Marching band and missionaries are basically the same

by Amy Young on August 16, 2017

This truth hit me smack between the eyes.

I didn’t see it coming. I’m not sure I like it. (Hello, one seems fun but maybe a bit shallow and the other purposeful, deep, you know, important.)

But the truth is marching bands and missionaries are basically the same.

It is marching band camp season in the US. With an oldest niece as the drum major and a second niece is in the percussion section (her first year), let’s just say that the insight marched up to me.

Here is how marching bands and missionaries are basically the same

1. Regional flavors exist. Here is the U.S. it turns out that band in Iowa, Colorado, and Texas are, um, not the same. Mission work in Ghana, Thailand, and Brazil are, um, not the same.

2. The whole is made up of parts. Like other bands, marching bands are divided into sections. So, sometimes the flutes are off by themselves practicing their little fluty hearts out. Other times, the entire band is together working on their show. You, dear missionary, may be a part of a team, a city team, a region, and maybe even a much larger organization. If you get together for annual or bi-annual meetings, it’s kind of like seeing the show that God is working out through your different efforts.

3. The work is same-same, but different. Every year the marching band learns a new show. They do not pull out the show from the year before and dust it off. No, they learn a completely new show. Now, they are, for the most part, playing the same instruments, wearing the same outfits, and marching with the same marching techniques. Here is where missions can learn from marching bands: are you working on a new show? Or are you pulling out last year’s show? Worse yet, have you been playing the same show for the last four years. If you are bored, of course check with the Holy Spirit, but perhaps, you’ve been putting new wine in old wine skins, so to speak.

4. New members come each year. The nature of a marching band is that the commitment is four years, so that means every year there are newbies in with oldies. There are those who are familiar with what they are doing with those who are just learning. There are those who have never marched before and learning to march is actually harder than it looks. We are in a season of welcoming folks new to the field. It is exciting but,

5. Getting everyone’s feet going up at the same time and height takes a lot of practice. You do about 10 steps over and over. Most common word heard in this phase? “Reset!” Oh that everyone just got it right away. Instead, you reset and do it again. Which leads me to . . .

6. It can be less glamorous than it appears. What do most people see? Your marching band performance. Costumes, props, music, precision. What do they not come to watch? The three hours you were out on the practice field where you might spend a whole morning on 20 seconds of the show. When it comes to missions, what do most people hear about? The dramatic, the annoying (hello visas, I’m talking about you), the moving. Which can perpetuate the myth that everything we do is so fascinating we are basically floating through life.

7. Growing pains. Bands do not stay the same size year after year. Three years ago, the band was made up of 40 members. (Side note: it is impressive that a small band can produce a show as impressive as a band with hundreds. Size isn’t the key factor, committed members is.) Obviously this is a small marching band. This year, there are 70 members. Exciting? Yes. But that means the majority haven’t been a part of the band for more than one year. In a few years it could grow back to 50 or so. Bands do not stay the same size, and chances are neither has your organization or the number in your country of service.

8. The curse of history. Want to know who gave my drum major niece the most problems during band camp? The returning members.

Stop and pause on that one for a moment.

They have won state for five years in a row. They had a beloved band director retire over a year ago. Last year was the first year for the new (and talented) new director. There was a bit of bemoaning the good old days (“Why did you bring us out here to starve? We had it better in slavery in Egypt!.)

9. The blessing of history. With returning members and a history of state championships, the band isn’t starting from scratch every year. Instead they are standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before. They are adding to a story that started before them and will continue after they graduate.

10. In the end, it is worth it. Both marching bands and missions are about something bigger. Something that is living and dynamic. Something that pushes you to the limit physically without guarantees of glory. Something that offers a common purpose, fellow sojourners, and the chance to be a part of something that might not look like much on the ground, but the view from above? Now, that is something to behold.

Were you in a band? What did playing in a band teach you about missions? What instrument did you play?

(I was never in a marching band, but I did play about six different instruments. Not well, mind you: piano, flute, alto sax, guitar, drum, and violin. My true love? Public speaking.)

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About Amy Young

Free resource to help you add tools to your tool box. When Amy Young first moved to China she knew three Chinese words: hello, thank you and watermelon. She is known to jump in without all the facts and blogs regularly at The Messy Middle. She also works extensively with Velvet Ashes as content creator and curator, book club host, and connection group coordinator. She writes books to help you. Amy is the author of Love, Amy: An Accidental Memoir Told in Newsletters from China and Looming Transitions: Starting and Finishing Well in Cross-Cultural Service. Looming Transitions also has two companion resources: 22 Activities for Families in Transitions and Looming Transitions Workbook. You can listen to it too.
  • Elizabeth Trotter

    This was a fun read, Amy, thanks!

    • Thanks, it was fun to write :). I love interacting with the fun side of ministry too 🙂

  • Don

    Thanks much for a great post. I enjoyed it very much, and your comparisons are right on target. May I add a few more from my observations as both a missionary and a band director?
    a. Relationships matter — A LOT: When members get irritated at each other, when there are complaints about leadership, when leadership communicates but the “followers” don’t listen well, when personal agendas and preferences become paramount, the entire group suffers tremendously. Nothing of significance gets accomplished. Good leadership can–in bands and in mission organizations–do the hard work of rebuilding trust, mending fences and bringing reconciliation, but it takes a long time and it takes a tremendous amount of energy from everyone involved, especially the leadership. Keeping relationships on good terms allows the group to function well in all its tasks, and maintaining good relationships is the job of every member.
    b. The rewards and the friendships are significant and long-term: The satisfaction of a well-performed show or concert is not quite the same as the satisfaction of positive results from a long-term ministry effort, but in their respective contexts, both are very rewarding. Friendships… nothing is quite like the bonds made when engaging in difficult work over a long time and seeing great results. When friendships deepen as a result it’s a little “taste of heaven.”
    c. We never stop learning: (this connects to #3 & 6 above) good bands are made up of individuals who do the very hard work of continuing to improve their own technique and musicianship. Effective missionary teams consist of people who keep studying the Word and keep reading about and considering new ways to deal with cultural and ministry issues. In both organizations people who think they’ve “arrived” are soon proved to be holding others back.
    An interlude for some personal perspective: 30 years ago this summer I arrived as a “green-as-can-be” short-term missionary to teach in Tokyo, straight from the farm fields of Iowa. If ever a guy was out of place, that was me. In the time since then I’ve taught instrumental music for 24 of those 30 years in two MK schools in Asia. Before coming to Asia I had marched in high school and 5 years in a 240-member university marching band where I was a drum major (student director) for 3 years. In my first teaching job in the US I directed a competitive marching band. We don’t march in Asia–no American football means no marching band–but all the same principles apply to my bands and the other music groups wherever I’ve taught. As for the missionary part, I’m not in church planting but we’ve worked with a small church for several years and observed and listened to the struggles of our church-planting colleagues.
    d. “Self” must give way to “group”: perhaps this sounds too Japanese, but it is definitely necessary for bands and for mission groups to function well. When one member sets aside his personal preference for the good of the group the whole body functions well. Self-appointed prima-donnas are only tolerated and usually flame out very quickly. The work is HARD; the work takes A LONG TIME; and those with commitment to work together and see the task through to the end are the most valuable.
    e. Grace is always “in order”: People make mistakes. Members sometimes mess up. Sometimes its just circumstances or a forgotten task or irresponsibility, and sometimes it’s fatigue or selfishness kicking in. My first year in the university band I turned the wrong way in a tight formation and smashed my trumpet into my rank leader’s instrument. I dented her trumpet, but worse, she had a busted lip and couldn’t play for a week. It was a significant problem. When problems arise, extending grace to each other is always necessary. Without grace, small problems simmer and become big problems; without grace big problems become insurmountable ones. Taking the lesson from the “unmerciful servant” mature band members and experienced missionaries extend grace to each other, knowing the grace they have received themselves. Together, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (or a wise director) the task is accomplished.
    Thanks for allowing me to share my thoughts on your post.
    In His Grace — Don

    • Don!! Thank you! You added so much! And your understanding of bands if both helpful AND makes me grateful for all the students who had you as a band instructor!!

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