Meditations: Learning to Improv

Last week I was on the phone with another pastor friend. My friend is in an interesting position. He's about to be handed the job of lead pastor at his congregation, but he's not sure he believes in church, at least not the way he's seen it done before. The Barna Institute has compile a depressing collection of stats that suggests there's not much difference between how Christians behave compared to their unchurched counterparts-- from divorce rates, to ethics, to theology. Churched peopled and unchurched people don't seem to live and think that much differently than each other.

These are frustrating stats for the pastors who attempt to design programs, curriculum, and spiritual pathways for their congregation. Congregants "do their time" in these courses and small groups and seemingly come out unchanged.

My friend posed the question-- so why offer all of this programming if they are proven to be ineffective to help people live the Christian live? And do people really need all this religious machinery to "get it?"

Later that night I sat down at the piano and played some Thelonious Monk. I bought a book transcribed scores that allow me to read the notes. Someone had taken the time to listen to his recordings and recreated them note-by-note. I can read those notes and recreate, more or less, his music.

What I can't do is improvise his songs. Jazz improvisation requires a set of skills that I don't possess. There are invisible rules in jazz that helps a musician pick which notes to play next. I'd need a knowledge of "modes", which are similar to the classical music scales I learned as a child, but are radically different. This lack of understanding of the jazz theory keeps me reading the music printed in front of me. I don't have the freedom to create.

I wonder if the average Christian feels dependent on church programs because they've never learned the "modes" and "theory" of the faith. Instead of feeling the liberty to create their own path for the Christian live, members are dependent on the "sheet music" that we provide.

N.T. Wright wrote a short, insightful book "The Last Word" in which he argues that scripture is authoritative because it describes The Story and demands that we find out place in it. According to Wright, we scripture has missing scenes between the book of Acts and Revelation. It's our job to improvise a bridge in between those two Acts.

We do this by becoming intimate with the narrative of scripture. We start to intuitively pick up "the modes" by becoming familiar with the plot, the characters, and the God who drives the story. Over time, we begin to feel the beat inside of us. We're able to guess what notes God might play next, and we're more able to harmonize. (And if we hit a wrong note, we can say "Hey, it's jazz...)

Perhaps we'd all find more freedom for ourselves and the people we lead, by immersing ourselves again in the sweeping story of Salvation until we hear God's voice inviting us take our turn playing a solo.


  1. I love this.

    I feel like I was spoon-fed my Christianity most of my life... Like I was still wobbling around on "christian training wheels" well into my twenties. How ridiculous!!

    I'm thankful now for the crushing heartbreak that forced me to abandon the bike altogether for awhile. When I came back to it on my own terms and in my own strength, I could finally balance.

  2. I like that analogy. There's a place for training wheels. But they need to come off, eventually.

  3. What a great post! As a Christian who has spent countless hours in different church programs trying to "get close" to God with middling results, I had pretty much abandoned church involvement in search of something more meaningful.
    What I found was that time spent wrestling through issues and praying with my REAL friends has brought me more insight into God's heart than I ever found at seminars, study groups and the like.
    I definitely blow some sour notes now and then, but I'm definitely starting to feel the groove. Thanks for putting this out there, it has really helped me put words to what I've been trying to accomplish.

  4. Great post, Larry.

    I wonder, though, were you saying that your friend is measuring the church's spiritual growth by divorce rates and other numbers that Barna has delivered to us? Perhaps, such measurements, any quantifiable measurements, are misleading. That's a topic for another blog post, though.

  5. @ James,

    My friend is wondering if there's any efficacy to what we are doing. I'm not agreeing or disagreeing with him-- just noting the conversation.

    Those doubts and skepticism are healthy, for a time. They keep us reflective and evaluating.

  6. I'd agree with you there, but I would caution any church leader against using only numbers and stats to measure our efficacy. Many of the most important ways to impact someone spiritually are intangible and immeasurable.

    And by the way, I've been hearing the 50% divorce thing for a decade now, and I'm not buying it. But again, that's just me.

    Sorry for the hijack. I agree with the general premise here and appreciate the post.

  7. If the guy who "buried his talents" had only played the "immeasurable and intangible" card, the parable might have ended differently.

  8. Perhaps church efforts return void because leaders rely on trite analogies and programs to "lead the flock." We want God to jump on to our plans instead of the other way around. I don't understand the evangelical church. It seems come of the things they longed to change have come back to be used as "tool to reach the 'church people.'" ie: self-help books disguised as spiritual food, church programs, cool graphic design, etc.

  9. Dear anonymous:

    No doubt, much of what goes on in modern churches is fluff. But not all "cool graphics" or programs are problematic. And as for analogies, Jesus did spend a lot of time speaking in parables.

  10. Wow.

    Your post came at the exact right time for me.

    I am a 28-year old, "lifer" Christian, a worship leader at a larger church. I've been "doing church" for as long as I can remember.

    I've been amazed at how long it's taken me to truly "get it" - to truly embrace life in Christ as more than a position or a resigning to something, but as miraculous, as adventurous.

    I relate to not knowing how, or lacking the skills it takes, to improvise, so to speak; to take my eyes off of the sheet music and do something new, something fresh. To explore parts of my faith that I've been told in the past are "dark" or "difficult".

    I've started a blog recently to document my journey through songwriting, and I'm surprised at how much of it has to do with me, and what I've seen, and what I'm seeing now. Whereas I thought it would be all talking about the process of songwriting, it's become more about the process of forming and creating myself.

    Keep up the good work, friends. Definitely bookmarking this one.



  11. It's less that these issues are problematic and more that they are more of the focus than anything else.
    C.S Lewis wrote: "Every Musician and poet (or evangelist, or pastor) but for grace, is drawn away from the love of the thing that they tell, to the love of the telling." That is what's wrong with the church of America.

  12. I would agree with that assessment, except to say that there are many evangelical churches which do not fall into that trap. So many that calling them the exception wouldn't be fair. But they're definitely in the minority.

  13. Larry... I didn't know you played. Me too. Not classical though... it's too megachurch, too structured. I like to just sit down and let stuff flow from somewhere deep in my soul. On good nights, an hour feels like 5 minutes.

    Oh that learning to let Christ flow would be that easy!!

  14. I was trained classical...derailed and discovered Keith Green, Billy Joel, Bruce Hornesby, and Elton John.

    In Chicago discovered jazz.

    @ all, to be clear, I'm not anti-program or anti-organization... but there's got to be a ghost in our machines.