(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?