The Decline of Church Choirs and Lack of Unity

A few months ago I wrote an article about the rise of choral singing in America from a study from Chorus America.  If you missed that blog post, check it out here: Church Choirs Shouldn’t be Declining Because of Lack of Interest. Last week, I ran across another article called 1 in 6 Americans sings in a choir — and they’re healthier for it.
This article cites the same study, but this paragraph stood out to me:

It’s no secret that America’s social fabric is unraveling. Participation in churches and religious institutions is down. Fraternal organizations are shrinking. Marriage rates continue to decline. Voting is up, but volunteering is down. The differences dividing us seem greater than the similarities.

That last line stuck out to me. Our differences are dividing us and churches are not immune. In fact the enemy has targeted the bride of Christ, who loves nothing more than to create division. This division is contrary to the admonition of Scripture. Paul, in his letter to the Ephesian church urges [us] to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called,  with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:1-3 ESV). 

I’m suggesting that our churches have a unity problem. The decline in church attendance is doubtless linked to the decline of church choir mentioned in this study. The decline of the church choir has removed one of the most visible models of unity on display in our local churches. Week in and out, vibrant church choirs demonstrate unity in worship leadership. Further, when we get rid of graded choirs, we don’t have the opportunity to start this “discipleship of unity” early in the spiritual formation of the students. Sadly, I believe many of displaced church choir members are the reason community choirs are on the rise.

Any choral group, by design, must strive for unity in various ways. While striving for unity, our individuality must take a backseat for the good of the whole. Here’s a quick list of some areas where choirs must be unified:

  1. Vowels, articulation, rhythm, consonants, breathing, phrasing, dynamics, etc.
  2. Often, but not always, dress. Concert dress or robes often hide the individuality of each person for a unified look.
  3. Blend vocally. I included this as a separate number because listening and blending is crucial to choral tone.  In choral singing we must give up our solo tendencies to achieve unity and balance.
  4. Preferences in music or in other facets of choir ministry. Often we don’t always sing everything that we personally like. That’s okay, the person sitting next to you might love what you hate. That’s the beauty of mutual submission—loving one another more than yourself.

The list could go on, but consider this, I learned more about serving others and working together toward a goal in a choral setting than any other facet of the local church. I believe the task of moving many people toward a unified goal will result in greater effectiveness for the Kingdom.

 

You’ve Made me Learn to Love Contemporary Music

Last night I was approached by an octogenarian woman during our family night meal. She looked me dead in the face and said something to the effect of, “Will, you’ve made me learn to love contemporary music.” As I’ve thought about this over the last day, I’m starting to wonder how I’ve made her learn to love contemporary music? I didn’t realize I had that power! Sadly, I didn’t get a chance to continue our conversation because I needed to get to my first rehearsal. Of course the next time I see her I’m going to ask her, but for now, I can only guess why she said that to me—and 80-something year old woman whose church music heart-language likely does not include the latest Passion tune. However, something in the way we present contemporary music resonates with someone from our Builder generation.

While I don’t have an exact answer to why she felt compelled to stop me at the coffee bar yet, I have some guesses:

  1. Utilize contemporary songs that are biblically-rich. I refuse to put on the lips of our people songs that aren’t clear in theology and Christ-glorifying.
  2. Utilize contemporary songs where the music and text complement each other. Much has been said about this, but effective text/word painting is crucial to cementing the truth in the minds and hearts of the worshipers.
  3. Utilize contemporary songs with a hookYou all know what I’m talking about—songs with the indelible earworm. Songs that have sections that contain melodic (or even harmonic) sections that you can’t get out of your head. My current earworms are Way Maker and I Belong to Jesus (O Hallelujah). If you don’t know them, be prepared to invest lots of time hearing the song in your head. But you know what? These songs reinforce the TRUTH of who God is and my relationship and response to Him. If you listen any pop music at all, the most popular songs have hooks–and rightly so, we humans respond to them. No matter your age, a fantastic hook transcends generations!
  4. Instrumentation. I don’t think we can overestimate the importance of how the music is played and sung. A rock band is going to sound different on most contemporary songs than a full orchestra (even if you have the same rhythm section in your orchestra). We use orchestra every week and my guess is our chosen method of presentation is more intergenerational friendly.
  5. Volume. I CANNOT stress how important volume and decibel level is in a worship service. I talk at length about this in my article here: The Noise is Deafening and It’s Not My Fault!  Basically, as we get older, we get more sensitive to sound. If you want to ostracize older people, disregard decibel levels. We make very sure that we set volume levels appropriately for our worship space.
  6. Relationships. I care about the people I serve. I care about the content that God has given me the responsibility to feed them musically. My octogenarian friend probably has learned to love contemporary music because I do not lay aside our historically-rich hymns of the faith either. In fact I try to find creative ways to use textual similarities between new and old and put them together in worship services. I want all generations in my church to know that no music is off-limits based on it’s copyright date alone. By this I’m able to bridge gaps and build relationships across generational lines. It’s kind of an inter-musical approach for the intergenerational church!

What might you add to my list here?

Context and History are Vital in the Intergenerational Church

Not too long ago, I was asked to explain how our church went from a more traditional format to an intergenerational/or multi-gen format in our worship services. My first thought was, we never actually transitioned into a inclusive intergenerational format, it just happen to be who we were (and are); we just worked hard to protect that philosophy. Maybe that’s your scenario. Maybe you’ve always tried to by musically diverse, but the pull to separate services based on musical style ever confronts you. What do you do—how do you find that balance?

There are several items to consider when protecting/moving towards a multi-gen/intergenerational worship format. Because of the number of items, I will write several posts over the coming days. The first, and most important, issue to consider is your cultural context and history.

Context and History 

Every church has history; music is a big part of what binds congregations together. This history is constantly evolving. Knowing where we’ve come from and where we’re going is essential. As your community changes, your church must make strides to adapt without losing her identity in the process. Here’s what I mean:

My church has always been an intergenerational congregation.

In fact the church was what I’ve called an “organic” intergenerational congregation. As we’ve grown, we’ve had to be intentional about being intergenerational. (for more info on these terms, see Organic vs. Intentional Intergenerational Worship). This intergenerational philosophy guides everything we do. We aim to get people of all ages serving and building relationships throughout our church life. Simply, we aim to do this by asking ourselves one simple question, “how may I best demonstrate that all ages in our church are valued and important?”

Being intentionally intergenerational is certainly not easy, especially as it relates to music. Because of my background as an educator, I’m very committed to training our next generations to become worship leaders as well as giving our adults a place to use their gifts. Would it be easier to use only the most talented people in our church all the time in worship leadership? Probably, but it’s way more gratifying to me to see over 200 of our church involved in worship leadership regularly.

Our context has changed and so has our music

It’s vital that any worship leader know the “heart songs” of the church they serve. Ask around and you’ll probably get an idea of where your church has been musically. In my case my church was rooted in more traditional hymnody and gospel hymns. When I arrived, they were singing all kinds of songs from new to old, but really the song of the congregation was rooted deep in traditional/gospel hymnody. I was not surprised by this information. Our church, and the surrounding community, has seen enormous change in the last two decades. The construction of the largest mall in the state has brought countless thousands just to a 3-5 miles radius of our church. This growth demographically has had a profound affect on our church and the hundreds of people who’ve join in the last several years. Our affluence has risen. The new members were not born and raised in this church and came from backgrounds where more contemporary music was used. The question became…what do we do with all these new people now that we are all unified together in this place? How do we preserve the history and incorporate the new without losing our history? Slowly…the answer is slowly and methodically…change shouldn’t happen overnight.

When I arrived, I was charged with expanding the music ministry to involve more people and raise the level of excellence. My goal was to add to the orchestra and the choir. I was also charged with taking our deep rooted hymnody and add to that body of music, songs that our congregation will sing for years to come. We employ a choir/orchestra/praise team format that works well for us. It may seem antiquated to some since our area is full of churches who’s worship services look more like rock concerts, but I’ve found no other format in which we can involve people of various levels of musicianship to use their talents for the glory of God. In terms of excellence, I can tell you that the higher I raised the bar—the more I asked for and “demanded” musically, it’s been amazing how our folks have risen to that challenge.

Here are a few ways I have tried to accomplish this, while involving as many people from all our generations. It’s a long way from our church’s roots with a worship leader and organ and piano only:

  1. Choose new hymns/worship music with strong biblical texts, singable keys, and memorable tunes, but always celebrate the classic hymns of your church. On another note regarding new songs, it’s important for me to intentionally stay behind what some would consider the newest worship music and watch to see if the song will remain apart of the hymnody of the evangelical church. I never want to learn anything new that won’t stay around.
  2. Whatever instrumentation/vocalization enhancement we use, I make sure the congregation can hear itself sing.
  3. Involve students in our orchestra. Our most intergenerational group in the church is our church orchestra.
  4. Give priority to Youth Choir and Children’s Choirs as they lead in worship throughout the year, and also learn the skills to be involved musically the rest of their lives.
  5. Use Intergenerational Praise Teams specifically for congregational song enhancement, but not to cover up the congregation herself.
  6. Commit to the proclamation ministry of the choir. Some have done away with the choir singing anthems/specials, but this very important ministry is rooted in biblical precedent.
  7. We are committed to the most excellent offering of music we can to the Lord. We sing all kinds of music, with as much authenticity as we can. We are humbly imperfect and committed to not overproducing. We are a family—we celebrate the overly talented and the marginally talented and spur one another on in the praise of our Father.

 

 

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