bob, for your ministry and thankful for you, guys, joining in and listening onto this podcast. I hope it serves you. And I hope to see you again when you come back and listen.
BK: Me, too.