The church choir has been under attack for a generation
At the church I served from 1984-1999, the youngest aged children's choir was called "Joyful Noise." And boy did they make some...along with, on a fairly regular basis, something unexpected. My favorite memory of this group is the young lady who simply rocked back and forth on her feet and, with a big smile on her face, waved continually at her family while the rest of the children sang their appointed round.The sheer joy of the singing (and waving) participants in a children's choir is easy to spot, and, for adults these days, somewhat harder to understand. It seems as if the whole generation of children from that time period, at some time around junior high school age, particularly boys, got that joy of singing in a choir ground out of them by culture, peer pressure, and, more and more, the allure of passive pursuits like watching television, playing video games, and texting. And those children are now in, or close to, their thirties...and many of them are pastors.The last thing I want to communicate is a "that younger generation!" kind of reactionary rhetoric. But the institution of the church choir, and the joy of singing in such a choir, has been under attack across the US almost continuously during and since my time at that church. Let me count some of the ways:
- Choirs are not relevant anymore
- Choirs are old fashioned
- Choirs sing boring music
- Choirs are made up of old people
Choirs became the casualties of a double edged sword: The more people (especially marketers trying to sell "hip" new products to the leadership of "contemporary" churches) said to church leadership that choirs didn't belong in the church, the more churches shifted resources away from choir ministries. As more and more resources were shifted away from choir ministries, those that participated in those ministries became increasingly marginalized. The more marginalized those that participated in choir ministries became, the less influence they had on leadership. Choirs became an "endangered ministry." Choir ministry leadership abandoned the churches in droves. Twenty plus years later, there were many towns and cities in America in which choir ministries were hard to find, if not completely gone.
We at Creator have watched...and felt...this killing off of choir ministries with a mixture of incredulity, horror, and helplessness. Surely, we thought, something as basic as the Scriptural call to "Let everything that has breath praise the Lord" could not deliberately disenfranchise any group of people who gathered to sing. Surely the desire to have someone lead a group of people who wanted to sing together could not solely be fulfilled by a person holding a guitar. Surely the longing to learn to sing with excellence was an acceptable way to "Bring honor to His name." Surely John's Revelation that he heard "every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them singing" meant that earthly choir ministries were the best possible preparation for eternity.
Choirs are Not Dead
Apparently we were right.
All of a sudden, in the last year or so, choirs seem to be everywhere:
- On television (Glee, and Sing Off, for instance)
- On the internet (Choirs are one of the most common flash mobs going these days on You Tube, and Eric Whitacre's Virtual Choir videos are well documented viral hits)
- On the big screen (the recent release of the movie Joyful Noise)
And, believe it or not, in spite of all the efforts to do eliminate them, choirs are still found in the church.
According to a study done by Chorus America, there are more than 32.5 million church choir members across the US. To put that into perspective, that is roughly equivalent to the population of the state of California. Those singers show up every week, and every week they make a significant joyful noise.
Choirs Are Communities
There are several reasons for this choir survival in the church, one of the most important of which is that choirs – whether found in churches or not – create community. As well-known soloist and choral conductor Doug Lawrence declares, “I know how encouraging, uplifting, and mysterious the human voice is, especially when joined with other human voices. There’s a lot more to it than that, though. In the church the human voice forms microcosmic communities dedicated to enriching the lives of macrocosmic institutions.”
Those choir communities are often the “biggest small group” in a church. Because of the nature of choir ministry, people who participate in that ministry are leaders in the church, be they an elder, a deacon, or the church admin. In the best choir communities, people form close relationships. They take care of each other, like Alice White, who chauffeurs her friend Flo to and from rehearsals during the winter because Flo doesn’t like to drive in the dark, or Dan Odum, who sat next to his friend Charlie for years “for the good of the choir” because Charlie had trouble matching pitches when he decided to join the choir.
Why do choir members go the extra mile? Because they are called to choir ministry. As Heather G. Stubbs puts it: “I sing with a 60-voice choir. We’ve just finished a 3-performance weekend. Exhausting but great fun!”
Vicki Carr, of First Baptist Church, Texarkana, Texas tells this story: “In our choir, we have a “special” friend, 24 years old, who has the mind of a 10-year-old. He listens to the rehearsal CD, constantly, and concentrates on learning our music with everything he has. His nice voice, and his sincere worship and love of Jesus make him a delightful, if somewhat uninhibited, choir member. Our body has taken him in; some have bought him clothes, others transport him to his group home after a late rehearsal. At the same time he touches our hearts, as he prays, earnestly, for people in his group home, for his mother, and for the underprivileged.” That these examples are not unusual is evidenced by the fact that a choir as a community who cares, and challenges each other to be better – both musically, and as people – forms the plot line to the movie Joyful Noise, which stars Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton.
Choirs Touch People at the Deepest Level
Choir is family, and together can experience God, and His blessings, in a unique and eternal way. Carr explains that when choirs sing, there is more to their message than just music: “At a Christmas rehearsal, our guest artist, Babbie Mason was rehearsing “Sweet Little Jesus Boy,” a song R__ had never heard. Babbie delivers this song with passion, and I happened to glance in R__’s direction and saw him weeping. I went over and hugged him and said, ‘you have a tender heart, don’t you?’ He just shook in my arms. His own mother would not have understood, but I did. The music and the lyrics reached him at a deep level. And at that moment, his 10-year-old mind understood something the most sophisticated scholars cannot.“ Lura Milner says: “Years later, I still hear, in my head, choir music that I have sung, and I feel a deep sense of connection to the people with whom I was singing.”
In the Joyful Noise movie, the plot revolves around the struggles a choir, and its members face, but the star of the movie is the music. In the pre-release screening I attended, it was the music (superbly written and arranged by former Take 6 member Mervyn Warren) that produced the biggest reaction. In talking with several of the reviewers after the screening, that was the common theme. The music genuinely moved people from where they were in life, to a place of praise.
Choirs Lead Worship in a Way that Is Hard to Duplicate
There is something about the energy in a worship space when a choir is there that just doesn’t happen when a choir is not. Choirs give focus to congregational singing through their joyful noise, and project an energy from the platform that can’t be duplicated by turning up a knob on an amplifier. There is a visceral connection between a group of singers and a group of listeners that is almost like an invisible force. Choirs, through their joyful (and sometimes lamenting) noise, express feelings that congregants often didn’t know they had.
In his book, Ministry and Music, Robert Mitchell discusses Kierkegaard’s model of worship in which every person present is an actor and God is the Audience. In this context he writes, “...the choir exists to prompt and enable each worshipper to worship; each choir member is at the same time prompter and individual worshiper before God.”
My own Lutheran background meant that, growing up, the choir’s place was in the “choir loft” which was in the back of the church. At that time, and for many years thereafter, I believed that placing the choir in an unseen location meant that the congregation could concentrate upon listening to the beauty and majesty of the choir’s music without being distracted by the visuals. I have become convinced, however, that a choir’s place is with the rest of the worship leadership team, to serve as prompters in worship. Seeing the emotion of the choir members as they sing their message can be a powerful ministry – and can touch even those who suffer from hearing impairment. As Elmer Crosby says: “I no longer sing...but on Sunday I sit in the congregation and worship as the choir sings.”
Church Choirs Need to Celebrate, and to be Celebrated
Personally, I have reached my limit. I am tired of apologizing for why choirs need to be in churches. (I hasten to say that at the church I now serve, there is a choir – a great choir – and both the leadership and the congregation at large is very supportive of the choir’s ministry.) If a choir knocked down the walls of Jericho, I say it is time to knock down the prejudices about choirs.
One small step in that process is for churches to intentionally celebrate choirs, and their ministries. Many churches have a “choir recognition Sunday,” where all the choirs in the church participate in the same worship service. Sometimes this service takes the form of a “dedication,” often with a commissioning liturgy, in much the same manner as a congregation might send off a missionary or a youth group mission trip. In other cases it is more of a “music is the message” event, where the choir(s) present(s) the sermon in a musical form, either by doing an extended sacred work, or several anthems around a specific theme.
National Choir Recognition Sunday
Interestingly enough, there was an “official” National Choir Recognition Sunday on January 8, 2012 (and every year thereafter). Among the people who are supporting this movement are Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah, each of whom have done public service announcements on behalf of this event.
Whether you are a singer or a director, I encourage you to go to the official facebook page for the NCRS [http://is.gd/gH6xKY] and “like” it, if for no other reason than to show the extent of your support for choirs in churches, and their ministry. The more there are, the more people who will realize that church choirs are blessing and ministering to people.
We at Creator have never forgotten that choirs have been an integral part of music and worship ministry for over a thousand years. Even though choir ministry has been under attack, we believe that the stylistic pendulum has begun to move back, and that choirs will be a significant part of music and worship ministry as we go forward in the twenty first century. We intend to continue to provide resources for those involved in choir ministry, both singers and directors, both in our magazine, and here at creatormagazine.com.
If you agree, I encourage you to lift your voice and make a joyful noise.
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