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?

ef·fer·ves·cent

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
ef·fer·ves·cent19 years old, visiting with relatives for the weekend, I was seated within the sanctuary of a large church in Durham, NC. I was taking in the scene around me: men, women, boys, girls…most singing, many clapping and swaying…some running…some speaking in languages other than English…a large choir on stage with various musicians and other singers. In spite of the frantic energy in the room, I was feeling the seconds being slowly peeled away from the unknown remainder of the service.
As I sat pining for the lunch awaiting me (the only reason I attended here), I tried to distract my focus from waiting out the unyielding worship leader on the stage and began to note the elements of the environment that frustrated me, that shouted at me, “Look over here! No, look at this! Wow…have you noticed me yet? How could you have missed this one?”
The choir and musicians swelled into a key change, foreshadowing a second wind, and the congregation responded as if they were floating atop carbonated waves….”I want to be washed in the blood of the Lamb! I need a cleansing from the fountain!”
The heaviness of perfumes in the air underscored the loud garish colors shouting from the dresses and hair accessories of pious women intending to present themselves in modest dress while cajoling around the room in dramatic fashion. Men in stark white dress shirts tucked within shells of dark suits shouted and cheered. Pumping their hands and fists in the air. Shiny belts, polished shoes, awkward ties. The choir whipping up the room into a frenzy of steamy fabrics, misty perfumes, and billowing hair sculptures.
Sigh…such misguided people.
Internally, I was weighing it all harshly and with much frustration bordering on anger. Externally, I smiled and kept time with my foot patting dark carpet and one hand softly tapping a knee. This was my extent of my polite participation while my physical form sat anchored to a pew by a spirit in protest. I encouraged the steadiness of my bankrupt heart with images of chicken and cornbread and mashed potatoes.
I honestly cannot provide an explanation for what happened next. It was as if a television program’s broadcast signal was abruptly disrupted causing an entire scene from the show in progress to be lost…missed…unseen…and the signal suddenly returns, the show is restored, and nothing you’re seeing makes any sense now.
My awareness of sitting in judgement was truncated and suddenly, like a slight of hand magic trick, I find myself suddenly conscious of my body fully erect, both arms sticking up as rods towards the sky, my face turned to the ceiling, eyes pinched shut, hot tears pouring, and the sound of my voice jockeying for position among the congregation singing the words, “I want to be washed in the blood of the Lamb! I need a cleansing from the fountain! My soul is hungry, I’ve got this aching within! I wanna be washed in the blood of the Lamb!” And I knew that I meant them. I don’t know how, but I knew that these words were, and are, my deepest-to-date plea…my sudden and unexpected surrender to a Christ with Whose story I had been immersed in and fed all of my life.
Much of the remainder of that day’s events are now a blur. I can only recall being baptized at the conclusion of the service. I recall walking out of the church with new eyes, a new mind, an unfamiliar gnawing hunger, and a zealousness for pleasing the LORD that was ef·fer·ves·cent.
That was some 22 years ago. Looking back, I am amazed and humbled by my Jesus. I was attending a college I did not desire to attend. On a scholarship that I did not want. Newly majoring in a field of study that was awkward and causing me much distress. Living a life of scathingly enduring people.
Ironically, within a year’s time of that conversion, I was called into Christian ministry…worship of all things..working with people…an occasional and residing phobia. The one thing that I sat despising in the lives of others…God destined me for it.
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
‪#‎mytestimony‬ ‪#‎bornagain‬ ‪#‎spiritualrebirth‬ ‪#‎thensingsmysoul‬ ‪#‎surrender‬ ‪#‎confess‬ ‪#‎befree‬ ‪#‎loveofChrist‬ ‪#‎compassion‬

The Voice Divine

 

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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.

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)”.