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?

We Are Home OWNERS!…but not really.

My wife, Vince, recently shared some very big news regarding our family. WE PAID OFF OUR HOUSE THIS WEEK! After nearly 15 years in this home, our first home, we made our final mortgage payment this very week.
Pulling into my driveway this week has been more satisfying than my normal “home again, home again, jiggity jog” elation that arises once I have completed a full day of living outside my home and in my community. I am thankful and grateful that my wife and I have accomplished this milestone together. I am thankful for our gracious God who led us here (yes, He led us to this property one seemingly random day as we drove, nearly lost, in Mecklenburg County) and, after almost 15 years in this structure…serving God, living for God, believing in and holding to God…a lot of life has happened. Marital strife, financial roller coasters, family drama, love, birthday parties, Christmases, tears, fights; you name it…this house has seen it. When a man loves a woman, and they work at becoming ONE…well, it’s a force of nature and an act of God. Marriage is not about my sexual attraction to or emotional enjoyment of Vince. Those things are simply what sparked the intrigue of the concept. And here we are, 20 years later, going strong and paying off our house.

But despite the really cool feeling of knowing that I don’t have a mortgage payment to make anymore, instead of wondering, “what’s next?”, I remember and savor the following experience.
Shortly after moving into our new home on Branthurst Drive; the structure, the door frame, the occupants were prayed over and anointed by Dr. MA Thomas. He was a great missionary, visionary humanitarian, and the inspirational founder of Hope Givers.
I considered it a distinct privilege to have Dr. MA Thomas in my home and praying because he had left a memorable imprint on my life a few years prior to this moment when he had stayed with Vince and I in our Cornelius apartment for a weekend while visiting North Carolina. I remember having to almost fight for the right to host him because there was another family at my church (a wildly financially successful family) that wished to host him, as well. Their position on the matter was, “We cannot host this great man of God in an apartment when he can stay in our lakeside home.” In my immaturity, I despised the comparison and the desire to have Dr. MA Thomas in my home became more of a competition than an offer of hospitality.
In God’s sovereignty, not through my efforts (as I thought then), Dr. MA Thomas stayed with Vince and me and that visit was instrumental in shaping my growing faith. While with us, he would spend 2 to 3 hours per morning in our guest room…praying. He would be on the floor, facedown, seeking God and praying. I thought, “how in the world does he have that much time or that much stuff to pray?”
Fast forward to the prayer over our present home; I remember that as he was praying and anointing our home with oil, he authoritatively asked God that our home be set apart and that, by His power, it be found useful and effective in the ministry and mission work of God.
Back to his stay in our apartment:
During his stay with us in our apartment, I had asked Dr. Thomas about my observations regarding his prayer life and the time that he spent praying and meditating. He said, “Allow me to start with an observation of my own.” (People from India and England always sound so poetic and wise…I feel like a bumpkin when talking with most of them) He shared that, on his visits to the US, he was always struck by American’homeownerships appetite for and relationship with their houses, yards, wealth. He said that he did not understand why they could not see how much time that their houses and their possessions required of them. When staying with gracious hosts, he would note how much time was spent by his hosts in maintaining yards, maintaining cars, keeping rooms cleaned, picked up, dusted, organized, etc. From his observations, he sensed that one would never reach a place of inner contentment because they would always be seeking more to own which would result in more to do.
I have never forgotten that conversation. I have never forgotten the vision of him praying in my apartment for what seemed like an excruciating amount of time. I have never forgotten his mighty request of God regarding my home and my family. It was as if I was living the Mary and Martha story of Scripture.
So when I pull into my driveway of my fully paid for home, I remember that it is set apart. And though Bank of America no longer owns it with Vince and me, we do not own it either.
It has been a place where much ministry and mission has been accomplished and birthed.
In closing, I must add that my wife, who is a financial genius, has managed our finances well. She is the closest thing to a Proverbs 31 I will ever know and see. She gave up her culture, her family, her “identity”, to become Mrs. Lanier. You’ve done good, baby. You’ve done real good.

So now we are mortgage free and I know that, in part, it is because God honored Dr. MA Thomas’ prayer that day. But I also know this: In the eyes of Heaven, I am not entirely debt free. No, I owe Him. All to Him; I owe everything. So, as for me and my house…we will continue to serve the LORD.

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.

No Matter the Circumstance, Focus on the Goal

While reading 1 Samuel 16: 1-13, I began to ponder ministry and goals. There are times that my attempts to adhere to God’s instruction while working to accomplish the work that He has given me to do feels a lot like what Samuel’s experiences may have been in this chapter.

Long story short; Samuel receives an assignment from God, goes to Bethlehem as instructed, gets excited about the first son that he lays eyes on (though God did not name him as He said he would) and then proceeds to go through each remaining son, one by one, taking who knows how long, until at last he asks the question, “Is there anyone else?” Ah…there is. And finally, “mission accomplished”.

It is interesting to me that God chose not to dramatically shorten Samuel’s process to accomplish the goal. God could have said,”Go to Bethlehem. You will find David in a specific location. Anoint him.” Why did He not do that?

Instead, Samuel goes to Bethlehem, invites Jesse and his sons to a religious service, gets hyped by the first son he sees, learns that he’s wrong in his choice while getting a lesson in allowing human characteristics to cloud Kingdom-vision, proceeds to evaluate all remaining sons, and then has to ask if there are any others remaining before he finally arrives at the correct son, David.

I don’t know the answer to the question, “why?”. I am positive that there is an answer. Maybe Jesse needed to see all his sons reviewed prior to David being selected. Maybe Samuel needed his own heart checked since he was recently seen mourning God’s rejection of Saul. Maybe the leaders at the service needed to learn something by their presence at this event. Maybe all of these things and more are the reason. Again, I don’t know. What I do know is this: Samuel did not stop until the work was completed. He knew what he was there to do. He did not know how long it would take. He did not know how the work would take shape. He DID know what the end result was supposed to be. So he went son, after son, after son, after son, after son, after son, etc. He endured the awkwardness of “No, it’s not you. No it’s not you. No it’s not you. No it’s not you.”, etc. He received instruction. He asked questions. He gave instruction. Whatever it took to accomplish the goal, he did it. Once it was done, he was onto the next thing.

So what mission are you on for God? Are you enduring the process while keeping your eye on the goal? Are you strategizing as you encounter circumstances that appear to thwart the goal? Will you remain committed though you may not always see the answer right away? Will you endure though the experience in the moment may not appear to be achieving anything tangible?

While doing His work we are being instructed, tested, developed. We are having an impact on others (seen or not, understood or not).

1) KNOW the goal.
2) Be INTENTIONAL.
3) Be FAITHFUL.
4) Do not allow EMOTION to dictate when the DIRECTIVE is clear.

God knows what He is doing.

Ambition and hope

acorn1I have found that ambition and hope propel me forward in almost all situations. My ambition drives me to reach my fullest potential. My hope fuels that drive because I dare to believe the goal is possible and within my reach. Ambition and hope have brought me to a significant cross roads in my life. It is heavily impressed upon me that I must stop, ponder, and then choose how to proceed; forward, or to the left or right and create a new “forward”.

I am struggling with the decision. Back and forth, my mind weighs possibilities, my heart stretches and compresses with emotion, and my understanding of faith and God’s will is taxed. Information is sought, examined, weighed, and usually found wanting. It is a decision of faith that I must make. Is there enough information that can be gathered to make a decision like that? Faith is “hope in things unseen.” Maybe it can be done. At least in a calculated manner. I don’t know.

I admit that I find great inner-value in this struggle. It is through this type struggle that I receive insight into who I am and who I am meant to be in Christ. I am forced to ask myself the questions, “What do I really believe about ministry among God’s people? What do I believe about God’s will for my life and the community in which it exists? What or whom motivates me to strive, achieve, serve? What is my ambition and what would satisfy it?”.

So the praying, seeking, and weighing continues.