No Room at the Inn - an open letter to American Churches in December

“No room at the Inn”

An open letter to American

Churches in December

* NOTE: I would like to state, after some concern from friends after reading this that I in no way harbor bitter feelings towards my church and this post is more of a general reflection on the progression of our church society as a whole. As uncomfortable as it is to share, everything in this blog is true and some of it is my experience from the PAST. NOT everything in this post is directed to MY specific church. I know many people who struggle with the same “lack of fitting in” for better terms, and in fact it was events OUTSIDE of my own church in the PRESENT that prompted this post to be written. I have the utmost love and respect for my church which is why I continue to attend.

I generally avoid public statements of unwelcome opinion for several reasons 1) It’s not good for business. Plain and simple. We all know those Facebook friends that spew political or religious hatred on their public platform and it makes us either unfriend them or view them differently.  And it certainly doesn’t make us trust them or want to work with or buy products from them. 2) It’s not who I am. The older I get the more moderate I become. I can see both sides, I can empathize with a lot of different opinions and heaven forbid, I can even maintain friendships and hold conversations with people I disagree with on many many levels. 3) It’s  often a poor representation of Christianity. When people claim themselves to be Christians and then spew negatively charged opinions everywhere without a heart to understand the other person or to actually work for change, it gives my faith a bad name. 

In that spirit, I will not only strive to shed light on a subject I feel is becoming more and more of an issue in our modern church society, but  try to do it in a kind manner and in a way which instead of simply ranting about an issue, suggests solutions as well.

Simply put, well trained musicians are getting told there is no room for them in the church and it’s not only hurtful and sad but a gross underuse of God given talent and abilities. But why is this happening?

  1. “It’s not the direction we’re moving”

Yes, I have been told this very thing. After two years of directing my church’s Christmas Eve service, we sat down to discuss moving forward and I was getting a lot of pressure to make it more contemporary. That is not in my skill set and I said so, but I was willing and had already been using “contemporary” musicians and including “modern” sets. What I was not really willing to compromise on was the quality of music, utilizing the talent we had within the church as the primary objective, and doing anything that was too unfamiliar to people. This, of course, meant that I gave up my position. 

To me, the saddest part of that is not that I “lost my job” or that I missed creating the program….yes of course all of those things are true. Planning the Christmas Eve service was a delight for my heart, an outlet for my musical gift, and a way for me to connect to others in the church in a new and fun way. But that was not was saddened me the most. I was devastated that those church members that came out of the woodwork to participate with their individual musical talents, no longer had a place to go. They would once more disappear into the background and let their their talents go to waste…..simply because they weren’t welcome. It wasn’t the direction the church was moving….they were once again left behind.

You see, in my mind, Christmas is the most traditional day of the year. The Holiday is hundreds of years old, as is most of the religious Christmas music. There are Christmas drinks, Christmas carols, and Christmas traditions that every family knows about and enjoys. There is something satisfying, comforting and unifying in this and when people come to church on Christmas Eve they expect some level of familiarity. They expect to sing “Angels We Have Heard on High” and end the evening with a candlelit version of “Silent Night”. I would argue that this expectation crosses generation and denomination it has become so ingrained.

But over the past 10-15 years there has been a shift in the church. Some churches no longer want to recognize tradition and actively push it away. We are left singing songs that we don’t recognize with melodies and bridges that people cannot easily sing along with. And instead of a large room filled with joyous people singing “Joy to the World” because their hearts have memorized the words from childhood, we are left with smoke machines, lights, solos on stage, and a church audience mumbling through a modern addition to “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” that they have never heard before.

2) “Your voice is too pretty it’s distracting”

Well trained musicians who have spent their time and money on years of education and developing their God given gifts are being told that they don’t fit in……in CHURCH. There is no place for a trumpet, a classically trained voice, a clarinet, or a brass quartet. But there is room for a violin because hey, that’s hip.

Things  have shifted from taking a look at the flock you have, utilizing their talents, encouraging them to grow, and creating this place of excitement, participation and beauty….into a desire to be cool. This desire to be perceived by guests in a cool way, leads to an attitude of ignoring the opinions of those in the church that are steady, constant and participating members in an effort to reach out to non members.

Now don’t misunderstand me, I think there is a balance to be struck. You must seek out new attendees. It’s the church’s job to spread the gospel message and unless the church is a moving church, the goal then would be to have new members come to you….But there is a fine line between evolving with the times, and being disrespectful of the past.

Too often I have seen the older generation completely dismissed. But when I stood back and took a look at it, I realized it wasn’t the older generation….it was simply anyone young OR old, that held a traditional (or frankly different) thought. 

As the church grows, it needs to water the plants it has while planting other seeds. Otherwise roots of bitterness will grow among the established garden and not only does this impact them, but it chokes out the newbies as well.

Yes I went all Bible parable on you - the point is - do you want a church that rejects people or a church that accepts people? Acceptance includes everyone, not just those that share the same musical taste as you. It includes the guitarist who learned to play by ear, the trumpet player who played in HS, the flutist who got her masters in performance and the drummer who can add a funky beat to “I saw three ships come sailing in”. This would be mutual respect and collaboration. Modern pop stars are showing us every day how “cool” it really CAN be to blend new instruments with old tunes and add a new zest to traditions (thanks Lindsey Stirling!) 

3) Jealousy amongst members

This is one of the most human responses a church can have. In a more contemporary church, the well trained musician may easily look at someone without training and think “Well clearly, I am better” and the untrained musician who learned by ear may be shocked that the other MUST have music to perform and doesn’t do well reading guitar chords….the truth is that both have talents. Gifts that need to be expressed and used. They are different, but both valuable. A wise leader can use both. A jealous leader rejects those that are unfamiliar and only invites those that speak the same language.

On the other hand, there are some churches that still practice traditional music weekly. They sing carols and perform Christmas cantatas. In these churches jealousy may appear in the form of choir members not appreciating trained musicians coming in to collaborate and participate with them when they aren’t regular members.

This of course is understandable - why should someone you don’t know, come in and perform with you just for the Holiday - and in some instances get paid to do it?

But I would encourage those churches to take a new perspective. Perhaps to solve the problem you don’t offer to pay any guests, but every church should be willing to invite others in in whatever capacity they are gifted. Maybe your church cantata is the only opportunity that soprano has to sing the music she loves once a year. Maybe it’s the only Christmas music outlet the music education major has to play the tympani.

Do you really want to be the choir member that said “You’re not welcome here.” ?

So what do we do now?

The church should be the FIRST place that your God given gifts and talents are accepted, encouraged, and utilized but instead, more and more musicians are being told they are unwelcome, don’t fit in and therefore never get a chance to use their gift in church.

 Our attitudes are what get in the way. Preconceived notions (from both traditional and contemporary sides) are formed and it causes a rift between friends. Entitlement and and unwillingness to try to communicate in new ways is crippling.

I would encourage a new perspective. One that may just provide the best Christmas Eve service you’ve ever had. One that is different, inclusive, exciting, and beautiful. One that utilizes familiarity, surprise, tradition and new ideas all at the same time. 

The simplest way to do this would be to take stock of what is currently available. Get to know each individual that has musical abilities, talents and skills. Who plays an instrument? Who sings? Who is good at sound? Lights? Drama? Find out who is willing to help you. Who WANTS to participate?

Create around that. Instead of beginning with a play, write the script as the actors show up and then fill in the blanks.

 Sure if you make it an open invitation you may get that one wobbly soprano or the nervous high school kids. So what. Your Christmas Eve may end up a little more Charlie Brown and a little less TSO.  What is the heart of Christmas? What is the purpose of worship? What truly, is your goal here?

Christmas, and church, is about love. It’s not about perfection. It’s about celebrating each other and building each other up. IT’s about a community you cannot find elsewhere. It’s about this beautiful gift that God gave us in the baby Jesus that literally changed the course of the world and our lives. There are beautiful songs that can be sung by beautifully well trained voices and new arrangements that can be created by talented musicians that taught themselves how to play in their bedroom. 

There are verses that can be read by nervous children who anxiously waited for they day they get to wear that sparkly red Christmas dress they bought just for the occasion and there are carols that can be played by the 80 year old trombonist that you didn’t realize was sitting in the pew next to you.

Start at home. Try something new. Make room in your inn. And if someone knocks on the door from another church and asks to participate, embrace them with open arms because you never know. Their church may have already told them there was no room.


Merry Christmas from the Terhune’s :)