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?

Constructing Worship Teams with Honor & Heart

Life Arts Worship Team

 

I find myself in a season of building & strengthening worship teams at my church. This task encompasses musicians, vocals, technicians, and various production roles. It is a delicate team task that requires honest prayer, purposeful decision-making, lots of patience, collaboration, & the willingness to take risks with & for people. If you’re a worship leader, music minister, worship pastor, and you’re in a similar season of ministry, here is a list that is helping me at the moment:

1) Choose honor over production quality.
Honor the Lord & honor His church in your decision-making. How? Pray for God’s team design to be clear to you. Pray for His discernment when seeking teammates. Then choose to build by His design from the “natural resources” around you…the LORD put them there! DON’T set out to build according to a video from Hillsong, Passion, or Jesus Culture, etc. I LOVE these videos…but they are not necessarily reflective of where you are, where God wants you to be, or who God has brought to your church. What is He doing where YOU are? I detest McChurch mentality in worship service and team design.


2) Choose heart AND talent.
Too often in our production driven culture, we overlook the absence of “heart”…that nearly undefinable ingredient that we know is a requirement of authenticity in worship. It is oft imitated through cleverly chosen words. It can be tricky to discern. Ask the right questions and learn to listen. Don’t pursue the WOW that doesn’t pursue God. Demand both. There are artistic believers out there that possess both heart and talent. Sometimes you may have to look past the present display of the talent and seek the potential for the talent…and then be willing to invest in it so that it reaches its potential.


3) Choose to partner in patience rather than to pester toward perfection.
When you’re building new teams, there are going to be bumps; mistakes, awkward moments, missed targets, etc. The teams are composed of members who are assigned specific roles. Of course there will be some bumps and misses as members learn their roles, then learn how their roles fit with other teammates and their roles. Be patient and learn/teach together. Do not succumb to a sense of defeat or exasperation that comes with setting uninformed expectations and failing to meet them. Additionally, be prepared to receive LOTS OF OPINIONS from others…informed and uninformed. Everyone’s a critic…including you and me. Take them in stride and remember 1 & 2. Partner with your teams and its members. Get to know them. The REAL them. This TAKES TIME. Do not allow yourself to feel rushed. Fast growth is not typically sustainable NOR good growth. Neither is “organic growth” good. Be intentional. Nurture. Invest. Be willing to inconvenience yourself with and for each other.


That’s all I have for now…the inspiration hit, thought I’d share it while it was on my mind and in my heart. If you have other tips, please share! I’d love to read them.

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)”.