“I hate choirs!”
So said a friend of mine at lunch as we discussed ministry matters. He’s your typical, middle-aged church-goer with a wife and three kids.
I could understand “dislike,” but “hate?” I asked him to explain his outburst. “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 They perform boring, outdated music. I could tolerate boring, outdated music if it was done well, but amateur choirs usually sound terrible.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.”
If my friend is saying it you better believe people in your congregation are thinking the same thing. It appears people just don’t like choirs anymore. In fact, I can’t even remember the last contemporary church I’ve visited that had a choir (and I visit a lot of churches.)
As recently as fifteen years ago you’d find a choir in the typical church, even the smaller ones. After hundreds of years of dominance, the choir has strangely had a rapid and sad decline in a very short time. What happened? Let’s look at the problems and see if we can come up with solutions.
Volunteers are too busy. Two vibrant praise choirs I know are both out in the boondocks – isolated towns away from large cities. These ministries are similar to ministries of 100 years ago when the church was the center of activity for the entire community. There wasn’t much else to do and people had more time to commit to a choir and other programs.
Today’s hectic schedules make it hard for people to be faithful to choir rehearsals and Sunday services week after week. One friend of mine, a lady in her 50s, recently told me her beloved church choir (a very hip praise choir) has gone from singing weekly to once a month. I asked her if she felt bad about it and she answered “Not really, I’m relieved. I’m so busy that the weekly commitment was almost more than I could handle.” Solution: Does your choir really need to sing every week? You might be running your choir ragged, especially if you have multiple services.
Choirs are too much work for a modern worship leader. Years ago, the choir was the music director’s main priority – finding music for, scheduling and rehearsing the group. Congregational singing required little to no preparation – the organist sight-read the four parts out of the hymnal and the pianist improvised.
The priority for the contemporary worship leader is the congregational singing. He or she spends the bulk of their time planning the praise set and scheduling and rehearsing the praise band. Then there’s creating chord charts, lyrics slides, etc. (I don’t think people realize all we worship leaders do!) There isn’t time for much else, especially for a part-timer or volunteer worship leader.
When I was a part-time music director I would have loved to have had a regular praise choir but simply didn’t have the time. When I did have a choir at Christmas and Easter I felt like I was headed for a nervous breakdown. I had to do everything myself, from juggling the schedules of 20-30 people, finding or arranging music, punching holes, creating notebooks and rehearsing. All that on top of maintaining the weekly praise set and praise team schedules. Solution: If a church wants a praise choir they’ll need to cough up some money – a frequent praise choir really requires a full-time worship leader (and an assistant wouldn’t hurt, either!)
Choir music is too hard. As schools have cut music programs volunteers are typically musically illiterate, and the last choir I worked with was no exception. Out of a group of about 150 people we had a handful of “choir people” who grew up in high school and college choirs and could sight read their parts (out of all the men in the choir, only one tenor could sight read.) Then you had a few who knew enough to sing higher when the little dots on the page moved up the lines. The majority just liked music and wanted to be a part of the group.
A four part anthem would literally be impossible, so our music consisted of mainly unison with some two and three parts. The choir could then learn the music fairly quickly, so more of our limited rehearsal time could be spent on blending and better vocal production – and wow, did they sound amazing. Solution: Maybe your music is too hard – are you spending too much time learning complicated parts instead of working at sounding great? I’d arrange most of our music, but if I didn’t have time I had a trick: I’d buy youth choir music! These collections have simple unison, 2 and 3 part harmonies for most of the popular praise songs. Another big problem: most choral music is also way too hard for the typical praise band to play.
Choirs are performing, not worshiping. As my friend pointed out, it appears congregations today (remember, Contemporary is the new Traditional) love contemporary, participatory praise songs and aren’t interested in a half-rehearsed choir performing dated choir anthems.
Visit one of the few ministries around the country with a real praise choir and you’ll be blown away by their power. A true praise choir not only leads the congregation vocally but spiritually as well – they function as a small group, and spend time together in prayer asking God to bless their worship services. What a loss to today’s celebrity-driven churches. Solution: Learn more about the late Dave Williamson – his specialty was helping traditional performance choirs transition into worship-leading praise choirs.
Bottom Line: Since choirs are repeatedly mentioned in the Bible, my guess is that instead of dropping them, maybe we better figure out how to make them work in our modern world.