In Defense of the Church Choir

A few months ago, a blog post from Jonathan gave rise to my own thoughts about musical traditions in worship.  In some ways, Jonathan and I could hardly have less in common–we are of different generations, genders, Christian traditions, geographic regions.  We come at the same topics from different directions:  he (I think) is primarily a musician who cares about theology; I am a theologian with some musical ability and knowledge.

Yet, despite these differences,that when links to his blog come through my Facebook feed, he says nothing with which I can disagree.  My hope is that he takes it as a very high compliment when his thoughts spur me to further reflection.

That’s what happened when his 9 Reasons to Keep the Church Choir Alive came to my attention a few days ago.  Again, there is nothing here with which I cannot agree.  Everything Jonathan says about choirs and their contribution to the worship of the Christian community has my hearty assent.  But I’d like to add a few (almost) completely non-musical considerations concerning why choirs are good for congregations.  These are from my own participation in choirs, and my observation of the contribution a choir makes to the vibrancy (not necessarily numeric growth) of a church.

1. The choir is an entry point for deeper involvement in the congregation.

Having moved around the US quite a bit, I moved churches a lot.  I’ve been in Episcopal congregations in seven dioceses in the United States, and I’ve observed or been a member of  congregations in three Church of England dioceses. My guess is I’ve had more than passing acquaintance with about 150 congregations over the last 25 years of church participation (and much of that within a four-year span)–more than most ordained people will engage in their entire lifetime.  Most of these have had fairly traditional choirs (some of them have also had contemporary “praise bands”).  When I’ve moved and found a new church, often the choir was the first church activity I sought out.

Unlike many other “ministries” within the church, the choir is one that a newcomer can enter at any point in the year when they turn up–all they need is a love of music (not even the greatest voice, necessarily).  The exact requirements of this ministry are “turn up and sing.”  There is no requirement of age (I sang in “adult” choirs from about 11 years old); there is no requirement that a person be baptized or otherwise have made a profession of faith.  Indeed, many larger and wealthier churches hire professional singers to fill out their ranks or take part in music where the volunteer choir needs a bit of a boost; their belief is almost never a consideration in who is asked to do this, and their presence and talent is greatly appreciated.

As the choir sings every week for much of the year, and new music is being constantly introduced, it’s easy to incorporate a new singer quickly (find them a robe and a folder). Where many other ministries can only incorporate new people a few times a year because of elections or required training (vestry/consistory terms, acolyte or Stephen Ministry training), or where people have to be vetted in some way (altar guilds are notoriously difficult to “break into), all I’ve ever had to do to join a choir was to find the director after the service, introduce myself and state a desire to join.  Usually, the response is “We meet Thursday night from 7 to 9, and for half an hour before the service starts.  Hope to see you soon!”

The choir is one of the easiest ways to deepen involvement in a congregation.  If there was no other reason to keep it, this would be it.

2.  Choir participation deepens the congregation’s theological understanding and spirituality.

Good theological texts have been sung through the whole two millennia of Christian worship.  Having a core of people who spend time not only reading, but learning, marking, and inwardly digesting these texts–and then presenting them carefully and in a beautiful and memorable form to the rest of the worshipping assembly–makes for a more theologically literate group of Christians. It is no accident that more than half of people with whom I studied in seminary, or whom I’ve taught as they prepared for public ministry, had participated in choirs at some point in their pre-ordination journey.

St. Augustine of Hippo is famously quoted as having said that the person who sings prays twice.  Churches that have choirs have doubled their ministry of prayer, because people come together to sing love and praise to God on a regular basis (and often find themselves singing their choir music at other times during the week–my place was often in the car stuck in traffic). Joining voices in this double-dose of prayer with Christians who went before us, journey with us, and will come after us, is no trivial thing.

In every church where I’ve been a member, and every church I’ve observed, there is a constant:  no matter the liturgical style, size, or demographic, a core of people who were conversant with the range of Christian thought and how it was part of their life was a hallmark of a vibrant church.  And the lack of this core is the one constant for a church that is likely to be dying (numerically, financially, or in terms of its benefit to a wider community).  Removing a choir would go a long way to eviscerating this core, and for that reason, it’s probably a bad move to think choral music in church is a good thing to cut if budgets are tight or you’re not “attracting” people.

3.  The choir is often a point of entry to other, non-musical church activities.

One thing I’ve noticed about choirs in which I’ve sung, or the choirs of churches with which I’ve become acquainted:  many choir members are  involved in a variety of other ways in their congregations.  I was involved in choir, Stephen Ministry, small group leadership, and parish profile committee at one church–and I was a “tip of the iceberg” person.  I’ve known choir members who were on vestry, served as youth leaders, ran the “Good Samaritans On-Call” group (people who arranged meals and rides to congregation members in times of need like illness or bereavement), and worked on outreach activities.  Many times, it was a fellow chorister who asked me if I would like to participate in their favorite service group.  Deciding that choirs are a thing of the past is a quick way to undermining other vital activities of the congregation.

4.  The choir director is a key source of information for the pastor and/or prayer groups.

If a choir rehearses for two hours one night a week, and a half hour before the Sunday service, the choir director gets to know some of the congregation’s most active members in a way that the pastor may not.  Two and a half hours a week for nine months out of the year (given that most choirs take a break during summer vacation) is a lot of time for one person to spend with 15 or 20 very active congregants.  Often, it is the choir director who knows first if a singer is ill, has a family concern, or is going through major changes at work or home–and (with permission) can convey the need for prayer, a phone call, or pastoral visit. Because (as mentioned above) choir members are often also involved in other areas of church life, something going on in a chorister’s life may not only affect Sunday music, but can have a knock-on effect in other areas of the church’s work.  A pastor who decides that the choir is not valuable has eliminated a key resource in caring for his or her flock.

5.  A choir can accommodate as many people as want to be a part of it–every time it sings.

Unlike some other church ministries, choirs are flexible in how many people can join–and it’s almost always a matter of “the more the merrier”.  And everyone who is a chorister can participate in every service where the choir sings.  That’s not true of most other liturgical ministries:  only so many acolytes or lectors are needed each Sunday, and a praise band can’t have 20 or 30 people (most choirs would be delighted to have that many, and would find a way to seat and robe them all if that became a “problem”).

Non-liturgical ministries are also often numerically limited:  governing bodies are often size-limited by canon law; there are only so many slots for Sunday school teachers, and having more adult youth leaders than young people begins to raise some questions about a congregation’s realism concerning its priorities. But there is never, to my knowledge, a good reason to limit the number of people making a joyful noise while singing the Lord’s song.

6.  Choirs create opportunities to meet Christians outside one’s own congregation.

Because the size of a choir is not limited (apart from how much space there is to accommodate all the singers), there is the possibility of joining with choirs from other congregations (I’ve been in choirs at diocesan festivals, ordinations, consecrations, confirmations), and even outside one’s own denomination.  Annually, while I was in Delaware, each church in our area was invited to send a SATB quartet to form a large choir and join forces with the local orchestra in a major choral work.  One year, it was the John Rutter Magnificat–one of the first North American performances of the work.  One year, it was the Faure Requiem.  I sang with people from local Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, Mormon, Roman Catholic, and probably other churches I can’t remember.  We let the music unite us.

These are opportunities for Christians of different denominations to celebrate what binds us together, rather than haggle about what separates us.  Greater ecumenical understanding–that we all may be one–is a positive value to which choral singing can make a significant contribution.

Again, Jonathan’s blog has all the right musical reasons for keeping choirs alive.  But it’s always about more than the music.

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