Not all churches have choirs. Why say this in an article about choirs? I think it’s an important truth to name because those of us who love choirs often assume it to be a norm in a church. While this article is mainly about choirs, the same assumptions might apply to praise teams or technology. If we are used to ensembles and equipment in worship, we may come to expect them as norms, like sermons or candles or air conditioning (not all churches have air conditioning either). So it is important to remember that some churches worship without choirs. A larger church may have a choir that, unlike thriving former years, is now shrinking; this may be a lamented “problem” that a tiny church would be grateful for.
Church choir redux
Pause a moment and note the music, images, associations or assumptions that may already be in mind at the mention of the word “choir.” If every reader sent a description of “choir” to the Presbyterian Outlook, there would be as many descriptions as subscriptions. The particulars would vary, but the common elements would likely be things like music, people, attire and worship space. The deeper common elements, often deep enough to be assumed and unspoken norms, would be things like church identity and worship ethos. Possibly still deeper would be the heart-space and heart-song elements: the weekly community of friends at rehearsal, the favorite anthem loved by choir and congregation alike, the faith and ecclesial formation. These are all true, by the way, for children and youth just as much as adults — the teenager who blooms musically and socially in a quirky artistic space, or the child who first learned hymns in choir and Bible stories in musicals. Choirs are deep waters in many churches.
In other churches, those waters may seem to be receding. We are often better at describing what a church/our church/the church used to be than what it is, and choirs – music in general, really – figure into this conversation. Our choir used to be twice this size. Our last director picked better music. I remember when we did Handel’s “Messiah” every year. We used to have tenors. Some churches maintain thriving choirs, but in other cases choirs struggle and for all different reasons. Those reasons and histories would themselves be an entire magazine issue (more than one, actually), but we don’t have to look far for some of them: declines in membership, changes in music and/or worship styles, aging members, declining spare time, declining commitment, competition with sports (or Netflix). Music is part of a church’s identity; it may be a glorious present or may seem more to recall a glorious past.
In some ways, choirs can be at the center of a church. They rehearse diligently and show up faithfully. They strengthen congregational song. They contribute stability to congregational life, especially in transitional times. Singers often serve a church in many other roles. A choir can represent a core that is more than just musical.
But in other ways, a choir may be more peripheral — or maybe liminal is a better word. Like choruses and bands in schools, choirs are sometimes a door into the community for people. Some may make their way more deeply into the church while others who – perhaps uneasy with theology or wary of church commitment – “hang out” in that special niche, which is both musical and social. We choir directors get impatient with chatter in rehearsals, but it reflects the community that is at work alongside singing. Children in choirs bring friends — and friends’ families. Youth show up for rehearsals as much (sometimes more) for their friends than for music. A crusty tenor, now dead, in the chancel choir in the church I served in Asheville, North Carolina, didn’t always get along with people well, but his own words confirmed a deeper truth: “This is my church.” I was never quite sure if he meant First Presbyterian or just the choir — it was just true.
The history of choirs in Christian worship would be a semester-long class. Just as Luke and Matthew are usually conflated into one story in Christmas Eve pageants, different historical and musical realities converge in what we may think of and experience in church choirs. The choir’s liturgical function for centuries was and has been to teach, cue and support a sung liturgy — more to sing with a congregation than for it. Along the way, it has developed a performative piece as well: the motets, cantatas and anthems that are its particular domain. Not everything that we consider a “choir anthem” started out that way: at the front of the line would be the “Hallelujah Chorus,” because Handel’s oratorios grew out of opera, not liturgy; and “Messiah” was not written for worship, but for performance at a benefit concert. The repertory and practices of choirs comes from far and wide, from many streams, traditions and purposes.
The questions of a choir’s repertory and function are really part of the larger question of a church’s whole musical identity and economy. Who sings what, and when, and why? How are musical choices made and who makes them? What are the resources (and priorities) of energy, personnel, budget and time? What are the musical relationships in the church?
Congregation as choir
Sometimes we inherit or perpetuate a mindset that sees music in the church as a “music program” of a hierarchical nature, in which choirs seem to have priority of place. This is sometimes suggested, even if unintentionally, by church websites. A “worship” or “music” link will all too often bring up a music page that only talks about choirs (often adult choirs first) and makes no mention of hymns or congregational music. It suggests a priority on music that is rehearsed and performed by a few people, rather than on music that is claimed and sung by all.
The congregation, of course, is the chief choir. The role of other choirs is to support the congregation’s song. This is because worship is an act of the community, and the central music is that of the people. It is like prayer in worship. Some prayers are spoken by pastors and others by the congregation, but all of them are understood to be congregational. In the church choir in which I currently sing, the director begins every Sunday morning warm-up, without fail, by taking the choir through the hymns first. This is a powerful message: It reminds the choir that its first priority is not its own music, but the congregation’s music. Congregations need to know this; choirs need to know it also.
Music to God’s glory
We rightly ask questions about whether music is performance or servanthood. It partly depends on what we mean by “performance.” All music is offered to the glory of God alone. Choirs and all musicians are servants first and last. In that sense, our job as musicians of any kind is always to be pointing beyond ourselves to the One who is holy. But music is by nature incarnational. All music in worship is made by living beings, with real breath and distinct voices. In that fundamental sense it, like all worship, is performed. It happens — in time and space, flesh and blood, breath and voice, water, bread and wine. We don’t pretend to be disembodied, and this is true for choirs. It is right to be grateful to God for the people who make music. It is not about those people, but it comes in part through those people. Choirs undergird and strengthen congregational music, and that is their first priority. But they do have performative moments, times where particular offerings of music are in the foreground and are blessings – blessings that are only hearable in performance, gifts offered to the glory of God. The point is not how good the choir is, but how good God is.
Worship roles and flow
We can think of choirs as participants in a drama — like Greek choruses. The chorus in ancient Greek drama mediates epic and audience: announcing, inviting, commenting. The chorus recalls what happened, holds the moment, directs our attention, probes an inner life. This is really what church choirs do because worship is a drama: story, players, emotion, action, rhythm, flow, arena. When congregations sing, choirs can prompt, teach and support; they can transmit energy and confidence, give, engage in musical conversation. Anthems may comment upon Scripture, sermon or sacrament; choral responses can announce moments of worship, inviting us to prayer or action in ways that words alone cannot.
There can be imaginative ways in which choirs play their roles in worship — holistic ways of thinking about how choirs fit into the overall pattern of worship. Do we think of worship as a sequence of separate events, with different people taking turns? Or is it a whole liturgy, a single fabric of activity, where there are different roles but not separate spheres? Whether or not a congregation considers itself “liturgical,” it is operating out of some kind of pattern or template. Ritual is always at work, in whatever dance steps a community has learned. We come to know when to expect Scripture, sermon, prayers, offering. And we come to know when we can expect to sing: a song-set at the beginning, or an opening hymn, a sermon hymn, a closing hymn. Choirs or other ensembles are part of the pattern, and they, like congregations, become accustomed to that rhythm.
Anthems often happen in the same place or places in the service. Are there other possibilities? Often an anthem’s text works well for worship’s theme, but may not fit as logically or smoothly in one spot as it does in another. Giving ourselves permission to re-locate a choir’s music can help that music be more responsive and organic to worship. The choir may be used to singing during the offering, but a particular anthem may function more precisely as a call to confession or an introit. Allowing the choir’s work to roam is also a message of servanthood, telling us that the choir goes where needed rather than claiming one particular spot. It also allows the choir to take part in different kinds of leadership, and it allows music to enliven or bless moments of worship that may not always be thought of as “musical.”
There are other kinds of choir fluidity. One is the Sunday with no anthem. Anthems are not the only measure of a choir’s ability. A Sunday of lower pressure (musically speaking) responses allows a choir to hone its musicality in other ways and to offer leadership in other patterns.
Most “radical” might be the Sunday with no choir — which, as we noted at the beginning, would simply be known as “every Sunday” in some churches. It is possible to worship without a choir. Congregations have different customs around choirs, and the more of a professional ethic or long history that a choir has, the trickier this terrain may be. I believe that a key aspect of choral singing in worship is the occasional absence of choral singing in worship. This is not a ploy for “job security,” creating fresh appreciation for a choir by withdrawing it. It is to acknowledge that none of us is burdened with total responsibility. Congregations need to know that their worship is not dependent on listening to a choir. Choirs need to know that they are not indispensable. Absence of a choir can make room for other music and musicians. This is particularly true when there are choirs for youth and children. Do we see children’s choirs as “cute” or as leaders? One way to help a congregation (and an adult choir) see them as equal musical partners is to allow them to be the choral leaders of worship — without adults, and more often than for a single “youth Sunday.” Adult choirs gain rehearsal time if there is an occasional anthem-less Sunday, while youth and children gain a fuller partnership in the life of the congregation. Adult choirs do not fall down on the job or shirk responsibility by occasionally not singing. A measure of leadership is letting others to lead as well.
Future kingdom, but present church
Marva Dawn, in a keynote speech at Montreat some years ago, said: “It’s all right if there are only five people in your choir. It’s one more than you need.” There is no denying that choirs, in many churches, feel jeopardized, diminished, or somehow outdated. There are no easy answers. Sometimes choir recruitment has never really been tried but might be rewarded. Sometimes paid section leaders can help anchor a choir’s work, and as its quality improves, so may its attractiveness to other potential singers. It may be that more imaginative ways to deploy choirs, or a wider range of literature, or a more intentional relationship between choral music and the rest of worship provides newness and energy. Maybe new patterns need trying: creating a special summer choir, or a seasonal choir (Christmas or Lent) that would have more limited commitment. Maybe the choir only sings every other week if rehearsal attendance is difficult.
While we remember the past and have aspirations for the future, we live in the present. The fact that a choir used to have 60 members will not change the present fact that it has 15. There may be grief there, but also opportunity. What can those 15 do and do well? It may not sound like the 60-of-old, but it will be the 15-of-now. New ways of exploring choral possibilities may mean changes to a church’s musical identity, but “new songs” turn out to be biblical. Through the church, the song goes on.
Eric Wall is assistant professor of sacred music and dean of the chapel at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Before accepting the call to Austin, he was the director of music for 17 years at First Presbyterian Church in Asheville, North Carolina. He is also the conference center musician at Montreat Conference Center.