food chain

Trends: Worship Food Chain

We were all taught in elementary school about the food chain: the tiny fish gets eaten by the little fish, the little fish gets eaten by the big fish, and so on. Similarly, there’s always been an issue with the big churches stealing musicians from the little churches, but that problem has escalated in recent years – even mid-sized churches are feeling the effects.

If you’re in a 50ish member church (and one that doesn’t pay musicians) you might as well forget finding and keeping a really talented musician these days. Sure, you might have random musicians like a talented drummer who gave up on his music career to get a real job, or a skilled music major with a piano proficiency who’s now a housewife raising three kids. But these are people who go to that small church because they like it – and those types of musicians are few and far between in a small ministry.

A 100-300ish church won’t fare much better, even if they do have a small budget to pay musicians. When I was the music director at a 200ish church plant we paid a super-talented and versatile guitarist. The bass player didn’t show up? No problem, the hired guy would switch to bass. Or he’d play acoustic like nobody’s business when I needed it. Once in a great while when the planets aligned and I’d have a full band, he’d play perfect electric leads and rhythm.

One day he called and told me he’d now be playing at the local megachurch because they offered him more money. I wasn’t upset with him – more power to the guy, as a working musician you have to pay your bills – instead, I was infuriated with the megachurch. Did they seriously need yet another guitarist in their already bloated band?

500-800 size churches are not exempt, either. I know one music director at a church of 700 who can’t live without multitracks. He never has a full band, and rarely has more than a guitar player or drummer. The local megachurch has hired away his players, too.

And now, even the megachurches are in trouble with the Rise of the Gigachurch! (Sounds like a B horror movie, doesn’t it?) I know of one ginormous gigachurch (by the way, a gigachurch is a church of over 10,000) who has sucked the talent out of every megachurch in their city – the gigachurch pays $400 a week, per musician, and the megachurches pay around half that.

Of course, the megachurches had probably stolen all the musicians from smaller churches, so they were easy and convenient pickings for the giga (the giga literally scouts out the top musicians of the area megachurches and hires them away.) One poor megachurch worship leader I know of is scrambling to form a basic band – all his players have left for greener and better-paying giga pastures.

These problems aren’t as prevalent and disastrous to smaller churches in large metropolitan areas with more musicians to go around, but it’s positively crippling to churches in smaller and mid-sized cities.

Where will it end? I don’t have an answer besides this: the smaller churches just need to ride it out. From what I’ve heard, the musicians who play at the gigachurch absolutely hate it. Why? Because everything at the gigachurch is meticulously planned down to the millisecond. Musicians are eye candy for the most part, pantomiming to the strict multitracked parts and every service is exactly the same. (Some gigachurches have 8 services a weekend – now you can understand why they pay so much: it’s a part time job for a musician.)

In other words, musicians at gigachurches are making big bucks but they’re bored.

They also get the spiritual life sucked out of them. The giga and megachurch playing experience unfortunately often ends up being a mere gig to musicians – they’re not experiencing community or being led spiritually. One told me he plays at a gigachurch because he needs the money, but can only tolerate it every other week. He then has a week off to recover from the soul-draining giga grind by attending a church where he actually connects and grows.

I’m really not trying to knock megas and gigas – I love big churches. I’m quite familiar with many around the country and some are amazing places doing great and exciting things. Oddly, though, I hear time and again that their musicians are spiritually suffering. Perhaps some big church worship leaders can get a little too carried away by the grandeur of it all while their players aren’t getting loved on enough.

Bottom Line: Starving artists will be attracted to good gigachurch pay, at least until they burn out and seek emotional and spiritual healing. Make sure your church is ready to pick up the pieces of these talented musician’s lives – they might be visiting sooner than you think.

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