Jazz is known for its timeless standards, and even more so for excellent musicians who are able to capture the attention and emotions of their audience with expressive improvisation that is expressed with great freedom and ease. Excellent improvisation is the result of the soloist combining a keen understanding of his venue, his audience, the mood of the room, while simultaneously integrating personal expression as an important element.
From the outside looking in, an improvised solo seems to be an act of sheer genius, because of the way the free-form solo blends with the rest of the song, yet remaining and expression of an individual. Though such musical ability should be applauded, there are a number of tangible factors that combine to make a great soloist.
I have been giving drum lessons for several years and during the first lesson I begin by watching a drum solo on a DVD with my students. In the end, my goal is not for my students to play that particular solo, but it is my goal for them to have the ability to play their own solo that is equally fitting for their music, venue, and at the same time capturing a piece of their personality.
After a few weeks of learning the basics, I begin to teach the foundational rhythms that are the building blocks for all that a drummer does. We study and play rock beats, swing patterns and shuffles rhythms until we are blue in the face. The next step is to encourage my students to study drummers who have mastered their craft. Finally, after months of studying the foundational rhythms, and weeks of watching great drummers (both older and contemporary), the student is finally ready to exercise their own creativity.
The process of learning how to do great improvisation is a fitting metaphor for the process that every pastor, missionary, church planter, or lay person should adapt when considering new methods in ministry. The metaphor applies as follows:
Studying the foundational rhythms:
Musicians study rhythms and scales as the foundation for all that they do, by contrast, the biblical practitioner looks to scripture as their foundation. Furthermore, in the same way that a key signature allows a trumpet soloist flexibility within a particular set of notes, scripture allow for flexibility within the parameters that it prescribes.
There are a number of aspects in church life that can be used to illustrate the idea of flexibility and parameters in ministry. For example, scripture calls the church to engage people with the gospel, to facilitate discipleship and aid the fatherless, but freedom is granted in executing these commands. The Apostle Paul is very helpful in this area as he gives a charge for freedom in ministry, as well a call for constraint. To solidify the concept of flexibility in parameters I will illustrate by using the notion of the effective Christian.
Every Christian can look to scripture passages like 1Timothy 3:2-13 & Titus 1:6-9 to better grasp the hallmarks of an effective believer (with the assumption that every believer should aspire to obtain character that is worthy of leadership). In order to restrain believers from becoming ineffective in God’s kingdom purposes, Paul describes the useful believer in primarily negative terms, instructing what character traits should not be present in the Christian life. On the other hand, Paul positively states, “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22). Though Paul has previously given followers of Christ barriers in which to operate, he also grants freedom for innovation, and personality within the given parameters.
Some examples of effective Christians that are unified in character while remaining diverse in the manifestation of that character are as follows: John Piper, Flame (Christian hip-hop artist), Beth Moore, Paul E. Sheppard, Gracia Burnham, James Worthy and many others.
Studying those who have mastered their craft:
In every discipline there are those who excel, and it is always profitable to study these people. When studying great musicians, it is not the final product that I instruct my students to observe, but how they work within the foundational parameters to tailor their playing to their context. The same counsel can be given to young pastors and missionaries who study great Christian leaders. The truth is that an exact duplicate of The Village Church is not going to be successfully replicated in Southern California. It is far more effective to study how a ministry has grown out of a biblical foundation by observing how (and why) it was contextualized in a particular community for that community. Some excellent churches that are worthy of our attention are as follows:
-The Church at Brook Hills- Emphasis on international missions and preaching (www.brookhills.org)
-Capitol Hill Baptist Church- Impeccable ecclesiology and polity (www.capitolhillbaptist.org)
Montros Baptist Church- Racially diverse ministry (www.montroseministries.org).
-Bethlehem Baptist Church-Church planting (www.hopeingod.org/ChurchPlanting.aspx)
-Highview Baptist Church- Multi-site church (www.highviewbaptist.org)
Now its time for your improvisation:
Using the word improvisation in reference to ministry may cause some to react negatively, but in light of all that has been previously discussed, it is fitting. When improvisation assumes a comprehensive knowledge of foundational elements (Scripture), along with a working knowledge of past and present experts, ministerial improvisation can be healthy and profitable. Every believer has been gifted and called to their ministry and ministry context. In each of these ministries it is God’s intention that every believer’s personality and experiences be taken into ministry with them. Of course the use of personality and a personal touch can be taken to an unhealthy extreme, but God uses every part of a believer to fulfill His purposes in their life.
The SBC has been blessed with a number of ministries that are worthy of our attention because of their fidelity to scripture and their strategic application to their community. Let us be encouraged by these ministries of the past and present, while being mindful of our gifting and context. Playing a captivating improvised solo is a very natural and fulfilling moment. In the same way, ministers of every kind should be able exegetes of Scripture and be well versed in effective methods that are grounded in the biblical text. With the constant prayer, it is now your turn as a believer priest to take part in the ministry that God has called you to.
Chord progression & Rhythmical meter = Cultural context
A beautiful solo = The Gospel
Improvised nature of the solo fitting to the progression and meter = Methodology
is this right?
Thank you for your question. Your conclusion is exactly right, but I would like to add a premise, and fold an existing premise that you proposed into the premise that I will add. The additional premise that I would propose is an element that is even more basic than cultural context, and that is Scripture. Scripture is more basic than cultural context because it is unchanging, and I would fold the Gospel into the foundational and unchanging category as well. To tie Scripture into the music metaphor, I would draw a parallel with chord progression and rhythmical meter (in a general sense) because they are common to all music. Building upon the foundation of scripture, the next element to grasp is cultural context. The musical parallel to cultural context would be a particular song within the larger category of all music. Lastly, we have our beautiful solo (improvisation) within the song of our cultural context that is built on the foundational chords progressions and rhythmical meter that is Scripture.
If I could use some of the verbiage that you have already used, my rubric would be as follows:
-Rhythmical Meter & Chord progression (basic to all music) = Scripture, the Gospel
-A particular song = Cultural context
-Our fitting solo (improvisation) = methodology
For the sake of clarity, I will state my logic without the musical metaphor:
The controlling idea is this, scripture is not specific about every detail concerning methodology, but Scripture does give general guidelines for conducting church and ministry in general. Because Scripture leaves room for ministries to take various shapes, cultural context can be taken into account while remaining inside the parameters that Scripture gives. After consulting Scripture and considering cultural context, there are still decisions to be made about the particulars of a ministry, and it is in these decisions that you are able to improvise in your decision making as you remain faithful to scripture and are guided by your cultural context.
Matthew, I am sure I have given more information than you bargained for, but I did not want to leave anything to conjecture.
yeah…thanks for that. I definitely don’t think the gospel should be improvised. I guess I had a typing problem there because we’d be in big trouble if we start improvising the gospel. I appreciate your thoughts.