Melrose Community Church was dying. Literally. With a congregation of mostly senior citizens, Pastor Martin scheduled many more funerals than newcomer desserts.
Martin almost hated following up visitors, because he kept hearing the same thing: “You have a nice church…” then they’d fumble for the right words. “But good worship is really important to us. We’ll keep looking.”
As a worship development missionary, I was asked to help Melrose improve the quality and depth of their worship. New to Melrose, Pastor Martin believed that attractive, fresh praise was a key part of renewal.
“We’ve got a good guitarist and a percussionist in the wings,” he told me, “but Cookie, our pianist, is…a little difficult. She’s never played with other musicians, and our first practice is in two weeks.”
Cookie, now in her 40’s, had played piano at Melrose Community Church since she was a little girl. She’d suffered through a bitter divorce and her grown children avoided her. Undoubtedly, Cookie found great comfort in her role as church pianist.
I visited Melrose the following week, but nothing could have prepared me for Cookie’s piano playing.
Her ragtime left hand bounced octaves like a pogo stick. Her classical right hand was a whirlwind of melodies and counter-melodies and trills and runs. An eternal sustain pedal gave new meaning to “blended worship.” If she had an arpeggio in mind, she’d slow the song down to make it fit!
Worship with Cookie was a loud and wild ride, and this was clearly one reason people were avoiding Melrose Community Church.
At the end of the service I introduced myself to Cookie, thanking her for her faithfulness. I asked if we could spend a few moments talking about the upcoming worship team; she agreed as she nervously bundled up her sheet music.
I asked if she’d played much with other musicians. She said she hadn’t, but was sure she’d do fine.
It was time to jump the big hurdle.
“You’ve been serving the Lord here at Melrose since you were a kid, haven’t you?” She nodded.
“These upcoming weeks,” I told her, “will be a great time for you to learn and grow.” I asked if I could show her a couple of ideas about working piano parts around a guitar. Cookie agreed.
Sharing the piano bench, I played the simple descending chords of “As the Deer.” I explained that I’d chosen half-notes to leave room for the flow of the strumming guitar.
When I asked if this made sense, Cookie floored me with her response. “Sir,” she looked me straight in the eye, “your breath is so offensive, I could not possibly concentrate on anything you’re saying.”
Apologizing, I asked her if she had a breath mint. She glared at me, folded her arms, and simply said, “no.”
I excused myself and found an Altoid, but when I returned to Cookie, she was in tears. Her voice trembled and she waved a thin finger at me, “everyone’s always telling me I’m not good enough! I’m sick of hearing it! I AM good! I AM talented!” Her shoulders heaved while she sobbed uncontrollably.
I may have had coffee breath, but I suspect Cookie was mostly bothered by the words on my breath. I had come to her with words of change.
I apologized for upsetting her and assured her she was quite talented, but it wasn’t a pretty sight.
Cookie was never able to change, but renewal finally prevailed at Melrose. After months of musical train wrecks, the church bought her a synthesizer that could be turned down in the mix. Not ideal, but workable, I suppose.
I learned at least three valuable lessons from Cookie, and pass them along to others who work with church musicians:
First, like “iron sharpens iron (Pr. 27:17),” musicians need to spend time working with other players. Years of solo work can cause us to become musically eccentric and ingrown. Good tempo, tasteful arrangements and a sense of flow are usually developed as players mutually submit to one another.
Second, if you need to approach an emotional artist with a sensitive issue, don’t put it off. Be bold and “speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15).” For 30 years -- and a half-dozen pastors
-- Cookie was apparently never challenged to temper her musical bad habits. She and the church suffered as a result.
Third, and though I don’t have Scripture for it, keep mints with you. If you must speak words of change, let them be carried on the sweetest breath possible.
Phil Christensen is worship pastor at Cedar Hills Evangelical Free Church (CHEF) in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He is married to Mitzi, the Beauty Queen, and is father of 3 great kids and Dylan. Phil has served as a worship development missionary in the Pacific Northwest and is co-author of two books for Kregal Publishing. You can reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.