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?

Look At His Glorious Cross

Look at His Glorious Cross
Here is the gateway to Heaven
Opened at last for the lost;
See such a price for the sins of mankind,
And His love is paying the cost.
Towering over history
Look at His Glorious Cross.

When the storms had swept the crowds away
And each left with their own fears,
The truth could not be seen through hate
Or through the disciples tears
For who could know redemption’s plan
Had just been realized?
And soon He would be risen,
And men would turn their eyes.

To Look at His Glorious Cross,
Oh, Look at His Glorious Cross,
Here is the gateway to Heaven
Opened at last for the lost;
See such a price for the sins of mankind,
And His love is paying the cost.
Towering over history
Look at His Glorious Cross.

I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold;
I’d rather be His than have riches untold;
I’d rather have my Jesus
Than anything this world affords today.

Jesus the price for the sins of mankind,
And His love is paying the cost.
Towering over history,
Look at His Glorious cross

The Voice Divine

 

Image
The voice

 

The human voice is such a beautiful piece of engineering…intentionally designed and curiously placed between mind and heart…how can it NOT be used to glorify the Creator that made it for His pleasure?  Singers, of all types, should not hesitate to raise up a sound from their bellies that rushes past the heart for flavoring and detail, intersects and mingles in your voice box with your mind’s thoughts, and exits your physical instrument for both the enjoyment of the Creator and for His purposes as your offering enters the ears of believers and non-believers alike in order that it may infect their minds and hearts.

To use such a gift for anything less than to elevate one’s or other’s existence(s) is a tragedy of waste.

Likewise, singing composed of impurity and evil will equally infect the hearts and minds of listeners.

From Our Heart to His; A Worshipper’s Preparations for and Reflections Upon Corporate Worship

“The Forsaken One”Forsaken(18)
Psalm 22, Mark 15:34-35
Week One

For many years, I have loved times of reflection upon the crucifixion of Christ more than I have loved times of celebrating the resurrection. Don’t read me wrong, I am forever grateful for the resurrection! That single act affirms everything Christ said, did, and will do. Hallelujah!

However…

Being invited, with others, to corporately reflect upon the death of an Innocent….how can I not be moved? Being asked to admit, with others, that the death of this Innocent, was all because of and for us…how can we not be emotionally stirred and thoughtfully reflective?

My pastor, Rev. Chris Justice, will be preaching a series of messages throughout March regarding Christ’s moments of physical, mental, and emotional anguish as He experiences tragedy, mortality, and the consequence of sin. He has entitled the series, “The Forsaken One”; a direct reference to Christ’s declarative recitation of Psalm 22. You can listen to Pastor Chris’ sermons by clicking here.

Today in worship, we offered:

“Crown Him (Majesty)”, Chris Tomlin
Listen here

The mind/heart/soul connection for me:

“Awake my soul and sing of Him Who died for me.” The heady lyrics of this song pummel any mind that cares to focus on each word as the lips form and expel them for the purpose of audible declarations of truth. It struck me that this particular line was an attempt by the composer to say to the person singing, “Soul! Wake up! Do not be lethargic in this moment. Someone died for your peace. Engage with Him! Sing!” Personally, when I see worshippers attending worship service, leaning on chairs with posture that is anything but engaged, or sitting with an obvious look of disconnectedness while the congregation sings of the death of God’s child, it causes angst in my spirit. “Awaken soul! Engage with the One who made you for His engagement!”

“O the Blood”, Gateway Worship
Listen here

The mind/heart/soul connection for me:

“The blood, it is my victory.” I know what my life would look like had Christ not offered Himself for me and had I not accepted this offer and pledged my allegiance and loyalty to Him. Nothing in me, that is good, is because of me. It is all because of the blood of Christ and my baptism in His Spirit. It is not humiliating for me to admit that I am nothing outside of Him. Because I know Him, this admission gives me an extreme amount of comfort that is indiscernible by this world.

“Oh what love, no greater love, grace how can it be, that in my sin, yes even then, He shed His blood for me.” When our pastor’s wife, Becky Justice, sang these words with the choir, I was reminded that I know who I am and that I am in the ongoing process of knowing Him. When I consider the One who fully knows Himself AND fully knew me before I ever was…man, I smile when I sing these words. Amazing love! When I was an unabashed sinner, saying, doing, and thinking horrible things, Christ, knowing these things, intentionally laid Himself upon an instrument of fatal tragedy. Why would He do that? Because He wants to own me forever. I want Him to own me.

“Speaking Out of Turn”, Max Lucado, Donna Rodgers
Dramatic monologue

The mind/heart/soul connection for me:

Excerpt from the script – ““To take away the sins…” I’d never thought about those words. I’d read them but never thought about them. I thought You just, I don’t know, sent sin away. Banished it. Just like You did to the demons…just like You did to the hypocrites in the temple. I just thought You commanded the evil out. I never noticed that You took it out. It never occurred to me You actually touched it–or worse still, that it touched You.

That must have been a horrible moment.. I know what it’s like to be touched by sin. I know what it’s like to smell the stench of that stuff. You remember, don’t You? You were the one who found me. I was lonely, I was afraid. Remember? I felt so confused, so desolate. Sin will do that to you. Sin leaves you shipwrecked, orphaned, adrift. Sin leaves you abandoned…”

I reflected during this moment of the script, “Is that how I think about my own sin? Do I think of it as a stink? Am I so aware of sin that I can feel it when it “touches” me? Or am I so accustomed to my sin that it feels like my own skin and I’m completely unaware of it. When is the last time I REPENTED of a sin rather than pout over the effects of someone else’s sin?”

“Day of Darkness”, David Hamilton, Deborah Craig-Claar
Listen here

The mind/heart/soul connection for me:

This song is a beautiful poem dressed with a beautifully haunting melody. The poem, curiously, leaves Christ in the tomb. It leaves the listener (meaning, someone actually listening; someone wrestling their inner thoughts should they be at war with the Spirit and His moment, even while seated in worship) to reflect upon the despair of that day…that specific moment in time when Christ was taken from the cross and laid in the tomb. This song does not resurrect Christ as most of the songs in our worship tradition do. It leaves us with the imagery of His body in the tomb, a lonely hill punctured with an empty cross, and a dreary raw Creation. I admit, I am guilty of romanticizing Bible stories like this one. I need songs like this that help me to engage cerebrally and emotionally. I have a vantage point as a current day Christian that those first Christians did not have. I can look back upon Easter as one with a complete, printed, and leather-bound Bible accompanied by years’ worth of Sunday morning messages, Sunday School lessons, Easter suits, and large congregations declaring exuberantly, “He is risen! He is risen indeed!” But what must it have been like to stand there that day, not having these things, and looking upon a bloody cross, a drained and mutilated body, and having experienced the raging of the earth and sky?

Oh what a Savior…

Where Have All the Choirs Gone? (Part I)

traditional choirFor as far back as I can recall, I have sung in choirs; more specifically, church choirs.  From childhood to today, I have many distinct and pleasant memories of my participation in these structured musical communities organized around some form of transcendent purpose within the framework of Christian corporate worship or community enlightenment.  I would go as far as to say that in many ways, it was through these experiences with choirs and  church choirs that I formed my paradigm of worship, ministry, and choral conductorship today.

As a child attending Bolivia Baptist Church, I clearly remember standing before a gathering of adults, singing with other children and pantomiming the words, “If I were a fuzzy wuzzy bear, I’d thank You, Lord, for my fuzzy wuzzy hair.  But I just thank You, Father, for making me…me!”.  I loved it!  Thank you, Mrs. Sandra Johnson, for teaching and directing us so that we could have that opportunity!  It is one of the few memories that I have from my days at Bolivia Baptist.

children choirAs a youth attending Faith Baptist Church, a split from Bolivia Baptist (gotta love my Baptist roots!), I remember enjoying a variety of musical styles and relationships while singing in both the youth and adult choirs.  Thankfully, I had received an exception from the adult choir director, Rev. L.V. Walton, that allowed me to participate in the adult choir in spite of my age.  (I was about 14 years of age and most members in that choir were probably 40+ years old.  To this day, I will occasionally make the very same exception for other young singers simply because of the exception that I received.)  After being granted the exception, I began attending Wednesday evening service at Faith Baptist simply for the pleasure of attending the adult choir rehearsal that followed it each evening at 8PM.  Thank you, L.V., for providing light to a dark season of my life!  I can still remember singing on the back row between Mr. Willetts and Henry Crisco.  I also still remember Mrs. Margaret pulling me to the side in one of the small rooms just off the stage (that always smelled like old sheet music and hymnals) to share with me her secret for singing when sick:  suck on a lemon wedge.  She had one with her that morning, already cut, and wrapped in a paper towel.

When visiting my grandparents’ church, Town Creek Christian Church, I was allowed to sing in their choir on the rare occasion that they would have one.  The church was Pentecostal and their visible and verbal expressions of worship were always so exhilarating.  I loved singing the song, african choir“Get all excited, go tell everybody that, “Jesus Christ is King!””, while seeing and feeling the congregation’s and choir’s combined excitement.  And when the tambourine came off the shelf inside the pulpit where the preacher, my Uncle, stored it…watch out!  That was a sure sign that we were on the cusp of a Holy Spirit inspired frenzy! 🙂

Throughout my days in college, and serving at Howard’s Creek Baptist, Christ Community Church, Hickory Grove Baptist Church, and Lee Park Church, I have participated in, developed, and maintained strong choral ensembles.  They transcended style and/or demographic and always enriched any non-church event or corporate worship experience.

So, where have all the church choirs gone?  Why do they seem to be disappearing from our church culture, a culture that once found them plentiful and prominent?  As in most searches for answers to problems, there is probably not a singular reason.  In fact, the disappearance of church choirs may not even be the actual problem or, for some of you reading this, an actual problem at all.  What if this shift is simply a symptom of the problem rather than the problem.

What if the question is posed this way:

What has occurred within our understanding and practice of corporate worship services that has contributed to a general diminishing or absence of a once prominent element of participative congregational worship?

What!?!  You’d rather answer “Where have all the choirs gone?” 🙂  Stay tuned for “Where Have All the Choirs Gone? (Part II)”.