Success vs. Failure
Sunday, I was asked how long I’ve played piano. Scrunching my face, I tried to remember both how old I am and compute the equation. “Twenty-five years,” I replied. The answer surprised me but the arithmetic was sound: thirty-four years of age minus nine years old when I started lessons was twenty-five years.
I grew up in church. I joke that I’m a denominational mutt: I’ve attended or worked at Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Anglican churches. I grew up playing keyboard in worship bands and started into the professional world of the church musician at age fourteen. I went to a college of music and took piano lessons with professors, performed with excellent musicians, and started songwriting. I loved music but I wondered how and if being a musician was important to the Christian life. I thought I knew all the stories in the Bible because I had grown up in the church. When my children were born, I couldn’t afford childcare and made the decision to stay home with them. I tried starting a business, but we moved six months later. I tried to play in church, but I sometimes felt guilty about my musical skills. I wrestled with whether my skill as a church musician was self-glorifying or God-glorifying. I tried writing music, thinking maybe I could support my family as an arranger or composer from home, but I felt like a failure after I sent out my music to people and it didn’t lead to contracts or sales.
The isolation of the pandemic pushed me to connect with other songwriters online, and through that connection I began to learn that it was okay to be a musician and a Christian. My songs were beautiful, and I should share them. My model for success shouldn’t be on sales or contracts, but on following Jesus. I like how Becca Hermes characterizes craftsmanship as a spiritual gift that we should unashamedly bring before the body for the beauty and glory of God. She says, “Combined with Paul’s teaching on the gifts of the Spirit, we see that the Holy Spirit gives different gifts to each person in the body of Christ, because “when each part is working properly, … the body grow[s] so that it builds itself up in love” (Eph. 4:16).”
Convicted, I started to read books that had been sitting on my shelf gathering dust, starting with Culture Making by Andy Crouch. I was searching for a reason to keep making music. Crouch talks about the Creation Mandate, saying that we are to be imitators of God, creating works of beauty and craftsmanship that honor him. If all we do is copy what other people are doing, be it in ministry or music, we “…become passive, waiting to see what interesting cultural good will be served up next for our imitation and appropriation (94).” He warns that “…when all we do is copy culture for our own Christian ends, cultural copying fails to love or serve our neighbors (94).” In this light, singing (or writing) a new song to the Lord (Ps. 96:1) takes on new importance. Crouch examines the world of Acts 29, citing a book by Rodney Stark called The Rise of Christianity. Crouch says that the early Christians were boldly creative (156), that “Their lives simply did not look like their neighbors’. But they were not cut off from their neighbors–the culture they created was public and accessible to all.”
Why Share Our Work?
The pandemic limited options for me to share my work publicly, so I gradually shared my music online and started to write again. As I wrestled with the implications of church being exclusively online and how I might serve the church with gifts, I found myself wanting to know more about why I was doing what I was doing and how traditions came to be. Eventually, this grew into a renewed desire to study the Bible, and I began to study worship theology in a Masters program online. I wanted to know what I believed and be able to make a case for it, moving beyond “I feel this is true” to “I know this is true, this is why I believe this, and what I believe is going to shape how I make decisions about music in the church.” I was stunned by how much the Bible actually talked about the skill of musicians and artisans. Craftsmanship was important to carrying out the mission God had for them: to make music and craft materials for worshiping God.
The church musician is to create beauty that reflects the glory of God to his people through worship. Art that glorifies God is not limited to Biblical icons and hymn arrangements. Beauty is reflected in the craftsmanship of the tabernacle, the temple, and the diversity of creation. The tabernacle was where God dwelled with the Israelites: it was a magnificent tent in the desert, crafted by a skilled artisan who led others in bringing their gifts, adorned with jewels and gold. Musicians in King David’s temple were skilled, set apart for service to God. The artistry in Creation, with all of its diversity and complexity, is beautiful.
Art and Idolatry
In light of this revelation, how might we view the golden calf in Exodus 32? It was crafted with skill and made with gold. Did the artisans who constructed it honor God in their creation? The Bible says that Moses’ anger burned hot against Aaron for allowing the Isrealites to build an idol. The craftsmanship of the golden calf did not reflect the glory of God, and they were worshiping the calf instead of God: bowing, singing, and dancing. The tension of the church musician is that we must not allow work that is crafted or beautiful music to replace the worship of the one true God. Craftsmanship and skill is important to God (Ex. 31, 36; 1 Chron. 15:22, 25:7-8), but so is our heart and intention in creation.
Anything has the potential to become an idol and replace God in our worship. We must root our idea of success by following the Holy Spirit, and discerning his call for our lives starts with reading our Bible and being in a community with other believers so that we can grow. It is good to share our crafts with others. We must let our relationship with God inspire our creations. Our art might be abstract, like the grand paintings of Mako Fujimura or complex fugues like the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. This Eastertide, let us recommit our vocations and creations to Him who saved and redeemed us with his broken body and shed blood. Let us study the Word, alone and with others, because what we believe shapes our songs, stories, and ourselves.
Catherine Miller is the Online Team Leader for United Adoration. She is working on a Masters degree in Worship Studies at Robert Webber Institute for Worship. She enjoys improvising on the piano, songwriting, and crafting blog posts. When she’s not writing papers for school, she’s chasing after her three children, three adorable little boys who love playing with Legos, painting and telling stories. She frequently collaborates with her husband, Henry Miller.
As a Lay Professional Liturgical Artist I was given the gift of fine art . The Holy Spirit lead me to fabricate many banners and visuals and to eventually have many of the banners published. Some went to conventions, and were seen by up to 5,000 people. Most banners were for specific denominations and churches. For the most part , they were made simply so that any group could afford to fabricate them . The Holy Spirit pushes you to expand your ideas !
What a beautiful story, Warren! I spoke to a jazz musician who credited the Holy Spirit for his most successful creations. The inventor George Washington Carver, who came up with about 300 uses for the peanut, also credited his imaginative creativity to his time with God. The Holy Spirit will definitely expand our ideas! — Catherine Miller
This is a beautiful piece, Catherine. Thank you for capturing these important aspects of our creativity and creative mandate in a simple format.
You honor me, Moses! Thank you!