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Are Choirs Dead?

Over the past decade it’s been no secret that church choirs have declined. The domino effect of Covid and the closure of choral publishers will be the final nail in the coffin for choirs as we have known them.

Choirs are repeatedly mentioned in the Bible so no, choirs will not die. Instead, they’ll (have to) transform to fit the culture. In fact, many choirs have been transforming naturally over the past several years to stay alive and current, but now the stragglers will be forced to change or they’ll cease to exist.

Today we see two types of choirs have emerged:

Performance Choir: This group typically rehearses and performs a choir anthem every Sunday while the congregation sits and listens.

Praise Choir: This group is little more than a large praise team who leads the congregation in contemporary worship music.

Of course, there’s overlap. Praise Choirs may occasionally perform a new praise song or provide background vocals for a soloist, and the Performance Choir may lead the congregation in hymns from the hymnal.

Even before Covid the Performance Choir’s days were numbered. Decades ago life centered around the church (as a child I recall going to church Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night with various week-long revival meetings scheduled throughout the year) and it was much easier to grow a choir in that era.

With today’s busy schedules people simply don’t have time for lengthy rehearsals to prepare for a complex weekly anthem (I remember being a part of a fantastic Performance Choir thirty years ago – rehearsal time was 100% devoted to that weekly anthem and not a thought was given to singing the hymns from the hymnal because everyone could read music.)

Lack of music education in home and school means few people can read music, further complicating the learning of those complex weekly anthems. The praise choir at a megachurch where I once worked was made up of regular, everyday people who could not read a note of music yet wanted to sing in a group. Not a single man in the choir could read music (and this was a group of at least 100 people!) This weakness was overcome with creating rehearsal CDs choir members could use throughout the week so the weekly rehearsal time wasn’t wasted with plunking out and teaching notes. Learning that week’s congregational music was all they could handle, let alone a weekly anthem.

And that’s why the traditional Performance Choir is out of the question for the vast majority of contemporary churches (and we have reached that threshold where contemporary worship is the norm) – there’s no time and now, even fewer resources. There will always be a remnant of the Performance Choir – every sizeable town will have a traditional church or three who can maintain this performance paradigm (and I’ll bet you any amount of money they have to hire professional singers as section leaders or beef up their sound with multitracks!) but most churches will have to adapt.

And after it’s all said and done, does the modern churchgoer even want to listen to a Performance Choir perform? Nope.

A few years ago I quoted a friend in my controversial article “I Hate Choirs.” At lunch, he said “Choirs are irrelevant. They perform boring, outdated music. I could tolerate boring, outdated music if it was done well, but amateur choirs usually sound terrible. You can’t expect them to sound good with an hour of rehearsal on Wednesday night.”

The 21st century churchgoer is much more musically sophisticated than his 20th century counterpart of even twenty five years ago. In those days an off pitch singer or shaky choir was mostly tolerated (did we almost expect church music to be lousy?) Perhaps the average person couldn’t even detect the poor quality.

Megachurches these days can rival and surpass a touring CCM artist with talent and production. The average person sees no point in listening to a rag-tag team of under rehearsed singers struggling to perform. Maybe that’s why there’s this trend where half the congregation shows up twenty minutes late in time for the sermon and just missing the music!

Many Performance Choirs will refuse this new, Praise Choir paradigm shift. After performing for years, the Performance Choir member perhaps feels leading, not performing, is beneath them.

Bottom Line: Choirs won’t die, but they’ll have to transform. This is a great time in history to reboot your ministry – maybe it’s time to start (or restart) a Praise Choir from scratch.

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