Where Have All the Choirs Gone? (Part II)

It was in the 1990’s through the early 2000’s that I began to notice the trend of the disappearing church choir. Looking back upon those years with an eye on the current music landscape, I am compelled to believe that the now less prevalent presence of choirs is linked to a time when I was becoming aware of a newly prevailing and divisive concept known as “worship style”.

As an adolescent, I was already painfully aware of the cultural conceptualization of “style”. My Mama regularly shopped at a store in Wilmington, NC named Piece Goods. She made quilts…and she made our clothes. When the popularity of a style of shorts known as “jams” moved to the East Coast of NC, my mother’s answer to my request for a pair of jams all my own was to present me with a pair of homemade jams. My jams, instead of being purchased from stores featuring curated patterns and styles, were lovingly designed and made by my mom. Wearing those shorts carried a weight of shame for a shallow prepubescent status seeker. 🙂 Deliver me!!!  The desire for popularity sought through “stylishness” is timeless. “Style” is life.micrphones

As a faithful church-attender from childhood through adulthood, I was also aware of the religious conceptualization of “worship”.  Attending both Baptist and Pentecostal churches, it was easy for me to observe that there were forms of worship that were near and dear to these two denominations. In fact, it wasn’t just these two denominations that had their own particulars when it came to their worship services. Prior to pulling into any church’s parking lot, one could easily ascertain what experience awaited them behind the doors of the church by simply taking a look at the church signage. “Baptist”, “Methodist”, “First Baptist”, “Episcopal”, etc. were all categorically distinguishable and definable experiences. The forms, the liturgies…all fairly consistent from one congregation to another. Somewhere along the way though, the wheels came off and religious forms intentionally took upon themselves a less than subtle cultural style…and the battle lines were drawn.

In hindsight, looking back to 1993 when I was a young and newly hired “praise and worship leader”, I suppose adopting a paradigm of “worship style” as opposed to “worship form” was an easier transition for me than for others.  After all, bouncing from Baptist to Pentecostal experiences allowed me to become kind of amphibious in regard to each church body’s “culture”. In one, I was going to sing strong and meaty hymns that were intended to teach me doctrines and ideas about doctrines. In the other, I was going to sing engaging and lively hymns that were intended to excite me as they expressed  relational ideas about me and God. I loved both experiences and often found myself wondering why it had to be “either or”. But it was in 1993 that I would begin to discover the bigger and far more intricate issues evolving from and around the combined religious and cultural concepts of “worship” + “style”.

Prior to my filling the post of “music director”, “choir leader”, “minister of music”, or “praise and worship leader”…(or whatever the title may be in your church)…I was already vaguely familiar with the concepts of liturgical worship vs. non-liturgical worship and of the categories of charismatic worship vs. non-charismatic worship.  And though the contrasts between these concepts and categories are easily discernible, there are also some important shades of overlap, of shared similarities that should be noted for the purposes of this particular article.

The similarities that provide necessary context for this article are:
1) Historically liturgical & non-liturgical/charismatic and non-charismatic services easily accommodate the effective use of a choir.
2) Historically liturgical & non-liturigcal/charismatic & non-charismatic worship services are a reflection of a congregation’s shared theological understandings and agreements.

In that context, I will simplistically define a church choir as a subgrouping within its own congregation. It is a subgrouping comprised of people who share the same theological understandings and agreements of their congregation…but they also like being in a community of singers who rally around the idea of shared experiences through vocal song.

Now back to the year 1993. For me, that is when the categories of “contemporary” and “traditional” worship styles ripped through the congregations of the Bible Belt.

The debates that were birthed from the ideologies of “Worship Style”, “Worship Evangelism”, “Seeker-Sensitive”, “Cultural Relevance”, etc. were typically caustic. They rarely led to anything besides toxic divisions within a faith community as congregations were forced to grapple with words and reasonings that were interpreted as personal attacks on one’s history, preferences, families, and values. Many a well-meaning church leader attempted blends, differing schedules, restructuring staffs, creating worship formulas and flows that would “make everyone happy”. Bookshelves in Christian bookstores were loaded with tomes regarding biblical worship, worship teams, worship training, worship resources.

Back in those days of transition, educating, and restructuring, I used to receive a consistent number of calls and emails from church leaders searching for someone that “could lead worship AND direct a choir”.  At the time, these churches were (and I paint with a broad stroke here for I can only make an assumption based upon indirect experience and conversations with these churches) struggling through the transitions of redefining themselves as “contemporary” or “modern” in their worship style. And that transition was bringing an increasing awareness and gravity to the question of, “What shall we do with the choir?”

Now well past the heat of the “worship wars”, the faith community has collectively resettled themselves around modified religious categories and cultural concepts that provide their specific faith communities with necessary contextual connections that reflect their particular congregation’s shared body of agreements and beliefs…whether theological or not.

Those of us who went through the now decades old “worship wars” that once blazed fiery hot,  still note among the casualties the once ubiquitous church choir. Remember that subgroup within the congregation? By and large, they are no longer an assumed element within a church’s shared worship experiences. Somewhere along the path of debating and remaking, increasing numbers of congregations new and old ultimately decided that the church choir, like pianos, organs, orchestras, etc. was “ineffective”, “irrelevant”, and likely “a dated expression of worship”. Whether these are fair or justified assessments, they were the general results of evaluations and reviews completed long ago.

Why was it the case?

Maybe it was a budget issue.  Choirs are not “cheap”.  There is a degree of financial obligation on behalf of the organization possessing a choir. It costs money to consistently (and legally) perform at a certain level of effectiveness and quality. And embracing new expressions of worship required reengineered budgets for many churches. New audio, video, lighting, music collections, staff were not cheap. A common question was, “Where can we cut so that we can afford?” Choir was not likely an initial financial cut. But I could make the case that the decreasing effectiveness of a choir was symptomatic of new budgets which were a reflection of shifted priorities. Inevitably, if you introduce enough new circumstances into an organization’s environment you will introduce circumstantial strain that requires adaptations that may simply be outside the organization’s ability to grasp. And without appropriate direction and leadership to assist with the necessary adaptations…there is implosion.

Maybe it was a lack of interest within a church’s congregation.  Choir membership does require a good deal of personal commitment.  There are rehearsals to attend, performances in which you must be present, musical and spiritual concepts that must be learned and, maybe memorized for later regurgitation in an engaging and artistic manner.  There are varying communal requirements and expectations in regard to dress, use of resources, special event participation, etc. And these are all in addition to a person’s “normal” participation within the greater church and happenings their personal lives. New songs, new ways of singing them, new staff members with new teaching methods were all necessary components of a church’s move from one worship form to another worship style. “New” equates to “change” and “change” is a taxation on a person’s commitment and interest.

Or…maybe the loss of a community within a community is a peripheral and compounded result of the church’s misguided passion to reach the lost by haphazardly changing directions that unintentionally took them away from shared core values, core beliefs, and core language and towards decisions and practices that created values, beliefs, and language that subtly undermined their good intentions.

I have been involved in worship ministry since I was 19 y/o and I can’t begin to describe in this one post how drastically and rapidly church music has changed from then to today.  Looking back, I believe we may have pursued goals at the expense of effective congregational worship.  Allow me to clarify with this one summation…if a volunteer church choir can’t participate in the church’s community worship service, a congregation may very well struggle to participate, as well. That’s a broad stroke…I know. It’s a big generality. I know. BUT…any informed answer to the question, “Where have all the choirs gone?” will likely lead to the strikingly more meaningful question, “What did we change that led to the extinction of this community within a community?” Did choirs disappear from the planet? Good gracious no. They are still everywhere…just not so much in church anymore. (And yes, I know that some churches still have vibrant choirs. How? Why? Those are other posts 🙂 )

It’s time to bring this stream-of-conscious rambling from a 41 year-old worship pastor to a conclusion. I have service plans to create and a stage to design 🙂

So…am I saying that a church MUST feature a choir in its corporate worship services?  No, I suppose not. There is no doctrine that dictates such a feature in our worship services. But I would still ask the questions “why?” and “why not?”.

I encourage young worship leaders who are embarking on the adventure of serving their church through the arts to intentionally strive to provide thoughtful answers to these broader questions:

1)  Is my church’s worship service built upon or around the presence or absence of specific skills, talents, people?

2)  Is my church’s worship service built upon a specific vision or philosophy?

3)  Why have we chosen to entrust specific people, skills, talents with the influence that comes through the provision of our platform?

4)  Why have we not allowed specific people, skills, talents to be on our platforms?

5)  Is there a guiding mission each time our church gathers to worship?  (I hope there is more to your response than, “Yes. To worship God, of course!”)

I guess, after all of this article is said and done, my main concern is not in finding a church with or without a worship leading choir.  My main concern is that we appear to be returning to a day in the church’s past when worship services were conducted by a subgrouping of the religious elite. The rest of the congregational community  was encouraged to participate by their attendance alone. Research the history of church worship and you’ll find a good bit of what I reference. These “wars” are nothing new. It may be time for another impassioned struggle within the church regarding its shared values, beliefs, doctrines?

Where have all the choirs gone?  They’re in the marketplace…in community theaters…in schools…in fact, they’re still in our congregations. Is that where they should be? Why? Why not?

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