Messy Faith,  Music Ministry,  Personal and Spiritual Ramblings

God alone is worthy (Blessings from an Unsuccessful Church Merger Part 4)

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This is one post in a blog series entitled Unexpected Blessings from an Unsuccessful Church Merger. To read the introductory post to this series, or to find links to every post in the series, please click here to read the first post:

Free Indeed (Unexpected Blessings from an Unsuccessful Church Merger Part 1)

I mentioned in my first post that it took me a week after the merger conversation was announced to even watch a livestream from the other church. I think I was afraid that they would have an elderly pianist, plodding away on their piano playing four-part hymns since the days that Moses walked the earth, saying, “You’ll pry this piano out of my cold, dead hands!” 

Instead, as I listened, I could tell, “Okay, their pianist was good.” As I continued listening, “Okay wow! She’s not just good. She’s better than I am!!!” Her technique was incredible, and she demonstrated a command of the instrument that I hadn’t seen in a while. She also had an obvious passion for playing the piano in worship that made my serious, focused, I-promise-I’m-happy-on-the-inside demeanor at the piano look almost frigid in comparison. (I’ve never before seen a pianist raise a hand in worship WHILE singing AND playing and still manage to keep the accompaniment going, but she manages somehow!)

But I fought back my fears and my jealousy. Later that afternoon, I texted our worship leader: “If you need to put me on the bench for this to go forward, do it.”

Over the course of the merger conversation, through rehearsals and meetings, we learned a few things about the differences in worship styles between our two churches. The biggest differences were in our repertoire (with our church favoring songs by Sovereign Grace, Getty Music, and City Alight and their church singing a lot of Hillsong).

The other difference was in HOW they accompanied their vocalists. Their pianist worked primarily with chord sheets, filling in with ornate improvisations, which she could do because there were fewer instruments they worked with. The vocalists and other instrumentalists seemed to follow her lead, more than the other way around.

Our church has a bigger instrumental team, and for the last five years our worship leader has worked hard on “standardizing” our music. She selects musical scores with matching instrument parts so everyone is playing the same chords and accompaniment, every time. I can (and do) improvise while I play, but only within the existing chord structures. The more complicated the song, the less I improvise. Rather, I work hard on mastering complex piano accompaniment scores that range from 2 to 17 pages. Yes, 17.

Neither one of these approaches is right or wrong or better than they other. Each church took the approach that was working for their existing music team. It was in the blending of these approaches that we came upon some real challenges.

The combined leadership put our music leader in charge of selecting the songs, arranging the order of service, and being the music leader overseeing the entire combined team for all of the combined services. We had an introductory meeting with a Q&A session for all the people involved in music ministry, and then we got to work.


Is He Worthy?

One song that was beloved by both of our congregations was Is He Worthy?, so it was decided that song would be used at the first service. Initially, all of the songs were divided between us two pianists, and I was assigned to be lead pianist on Is He Worthy?.

At our first rehearsal, I was reaaaallly struggling.

First of all, Is He Worthy just so happens to be that 17 page score. A year earlier, I had fed it into my Finale software, eliminated vocal staves we weren’t using, made everything smaller, and got it down to 7 pages. Even eliminating all those extra page turns, Is He Worthy? is one of the hardest accompaniment scores I play. The verses have a running pattern of 16-16th notes that alternate every other note between the left and right hand.

God alone is worthy (Blessings from an Unsuccessful Church Merger Part 4)

I liken playing this song to playing double-dutch. [Double-dutch is jump rope game where two individuals swing 2 different jump ropes in opposite directions. A line of participants then takes turns jumping into the moving ropes, jumping continuously over both of them, then jumping out so the next person can have a turn. It takes coordination and a good sense of rhythm and timing your body to jump in the right place.]

I never was good at double-dutch. But, over the last year of hard practice, I had mastered the rhythm (for the most part). But, like double-dutch, if I missed one note, it was a lot harder to pick up and jump back into the rhythm.

Another difference between our churches which really only impacted me was that their an 88-key digital Kurzweil designed to look like a baby grand piano. I hadn’t played on a keyboard in about two decades. The learning curve is steep because the touch is completely different. The way the sound is sustained in reaction to how you press the keys is different. Thus, the pedaling is different.

God alone is worthy (Blessings from an Unsuccessful Church Merger Part 4)

Hard song. Tricky accompaniment. New keyboard. And then there were the acoustics.

Their auditorium was at least triple the size, if not more, with high ceilings. The sound system was different. The drums were right behind me instead of 10 feet away, a position that was normally held by our bass player (who I depend on GREATLY for consistent rhythm and cohesion). Half the time, all of the other instruments were so loud in the monitors that I couldn’t even hear myself! It was all just so different. So I was already having a rough time just holding this song together at our first rehearsal. My face was reddening, and I felt increasingly helpless.

When their pianist joined in using their second Kurzweil (which we were using as a 2nd set of keys for chords and fill-in accompaniment) and started improvising the way she was used to doing, it was all too much. We weren’t playing the same chords in several places. It was like Dueling Pianos, and not in a good way. The acoustics were a mess. Because I couldn’t hear myself, I kept getting off of that double-dutch rhythm and having to drop out. And to my ears, it sounded positively awful.

I left the rehearsal holding back tears and wondering how this was all going to pull together in the next five days.

So much was riding on this…on me. Our first combined service. Our big “first date” if you will. And it needed to go well, otherwise this was all over. This song held deep personal significance to our church (as it helped us all grieve the loss of a baby within our midst) and was much-loved by their church as well.

More than the song needing to go well, the churches also needed to see that our music teams could work together and BLEND, not compete. We needed to be ONE.

We were also guests in their space. I was a guest pianist on their instrument. I was so scared that I was offending people just by…being there…let alone by making suggestions or protesting when things didn’t sound right. The last thing I wanted was to be perceived as trying to take over.

I knew that our worship leaders were in discussion with church leadership about how to proceed: how to fix the acoustics, how to structure the instruments and tech, who would sing, who would play what instrument, because everyone knew this needed some changes.

But throughout that night and into the next morning I had to remind myself what mattered.

“Is He worthy? He is!”

It’s not about me. It’s about Him. What needs to take place for Him to get the glory? 

I texted our pastors and our worship leaders that morning, saying this:

I want to make it abundantly clear that until this merger i definitely agreed to by both parties, I view myself as a guest in their space and am completely willing to defer to them…

While I will give my opinions and thoughts where music is concerned, I do not at all want my feelings or emotions to be a factor in any decisions that are made – for this service or any going forward. 

I’m not saying that this was easy. I had to fight my flesh and my selfish desires to do things the way *I* thought they should be. I had to wrestle within myself about what was most important: God getting the glory and the merger conversation going forward. Nothing else mattered.


Ultimately, the music leader decided to switch lead pianists on some of the other songs that we would sing that morning, but keep me lead pianist on Is He Worthy?. Another change is that I would be playing chords on the other songs, but then lead piano from the second Kurzweil, transitioning from the prior song which was lead from the main Kurzweil. The sound team would adjust the volume from song to song. Their pianist wouldn’t play on the verses so I could stay on rhythm and our accompaniments wouldn’t clash. Then, she would join me on the choruses within the existing chord structures from my score for simple chord fill-in, no improvisation. The next rehearsal (on Saturday) went so much better, and I started to breathe more easily.

But what happened on Sunday morning left me in awe.

As we transitioned from the prior song into Is He Worthy?, I took over the accompaniment as planned, and my volume came up. Then, their pianist stood and raised her hands in worship.

I do not know her motivation in doing this. It may have been just pure worship and adoration of the worthiness of Christ. But here’s one thought I had: she didn’t have to stand up. She could have sat on her piano bench with her hands in her lap, and only 25% of the congregation would even have been able to see that she was not playing (and only if they were paying attention). So while I do not know that this was her intention, in the moment it almost felt as if she was both welcoming me, perhaps even deferring to me – one pianist to another – while I took over as lead pianist for the song. To me, it was gesture of hospitality and acceptance, whether she meant it that way or not.

When she joined me on the verses, I was blinking back tears. In my peripheral vision I could see hands raised across the auditorium, full of our joint congregation. Not members of two churches, but members of the body of Christ worshipping together.

“Is He worthy? He is!”


Worthy is the Lamb

The last Sunday we had a combined worship service was August 20, 2023. It was the last Sunday before it all fell apart. So I remember it with bittersweet emotions.

The last song that we sang at that service was Worthy is the Lamb, by Darlene Zschech and arranged by Travis Cottrell. I was lead pianist on the main Kurzweil for the entire service. (By that point, the leadership felt it best we pianists use our gifts individually, rather than together, so we were rotating Sundays.)

As I looked out over the congregation while I played, my eyes rested upon one of their members. I only know her first name, and had never spoken to her. But her eyes were closed, her face and hands were lifted toward heaven, and she was singing with all of her heart.

Worthy is the Lamb
Seated on the throne
Crown You now with many crowns
You reign victorious!

High and lifted up
Jesus, Son of God…
Worthy is the Lamb!


The next morning, I was at the gym first thing in the morning. The very first song that played was Worthy is the Lamb. I’ve been curating my Christian workout playlist for at least 7 years and had a Pandora account since 2009, and that song had NEVER played before. I believe that God wanted to make sure I heard it…one more time.

At the beginning of our very first combined service, their pastor welcomed everyone and said these words:

This morning’s gonna be a little bit different. In fact, it’s already been different for you for the most part… I just want to remind you that the day after you die, heaven’s probably going to be different as well. So we’re going to need to get used to different just a little bit, right?

I would encourage you – probably also the worship in heaven will be different than it was over at [their] building, different than it is here at [our] building, different than it is under a tree in Africa somewhere, because we’re all going to be together.

So I would just encourage you so much this morning…don’t get caught up in anything but Jesus. Don’t get caught up in your evaluation of them, this, us, we, they. Just come and worship Jesus, and we’ll hear from His Word. If we all do that – if we’re all running towards Jesus – you just look to the left and to the right, and you’re gonna be encouraged by the walk of other people. 

These two songs about God being worthy of all of our honor and praise stand out in my mind as blessed bookends from this time we spent worshipping with another body of believers.

I believe that God received the glory from those six months our churches worshipped together.

I still believe that, in spite of our differences, our churches and music teams could have joined together and made something beautiful. I believe that – given a lot of hard work, flexibility, and graciousness – our diverse talents would have strengthened each other. It makes me deeply grieved that we will not get to see what that looked like, this side of heaven anyway.

So one of the biggest lessons I learned from this merger was to hold “my ministry” loosely, with open hands. To always remember that He alone is worthy. To not get caught up in anything but Jesus, but just run toward Jesus – whether from the piano bench or the pew.

Soli Deo gloria

Click here to read the next post:
Part 5: Love has a bigger table

Blessings from an Unsuccessful Church Merger | I will be speaking about how events during the church merger conversation intersected with things God was teaching me and my family at the time. I hope to encourage every believer in the areas of unity within the body of Christ, personal and corporate worship, Christian hospitality, and - above all - the glory of God and the spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
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