Is the Choir Dead?
This article was originally published in Worship Leader magazine (May 2007). For more great articles like this one, subscribe today.
Over the past 20 years of my life, it has been my privilege to have traveled extensively and worship at hundreds of churches. I’ve had the joy of singing in and/or conducting choirs of all ages, shapes and sizes, from virtually every evangelical denomination, in a wide variety of settings. Some of the smaller groups have ranged in size from 6 to 12 people, while the larger ones have ranged from 150 to 300 in number. I’ve worked with singers in open-air worship services on the remote hillsides of the Dominican Republic. I’ve conducted mass choirs in expansive coliseums from coast-to-coast. From places as elaborate and celebrated as the Sun Dome in Phoenix, Arizona, and Westminster Cathedral in London, England, to other places not quite so renown like the backyard of a HIV hospice home in Washington D.C. and the sanctuary of Whispering Hills Church of the Nazarene (where I currently am serving my eighth year as part-time worship pastor, in Brentwood, Tennessee), I have seen the hand of God move in profound ways through the worship and ministry of a choir.
The concept of empowering and equipping choirs for worship is nothing new. In 1 Chronicles, we learn that King David commissioned 288 Levite music leaders for the dedication of the temple. If there were 288 conductors, just consider how innumerable the singers must have been. Later in Ezra, we learn that King Nebuchadnezzar took into captivity the 128 descendants of Asaph, all gifted singers commissioned for the rebuilding of the temple. Furthermore, Nehemiah proclaimed, regarding the dedication of the temple wall, “I also assigned two large choirs to give thanks.” In Psalm 68:24-25, David gives us a clear picture of worship in the sanctuary when he pens, “Your procession has come into view, O God, the procession of my God and King into the sanctuary. In front are the singers…” (NIV).
In the Now
Some of you are undoubtedly thinking, “With all due respect to our Levite brothers and sisters, it is the year 2007 and we are not living in the days of brass cymbals, harps, lyres and lutes.” I could not agree more wholeheartedly. Old Testament practices are long gone and are widely viewed as ritualistic. The New Covenant does certainly abolish certain ancient traditions and provide access for all to the throne room of the Almighty. It is important, however, to acknowledge that when God gave King David an inspired and concise vision for the building and establishment of His temple, He was clearly expressing His desire to hear the praises of the assembly. Something uniquely touches the heart of the Creator when singers join together in songs of praise to Him, regardless of the time or place.
In more recent years, the role of a choir in worship has become somewhat distorted by the continually evolving world of Christian music. Due to the rise in popularity of “modern worship music” over the course of the past decade, the Church is finding itself in an interesting predicament. The template for worship leadership, if you will, suggested by Christian pop culture of the present day, is that of a sole worship leader, accompanied by no more than a handful of vocalists, as well as a small number of instrumentalists. Please do not misinterpret my intentions. I am all for commitment to a sense of cultural relevance. Moreover, I avidly participate in the furtherance of Christian music as a professional and consumer. I am merely stating that, when weighed against the responsibility of a music minister to equip, empower and exercise the numerous gifts within any given community of faith, the current popular face of worship in America has, unfortunately, left little room for choirs.
Lessons from the Field
I am a fan of professional football and try to attend at least one Tennessee Titans game each season. Every time I have joined the tens of thousands gathered at LP Field, I have been dumbfounded by the impact that the thunderous, indivisible cheering and rave can contribute toward victory in any given contest. It is quite obvious that practically every fan in the stadium has a favorite player or two on the field. In most cases, it is the admiration and respect for one or two players’ accomplishments that has motivated a fan to shell out $50 for a seat. At halftime, the field is cleared and the cheerleaders are given their two-minute moment to shine. It is curious to me that very few people realize that cheerleaders have been actively involved in the game from kickoff. The megaphones and glittering pom-poms intended to inspire the crowd have often been tucked away in a corner beyond the end zone—for all practical purposes, virtually unseen. It causes one to wonder, “Why are the cheerleaders even there?”
Perhaps the choir has become a similarly inconspicuous group of cheerleaders. Has the role of the choir become the somewhat gratuitous and seemingly disconnected five-minute “tip of the hat” toward singers in your church? Could it be that they simply need to be rediscovered? Is it possible that the choir is suffering from a generational identity crisis?
Sound the Cry
Throughout God’s Word, we find that the role of the singer within the Church has clearly been to sound the cry of, “Victory!” at the head of the charge in times of war and unrest. This mission is clear and present. I would suggest to you that every worship leader, minister of music and pastor should assemble singers on a weekly basis for the purpose of worship leadership. The song of victory must be proclaimed with unbridled jubilation.
Exuberant and purposeful praise makes a difference for people who find themselves overwhelmed by the battle that will rage on until our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, returns. Sitting in our worship centers each week are people who are hurting, downtrodden, diseased, broken, depressed, overworked, confused, misled, riddled with guilt, afraid, anxious, hopeless, lost, questioning, searching, longing and even doubtful of God’s existence. Nothing confounds and disarms the enemy more than collective, unified, authentic and resounding praises pouring forth from the hearts and lips of people as they worship and glorify God, the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ.
May we never forget, as well, that God inhabits—lives and breathes in, encamps about, infuses, permeates, impregnates, clarifies, purifies, emboldens, incites, quickens and moves within—our praise. As we glorify Him, we are ushered into the living active presence of Almighty God, and His Spirit sweeps over us as a consuming fervency of resurrection power. Arriving at such a place of intimacy with the Lord is, of course, what we are pursuing as worshipers.
It has been my experience that when a person who is leading in worship has developed a dynamic and thriving relationship with God, the evidence of such authentic communion is literally visible to the congregation—the presence of God is communicable.
The manifestation of God’s Spirit within one person’s experience is powerful and leaves us amazed, certainly beckoning response. Likewise, the revelation of the Father’s presence within the experience of multiple lives leaves us immeasurably awestruck and undeniably ruined. This understanding necessitates an even greater sense of responsibility, I believe, for the spiritual leaders of our churches to equip and empower numbers of people for the role of collective worship leadership.
So, in 2007, when Christian radio seems to have a prevailing influence over the stylistic preference of most churchgoers—while hymns, Gospel songs and inspirational anthems of yesteryear are being described by many as increasingly culturally irrelevant—what do we do with the choir? Does it find its place in the archives of ministry among other historical “flavor of the day” fads like flannel graph Sunday School lessons in the 1940-50s, church bussing in the 1970s, or overhead projection transparencies of lyrics for congregational singing in the 1980s?
My personal answer to this question is: re-birth the choir. Give it new life. Rediscover the value of its existence in your church and community. In fact, the choir can actually be a great church growth catalyst for you. Choir members have family members. It stands to reason that if singers are given an opportunity in your church to use their gifts in an ongoing and active way, their families may want to join them in attendance and membership.
Moreover, because of the universally amiable power of music, a choir can take the gospel of Jesus Christ to a variety of non-threatening locations and present it in an ingenuous manner. For example, it is a common occurrence for a choir to give a concert in a shopping mall, sing a few songs before a local baseball game, provide an inspirational worship experience at a compassionate ministries center, or even sing for a state government function. All of these examples and many more are opportunities afforded to choirs simply because of the power of music in society.
The choir is yet another great place for people to find a sense of belonging within your church. Interpersonal connectivity will continue to be an ongoing challenge for ministries in a post-modern society. Bear in mind that, within this small musical subculture of your congregation exists yet another small group structure. Each voice section (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) can be viewed as a small group entity of the larger choral family. If harvested properly, there is a very ripe opportunity for care, prayer, accountability, spiritual formation and biblical teaching to be born indigenously out of each and every rehearsal.
Worth the Work
Candidly speaking, yes there is some extra work involved here. Trust me: as a part-time, bi-vocational minister of music, I share in the pangs associated with countless additional hours of planning, searching for, buying and distributing new resources (not to mention the, often times, even more arduous process of equipping and rehearsing yet another group of people). The “job” of a worship leader/pastor is much easier to carry out if all that is required from an administrative and rehearsal perspective is preparing rhythm charts for 4-6 people, encouraging a team of 3-6 singers to download a short list of songs from iTunes and gathering 30-60 minutes before a worship service for a quick run-through. I am familiar with the drill. But the resulting community found in a choir and seeing the power of unified voices leading worship for your congregation makes it worth the work you put into it.
As long as God has a Church, the choir does not have to be a dusty trophy on a shelf. Alongside and in concert with the worship leader with a twelve-string guitar, praise team and instrumentalists, there is a place for the choir—a new place, perhaps a more creative and yet undiscovered place. History has proven this fact time and again: if there is a new song to sing, somebody’s going to sing it. As publishers, writers, arrangers and leaders, let us renew our commitment to the choir and chase what God has for the future. I believe we can do so with a sense of commitment to, and respect for, the past, all the while anchored by the mission and calling that God’s Word has provided.
Craig Adams is Manager of Creative Development, A&R, and Publishing LifeWay Worship Throughout his 30+ years of experience, Craig has produced artist recordings, concept recordings, instrumental recordings, radio commercials, audio for video, printed anthems, collections, and musicals for Church music publishers, as well as a handful of live music events.
Unfortunately, the choir if it exists at all, has been demoted to that of background vocals (mostly in unison, sing harmony if you can) and windows dressing. Sad, sad, sad.