“When she said that to me . . . Well, if there were a fruit basket of the Holy Spirit, let’s just say, ‘I was not in the basket’!” Those words from a good friend in ministry made me laugh out loud because I have been there. You have, too. We all have been there.
I must rely on the power of the Holy Spirit not to punch somebody in the throat!
You know what tempts me to walk in the flesh? When someone intimates or outright states that some function of my music ministry is merely a result of unthinking tradition. “Well, of course you like classical music; that’s what your parents taught you to like.” Or “Of course you like historic hymns; you went to Bob Jones University.” Or “Of course you have a church choir; that’s what all you fundamentalist churches do.” That type of statement, while true in essence, is actually a passive aggressive insult. And I must rely on the power of the Holy Spirit especially during those times not to punch somebody in the throat! At least figuratively. Actually, my personality is to use words more than fists. What I really want to do is fillet them with my sharp tongue rather than relying on the Sword of the Spirit to do its job.
Yes. I have a church choir. A thriving, growing, serving, and ministering church choir. There are a lot of older folks that sing with me. Their generation understands commitment to a cause. And they often have more time to give the Lord at this stage in life. But there are young families, singles, and teenagers, too! My church choir operates as an oxymoronic Small Group. (God has placed me in a larger church; so my choir isn’t small.) But what I mean by that is we pray together, apply and discuss Pastor’s sermons, serve each other, and bear one another’s burdens as we live the Christian life. And we sing. Oh, boy, do we sing! Every week, the bulk of our time together is spent uniting our spirits through the unification process of rehearsing choir music.
Don’t tell my boss, but the truth is I am much too lazy to go through the headache, trouble, expense, and emotional drain that church choir is without some pretty good reasons to exist. And I believe there are some very good reasons. But first let me “build some fences” before I posit some reasons for church choirs.
My pastor is currently preaching through Romans. The last several weeks we have spent in Romans 14. I am aware that the church choir, as a program of the local church, is a “form,” not a “function.” That is, the method of using a church choir is not an indispensable function of God’s Holy Church. It is merely a form that helps us accomplish the essential function of worship.
For some churches, a choir is not a possibility. For some, it is not wise at the moment. When and where the choir sings in the service, on what day they practice, how often they sing during the month, how much music they sing—these are all forms. The ways of doing choir are as varied as the churches that God uses for His glory. But for churches with this capability, there are several philosophical reasons why I believe the church choir is a valuable part of a healthy body of believers. Notice that I said “valuable,” not indispensable.
And I don’t mean to ignore the working of the Holy Spirit. Of course, excellence in music performance is a separate track from effective ministry. We all have seen highly successful musical performances that fall flat spiritually. And we have all experienced spiritually effective ministry that was not musically strong. One of my stated goals of music ministry is to encourage high levels of both! But, though they are inextricably linked, they must often be assessed separately.
Why does it have to be “either/or”? Why can it not be “both/and”?
For years, I have taught in my church music philosophy classes that a church choir, done well, is essentially a large praise team. And a praise team, done well, is essentially a small choir. Some of the “worship wars” was really nothing more than one side setting up a straw man by mis-defining some quirk or tenant of the other side, and then proceeding to knock it down. If the church choir is merely performing, not leading the congregation in worship, it does not serve a spiritual function. Yet the same can be said of the praise team. If the praise team is merely performing, not leading the congregation in worship, it does not serve a spiritual function.
Those of us in music ministry must always ask ourselves: 1) if we are not ministering effectively because we are not skillfully utilizing the tools of performance; 2) or if we are merely performing, not ministering, because we have ignored or de-emphasized the spiritual purpose of our performance; 3) or if we are achieving that right balance of using the skills of public performance to accomplish spiritual ministry?
Therefore, the discussion of church choirs in the context of “Do you have a praise team or a choir?” can be the logical fallacy of a false dichotomy. My pastor is famous for saying, “Why does it have to be ‘either/or’? Why can it not be ‘both/and’?” Obviously, in matters of righteousness, you cannot have “both/and.” But in matters of wisdom, there is often an element of truth contained in both sides. A wise person will seek truth and not seek merely to win an argument.
So, then, it really doesn’t have to be “choir or worship team.” As I stated above, the function is worship; the form of choir or worship team is not as important. “Why, then,” you ask, “do you have a choir and not a worship team in your church?” And the answer is simple: I can minister to more people through the form of church choir than worship team. May I make my point and illustrate it with a story?
I asked the pastor about changing the format of the church choir to “audition only.”
In my first couple years of directing a church choir, I had a lady with autism in the church choir. She was about 30, but functioned at the age of a 10 or 12-year-old. She was sweet and pleasant. And, incredibly, she memorized almost all of the choir music after singing through the song only once or twice! But she had some quirks that made folks uncomfortable. She loved to sing high notes. Only she didn’t sing them well. The folks would never say it, but the truth is we were all concerned that she would make the choir sound bad by screeching and hooting the high soprano part. And I knew that, while she had a pleasant sound in the lower and middle registers, she probably was never going to be a good first soprano.
So I asked the pastor about changing the format of the church choir from “open enrollment” to “audition only.” Before I could even explain myself and make my case, he knew exactly why I was asking the question. He said, “Would you rather have her singing in the Catholic Church?” I was silent because the answer was obvious. Then he said, “She loves to sing. She needs to minister in the body of Christ. You need to make it work. That’s why we hired you.”
That short, blunt conversation (which I doubt that pastor even remembers!) profoundly shaped my philosophy of volunteer church choir. My primary goal is not to build an excellent musical ensemble. My goal is to provide a vehicle for my church family to worship God to the best of their abilities. So I will continue to strive toward their level of musical excellence. But I will not harm one of God’s little ones to achieve my musical goals. And I will make church choir an inclusive ensemble. While I enjoy church choirs that sing at a higher level, and I would not fight with anyone who chooses a more “chamber choir“ type ensemble for their weekly worship services, my choirs tend to be more democratic. That is, “of the people.”
Practically, the smaller the ensemble, the more competent the musicians must be. Since the praise team is smaller by nature, it, of necessity, must be made up of only the strongest musicians. It is exclusive. It is so ironic to me that “stuffy, old church choirs” have the reputation of being musically elitist. When in reality a praise team must be musically elitist to be successful! The church choir provides a place for any church member to offer a “sacrifice of praise” through music in their local church. And that leads me to my first point.
The church choir provides a place for average musicians to serve.
There are a few people in every congregation, small or large, that have had music training or have high levels of innate music talent. Like my wife, God has just given them a special gift of a lovely voice and a keen sense of pitch and communication. Or, like me, they have studied music and practiced to the point that they can use their voice effectively and communicate through the language of music. And, of course, every congregation has some folks with very little music experience. But the truth is, the majority of the congregation is somewhere in between. They enjoy music, they are decent contributors to a musical ensemble, but they do not necessarily possess the skills or talents to be a soloist. The church choir is the ideal place of ministry for most of us in this category.
The church choir provides a place for music education.
The volunteer church choir is the ideal place for music education in the church. It is true that music education is not a function of the church of God. God’s people should be able to worship effectively without a degree in music! Music reading, however, is a helpful tool for God’s people who use music every week to worship Him. Making familiar songs fresh and exciting and certainly learning new songs is much easier when one can at least “follow the dots.” If the volunteer church choir is run well, there will be a certain amount of music education involved.
Some choirs are more systematic in their presentation of music reading skills. I tend to be more random. And “random” is another word for sneaky. Is it possible to be “spiritually passive aggressive“? By that I mean that the whole time I am saying to the choir, “We are all just learning this song together. Just jump in and do your best, and you will catch on,” I am really sneaking in small doses of music reading, music history, and, most importantly, Biblical music philosophy. (See point number three below.) I do teach systematic and thorough basic music reading skills on a cyclic basis for those that want the class. But the “feel” of the weekly church choir rehearsal is that we are just there to sing.
Essentially, I want my volunteer church choir to be the midpoint between unrehearsed congregational singing and the more polished presentation of the soloist or small group. The average church member can minister in my church choir. That is, if they’re willing to sacrifice the necessary time and follow the directions of their animated (“wacky”) choir director.
The church choir provides an ideal place to reinforce a Biblical music philosophy.
It is true that I do some teaching to the congregation from the pulpit during the “worship time.” But there are two reasons why this is not really my most effective time of sharing what the Lord has placed on my heart. The first is that the congregation is very focused on the product—worship. While some instruction, preparation, or background is sometimes vital, I try to keep that to a minimum so that the vast majority of our time is spent actually worshiping.
The second reason is that every pastor I have worked for is very jealous of the time constraints of the weekly worship service. God has been gracious to allow me to work with pastors who understand the importance of worship and who let me spend some time encouraging God’s people in worship. But preachers want to preach. And every second that I spend explaining, instructing, or telling a story, is one second that I am taking from his preaching time. I have never viewed this as a competition. I mean, honestly, you want a preacher who loves to preach, right? Then it would be silly for me to chafe against the fact that he wants me to start the service on time, and to be conscious of the timing of each element, and to be efficient in the transitions between those elements.
All that to say that congregational singing is not the most effective time or place for me to teach Biblical music philosophy. The very structure of church choir rehearsals allows for this. We focus intensely for seven to ten minutes on a song. But then folks need a break. They need a moment to sit back and focus on something other than dots on the page or the vocal skills they are developing to communicate that particular song effectively.
This is the ideal time for me to teach how to feel about Christian music through spiritual encouragement (“preaching the text of the song”), stories, or specific references to scripture. Again, these times are short and focused, rarely more than two or three minutes. But I can honestly say that most of my teaching of a Biblical music philosophy is in the positive context of “Let’s talk about why this is a great worship song.” Rather than the negative, “Well, I’m certainly not going to listen to THAT music!”
The church choir should lead the congregation in worship, not just perform music.
The church choir, as a good praise team should, leads the congregation in effective worship. And I don’t mean just music. The church choir models giving attention to the pulpit. They model arriving early so that they are prepared for worship. They model enthusiastic participation and flexibility (like when Pastor changes the order of service, or when technology fails us). Maybe most profoundly, that worship is intentional. By its very nature as an unrehearsed ensemble, congregational singing feels spontaneous, even when it is carefully planned. But there is little doubt in anyone’s mind that the church choir has chosen a song, rehearsed a song, practiced the presentation of that song. They also take their job of presenting each song’s Biblical truth very seriously. This is a wonderful model of worship for the congregation.
The church choir gives church members an opportunity to offer a sacrifice of praise.
The church choir insists that people sacrifice their personal preferences and goals for the good of the group. This is a beautiful spiritual skill to learn and practice. I realize that a “choir” could have a very different goal, purpose, and style. However, traditional choral excellence is achieved by diligence. These Godly disciplines of submission and hard work are a great opportunity for choir members to make a sacrifice to the Lord. The author of the New Testament book of Hebrews directly connects the Old Testament “sacrifice of praise” specifically to our vocal praise (Hebrews 13:15). And the local church choir is an ideal place to live out that opportunity. I keep using the word “opportunity” because the very definition of a sacrifice of praise is one that we make out of joy, not out of obligation.
A healthy church choir is a microcosm of the church itself.
God designed humans to sing. One of the great joys of life is to sing with other people. And we as Christians have more cause to sing because we know the Source of music! Secular community choirs are not dying. It is silly to me that some churches are taking a pragmatic approach to their music programs by eliminating choirs. A healthy church choir is a microcosm of the church itself. Usually about 10% of the church population, they tell me. While there is cost—in finances, in administration, and in time—there is much to be gained by nurturing and growing a church choir for the Lord’s service.