All I ever needed to know I learned in the church choir.

(Or: Why your church needs to have choirs if it doesn’t already.)

Republishing this older article due to several requests:

Throughout the church in recent years, the two biggest casualties of the “worship wars” have been the church choir and the organ (and thus the organist as well). When worship committees decide to jettison “traditional” worship, that’s the death knell for the choir and organ. To be sure, sometimes they still hang around, but there’s an awkwardness to the presence of either a choir or an organ in the context of pop-music-oriented worship. The organ just isn’t as cool as the guitar, the drums, or even the synthesizers, and the choir is usually relegated to the role of an also-ran. If the “praise team” are the varsity cheerleaders, then the church choir becomes the pep club: the kids who weren’t popular enough to be picked for the squad.

What’s truly sad about all of this is that, if we are concerned with our spiritual health, we are much better off with choirs and organ than with a “praise team” or “worship team” of singers and a “praise band.” We’ll discuss the organ in the next article, but for now I’d like to focus on choirs: adult choirs, youth choirs, children’s choirs, handbell choirs, brass choirs, etc. A church choir isn’t just there to sing an anthem in the service or to lead the hymns. A church choir, under the direction of a competent, spiritual, thinking director, can teach us about much more than choral music. It can teach us about what it is to be the church, about what it is to be a Christian.

I’ve been in church choirs most of my life, and I’ve directed a few as well. Here’s what I’ve learned about the church and about life from being in the church choir:

1.   It’s not about me. There’s a reason choirs are usually robed, and it’s not because they enjoy wearing those things (they’re usually really, really hot). When everyone in the choir is in matching robes, everyone is, in effect, disguised. They are not up there as an assortment of random individuals. They are there as a unified whole. When the choir looks like a choir and behaves like a choir, they teach us how to behave like the Church: how to work together as one and to check our individual egos at the door when we come to worship. Contrast this with the typical worship team, in which each member, holding his or her personal microphone, tries his best to emote and work the room, thus drawing attention to himself. If I’m on the worship team, the spotlight is on me. If I’m in the choir, it’s not about me. It’s about the One on the throne and the Lamb, to whom all our worship is directed (Rev. 4-5).

2.    Keep your eyes on the Director. While the worship team seeks to make eye contact with the members of the “audience” (because, after all, that’s how most congregations think of themselves), a good choir director teaches his choir never to look out into the congregation, but to keep their eyes on the director at all times. This allows the choir to follow his every cue. He may take a section faster than usual, or change the dynamics in an unexpected way. From observing a well-trained choir, a congregation can learn what Hebrews 12:1-2 means: “Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith.” We need to keep our eyes on our Director at all times: otherwise, we will surely lose our way.

3.    Blend. Choir directors often ask their choir members to “blend” their voices, but few know what this means or how to achieve it. We all know what it sounds like when a member of the choir “sticks out”: it’s not pretty. Blending is the opposite of sticking out. But trying to blend in doesn’t mean each member of the choir tries to sound exactly like everyone else in the choir. The secret of blend sounds impossibly simple: blend occurs when all the members of a choir pronounce their vowels the same way. That’s pretty much it. They don’t try to disguise their voices or become someone they’re not: they just pronounce their vowels the same way. In the church, we’ve each been given different gifts. For the church to be the church, we don’t all become exactly the same: we celebrate the diversity that God has built into the church by his own design (I Cor. 12, 14; Eph. 4:10-12), and we simply tell the same story, the Gospel story. We maintain our uniqueness, but we blend, because we’re all part of that story, like tiles in a mosaic. Some churches have a staff position entitled “Minister of Assimilation.” How horrifying. We shouldn’t want to assimilate anyone or to be assimilated ourselves. God would not have created each of us unique and gifted us uniquely if he wanted us to be assimilated. Instead, God wants us to blend while retaining our God-given distinctives.

4.    The whole is more than the sum of its parts. Put several people on a stage to perform for the crowd, and you have several people on a stage. Put together a 16-voice choir (or 32, or 40) and you don’t just have a bunch of people singing together. Sixteen people singing the same song is one thing, but a choir singing a song is something more. Something happens when a collection of people learns to sing together, to breathe together, to think together, as a choir. A new entity comes into being, with its own personality and its own unique sound: the choir. Together, a choir can do things that none of the individual singers could ever do on his own. Call it the science of acoustics. Call it the “magic” of choral music. Call it unity. That’s what can happen in a church too, when we truly have the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:3-11). Scripture calls it “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

5.    Biblical worship is all about choirs. I Chronicles 25 tells of David assembling the choirs of musicians (both vocal choirs and instrumental choirs), under God’s direct orders, for service in the Temple. In Nehemiah 12, we read of two great choirs that were assembled to give thanks to God for the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem, one choir at the South Gate of the city and one at the North Gate (quite possibly the first double-choir motet in history). The Psalms are replete with dedications to “the choir director” of the Temple. Whether we are talking about choirs of singers or choirs of instrumentalists, biblical worship is characterized by choirs. The musicians who have rehearsed and who are robed and in the choir loft to sing anthems to God and to lead congregational singing are one choir, but the congregation is a choir too (one at the North Gate and one at the South Gate?). Even the organ is composed of choirs: families or ranks of pipes that sound good together (more on the organ next time). Biblical worship is all about choirs. Understanding what a choir is and does, it is not too much of a stretch to say that biblical worship is choral worship. Why would you not have choirs as the foundation of your church’s music ministry? How can one not have choirs as the foundation of a music ministry?

In worship, we are never to say, either with our words or with our actions, “Look at me!” As the angels in the Bible do, we who lead in worship are to deflect the attention away from ourselves and toward the only One who is worthy of that attention. When worship is led primarily by soloists or by small groups such as worship teams, praise teams, or praise bands, the “Look at me!” effect is almost inevitable. To be sure, a choir can be guilty of seeking the limelight too, but when a choir behaves like a choir, this does not happen. Having a biblically-literate, theologically-conversant, liturgically-sensitive choir director will ensure that this does not happen. A good choir director makes for a good choir, and a good choir makes for worship that is appropriately directed toward God rather than toward self.

I once had a fellow pastor tell me, proudly, “Our church has never had a choir or an organ, and it never will.” He went on to explain that they were designing their new sanctuary in such a way that there could never be any possibility in the future for a choir or an organ. It is almost as if that pastor were saying, “We want to do everything we can to encourage an entertainment model of worship, one in which the musical performers seek, and receive, the applause of men.” David saw fit to appoint choirs. (I certainly hope he “saw fit” to do so: God ordered him to do so.) The Hebrews of Nehemiah’s day saw fit to celebrate the greatness of God with antiphonal choirs. God saw fit to announce the birth of his Son with a mass choir of angels (Luke 2:13-14). He sees fit even now to have choirs of elders, cherubim, and saints adoring him eternally through the use of a responsorial and antiphonal liturgy (Rev. 4-5).

Start a choir. If you already have one, start more. No matter what the “conventional wisdom” says these days, choirs are not outmoded. Choirs can never be outmoded. Choirs in worship are there by God’s design, not man’s. Do we really think we can improve on his idea?

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About revjatb

I am a father of six who is trying to do his best! My interests are varied. I have one blog, KnowTea, that is primarily focused on liturgy and worship and another one, Bengtsson's Baking, that is about, well, baking! I hope you enjoy both of them, and if you have any questions, please contact me!
This entry was posted in Bible, Church, Music, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to All I ever needed to know I learned in the church choir.

  1. cap'n says:

    Eloquently stated, as usual.

    Also, worship seems not ameliorated by a recent trend of dimming the “house” lights for the praise team or sermon.

    Re pipe organs: I’m piano to the core; but, I must admit that the ringy ching of a pianist trying to loudly support congregational singing just slaps hymns up side the head. Organ, please.

  2. David Howard Pettit says:

    Couldn’t agree more… on choirs and organ in church. I believe this issue is very complex and difficult. Many factors have brought us to such a disappointing low, and I’m not convinced that our younger generations have seen the light.

  3. William Memmott says:

    I’ve have noticed that the megachurches on TV seem to be disintegrating as they degrade the organ and the traditional choir. Not at my church! We even occasionally have “a choir” of instruments. What days those are!

  4. Groa says:

    Hi. Can I have your permission to post this post on the website of the Icelandic Choral Directors Association: fik.is ?
    I think it’s an excellent post on choirsinging 🙂

  5. RevJATB says:

    Dear Groa: you certainly may. Just please provide the link to this post in your reprint. Thanks!

  6. Pingback: Bring back the organ!

  7. Don Gisselbeck says:

    Organ not as cool as guitar, drums and synthesizer?! Really? It’s almost as cool as the trombone.

  8. Victoria Wagner says:

    May I reprint excerpts in the Boston Chapter AGO Newsletter (as my Dean’s message) and in our
    church newsletter, along with the link to your post?

  9. RevJATB says:

    Victoria,

    Absolutely.

  10. Daniel O.W. says:

    Much like your “bring back the organ” article, this is also an excellent article that I plan to take back to my church! We are a transitional size Episcopal Church with a fine parish choir but I don’t feel that they always receive the support that they are due. Most churches don’t have the talent to pull off some of the music that our choir does, but yet there are those who feel that something “more contemporary” is what is going to draw younger people into our church. I try to tell people that our churches are more likely to turn people off by trying to be something that we are not. I think that mainline churches need to get it out of their heads that they should compete with the big box mega churches and focus on offering an authentic worship experience by showing full support for what they do best with the talent that they have.

  11. Angela Roemelt says:

    I’d like to translate this into German to give it to our cathedrals choir’s director and others who might surely be interested. Am I allowed to do that?

  12. JoyfulNoise says:

    Daniel, try both. Our Episcopal church benefits from both a rich traditional musical offering, as well as a contemporary praise band. Many musically inclined couples have one spouse in one group, the other in the other. The contemporary music includes words on the wall – the traditional music includes use of the hymnal. It takes work from both directors but our whole congregation is blessed by the abundance of worship music. Occasionally, all the musicians sing together.

  13. RevJATB says:

    Angela,

    Willkommen! Aber sicher, du darfst es übersetzen. Bitte das originale URL der Blogpost (wie sagt man “Blogpost” auf Deutsch?) enthalten.

  14. Angela Roemelt says:

    Done. If you are interested in the German version, send me an email. May I do the “Organ”, too?

  15. Helen Tucker says:

    Our Church is honoring our organist/choir director after 30 years. I was very touched by this article and was
    wondering if it is alright to copy it or if it is available in print that could be bought for each member. I would love for each one to have access to it. Thanks.

  16. RevJATB says:

    You may reprint it but please attribute it to me (John Allen Bankson) and mention that it was from this site: knowtea.com.
    If your choir members would like to know, I am pastor of First-Trinity Presbyterian Church in Laurel, Mississippi.

  17. Traditional worship says:

    I loved this article. I am struggling with the direction our choir is taking. I love a traditional choir and what it represents. I try to sing in the choir, but it does not leave me with a sense of joy and an uplifted spirit. I guess I need to find a place to sing, while I worship my church.

  18. Linda York says:

    As a former organist/choir master, I truly appreciate the truths you have elucidated in this article. All those same truths apply to acolytes as well. Now I am serving as verger and would like permission to pass it along to our priest to post on our church’s web-site. Proper attribution will be made. Thank you again — beautiful piece about the commonality of worship and the importance of participation in the liturgy and not “putting on a show.”

  19. Nina says:

    Hello Sir, a beautiful read and insightful too. Please may I include some excerpts of your discuss in my proposal to my church Pastor. I am the choir director in my church. Thank you.

  20. Destiny says:

    “Traditional worship”, you may find the fulfillment you’re seeking in Sacred Harp singing. It’s an American traditional folk music (which has now spread overseas to parts of Europe, the UK, and Australia) wherein anyone who wants to sing (voice quality or skill not relevant) simply comes to a scheduled “singing”, bringing their own tunebook or borrowing a “loaner” that is provided. Different singings use different books, but most use some version of The Sacred Harp, originally published by B. F. White in 1844 (although many shape note books were published in the 1800s, The Sacred Harp has retained the widest singer base). Weekly or monthly singings are generally two hours long, with all-day singings scheduled on a yearly basis (there are five all-day singings within easy driving distance of me, for instance). Singers sit in a hollow square, each of four parts in their own section (treble, alto, tenor, bass), with melody in the tenor (sung by both male and female voices). All who want to lead are usually invited to do so, choosing the song they want and beating time with their hand. The singing is loud, enthusiastic, and all of it are beautiful hymns and folk hymns, some dating back to 1600s but many from the 1800s (Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts probably make up 2/3 of the texts’ authors). Look up Sacred Harp on Youtube for some examples–the Cork Sacred Harp group has some great recordings from their Second Ireland Sacred Harp Convention.

    I find Sacred Harp singing to be very uplifting and joyful, even while singing about death. I highly recommend it to anyone who loves hymns.

  21. Rusty Broks says:

    This was a very well written article. I have been the Minister of Music at my Church for almost 10 years. We are a Southern Baptist Church and I have between 35 and 40 Choir members who sing in the traditional Sunday Morning and Sunday night services every Sunday. We rehearse for a hour and a half each week and rehearsals are well attended by my Choir Members. Our Church does has a less traditional early service on Sunday mornings which features music by a Praise Band. I must say that our Praise Band is truly presenting the Gospel in Song during the early service and not just “putting on a show”. The main service on Sunday mornings, which is the traditional service where the choir sings wonderful worship anthems and the congregation still sings great hymns of the faith, is the highest attended Service. Those involved in both morning services do strive to make them true worship experiences for our congregants, and we seek to have the Spirit of God lead us in our worship at all times. I’d also like to point out that a significant number of older Christians have joined our Church in recent years, simply because their former Churches have abandoned traditional worship and choirs for a more contemporary style. For our Church, the key has been to offer a choice of both styles of worship.

  22. Pingback: Bring Back the Organ! | Know Tea

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