A Case for the Church Choir

Chorus America, a nationally-known advocacy, research, and leadership development organization that supports the choral art, has written much on the benefits of singing. Most recently, an article came out in June of 2019 that lauds the benefits of singing for a lifetime. After first reading this article and the major findings of the story, I was very encouraged by the increase in choral participation in America.[i]

            At the same time I was reading this article, I was discussing with friends across the nation about the continued decline of choirs in churches all over the nation. I don’t want to list the myriad of reasons why choirs are declining in our churches because they are vast and many. However, if the current Chorus America research that suggests that choral singing in America is not declining, maybe our churches shouldn’t assume that no one wants to sing in a choir. Further, with many singers actively singing in a choir, our churches shouldn’t assume that no one wants to listen to a choir either. What I found interesting, was the authors indicated that in the last ten years worship attendance has declined as well as social clubs, while choral participation has done just the opposite.

            While the article mentions the benefits of singing to increased quality of life, physical health, greater activity in their churches and community, and stronger relationships, I want to focus on a few items that I think stick out to me as it pertains to why church choirs should be an integral part of the intergenerational church:

  1. 43 million American adults and 11 million children are singing in choirs today. A total of 54 million Americans.

             Please remind me why naysayers say no one without white hair wants to hear or participate in a choir? In fact this research suggests that having choirs will increase participation in any organization e.g. community, school, or church. The researchers also find an increase in participation to 17% from 14% since 2008.

  • The key to lifelong singing is starting when children are young

            The findings, either school or faith communities that have graded choir programs, see the greatest number of students who will become lifelong singers. I’m convinced that churches that cease to invest in fully graded choirs from pre-school through students will never have a strong adult program.

  • Having a choir might actually increase your attendance in your faith community

             In every church I’ve been a part of, the music ministry participants are among the more faithful and more committed to corporate worship. I believe people are more committed when they have a place and reason to serve.

            The National Congregation Study, a research project from the Association of Religion Data Archives, has conducted several research projects related to congregational life, including data related to music ministry. The original study, conducted in 1998, has since been replicated four times for the most current data and compared.

            In the initial data collected in 1998, choirs were present in over half of all US congregations. In latest research “wave” conducted in 2018-19 the percentage of choirs in worship had decreased 12 percent in twenty years to just over 40 percent of congregations. Not an encouraging sign for those who value the choir in worship. Here is a snapshot of the data trends in the study:

  1. Churches with choirs are more likely found in churches in the southern United States.
  2. Theologically moderate churches are more likely to have choirs than liberal or conservative or evangelical churches.
  3. Black Protestant churches are the most likely to still have church choirs at 75 percent, followed closely by Roman Catholic churches.
  4. White liberal congregations are more likely (47 percent) to have a choir than white conservative/evangelical/fundamentalist churches (34.3 percent), but both are at least a third behind Black Protestant and Roman Catholic churches.[ii]

            A few things concern me about this data. First, evangelical, white churches clearly have fewer choirs than any other religious group in America. Secondly, outside of the southern region of America, fewer than a third of all white evangelical churches have choirs which lead in worship. Where have all our choirs gone? Our white, conservative, evangelical churches have clearly moved from choir-led worship in favor of band-led, praise team only worship services because music in worship services certainly hasn’t lessened in importance. The percentages, which have made a downward trend since the 1998 original study, suggest this trend will continue.

            Before too long, there will only be a handful of white, evangelical churches still using the choir. This trend concerns me because I believe there is no greater way to involve many people in worship leadership outside the choir. Sure, an overly polished, slick sound is perhaps better achieved with a few of your best musicians, but the Lord has certainly called more than a few very talented people to serve in worship ministry. It is essential for the skilled to sit alongside the weaker singers of all ages to encourage, inspire, and help so all may work together for the glory of God. We must work together to push for authentic worship leadership which is modeled for the congregation.

            While having a choir or not does not indicate whether or not your church is intergenerational, I believe our churches have deeper problem. Our churches have failed to remember that the church should be made of people from varied and diverse backgrounds, various ages, and skill sets. When we fail to recognize that relegating worship leadership to a select few today will result in no new worship leaders tomorrow, we’re short sighted. When we get rid of a fully orbed music ministry for all ages, we don’t have the opportunity to start this “discipleship of unity” early in the spiritual formation of the kids and students, the future worship leadership of our churches.

             I have to wonder if one of the reasons evangelical churches are seeing a decline in church attendance is linked to the decline of church choir mentioned in this study. It makes sense to me that the more people are committed to serving in worship leadership, the more they make church attendance a priority. Further, 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 model unity as the Body of Christ in worship leadership. Let’s not abandon them.


[i]https://chorusamerica.org/sites/default/files/resources/ChorusImpactStudy_SingingforaLifetime.pdf

[ii] Mark Chaves et al. “The National Congregations Study (2018-2019.” The Association of Religion Data Archives. https://www.thearda.com/Archive/Files/Analysis/NCSIV/NCSIV_Var341_1.asp

The Value of Community in the Church Choir

Communitya group of people who have a sense of common purpose for which they assume mutual responsibility, who affirm their interconnectedness, who respect each other’s differences, and who desire to see each person and the whole succeed.

Choir- A choir is defined as a group of any combination of singers that provides vocal leadership in corporate worship. The choir may add vocal support only to congregational singing but also may engage in proclamation ministry through choir music alone, which is music designed to be performed with several voices on each part. In comparison to a vocal ensemble or praise team which typically has fewer singers, a choir, for the purposes of this study, must consist of a minimum of twelve singers. Generally, the choir is placed prominently on risers or in a choir loft but not front and center on the platform area. The individual choir participants are not vocally enhanced through the use of microphones.[i]

            I firmly believe that because the music ministry of any church is so visible due to its weekly leadership role, the choir is one of the most visible models of intergenerational behavior than just about any other ministry in the church. The music ministry is a unique community of artistic believers who, because of the nature of making music in a group, must yield their own preferences to whole in order to achieve a unified sound and spirit. Any person who’s spent any time in a choir or instrumental group will tell you the importance of unified tone for blended multiple timbres into one homogenous sound. It’s a perfect picture of the Body of Christ in community.

            While I’m certainly not opposed to contemporary expressions of worship with a few singers and a few instrumentalists, I cannot think of a better picture of community than choir and instrumental groups in a music ministry. In these ensembles participants with high levels of talent sit beside those with less training and work together to make sure the whole group succeeds. In intergenerational worship ministries, those of all ages have the opportunity to serve alongside each other, each seasoned singer or player helping the young musicians “learn the ropes.” An intergenerational music ministry allows everyone the opportunity, no matter the skill level, to participate.

            Most leaders of churches that are intergenerational usually have a philosophical reason to value them. Even those leaders that are naturally intergenerational still value that the generations are worshiping together in their church. When I asked why these leaders, who already serve intergenerational churches, value not only having an intergenerational church, but having a choir that is intergenerational, they responded with the following answers in rank order:

  1. The choir reflects the age diversity already present in the congregation

      Over 70% of those interviewed stated that they simply want the choir to be a generational reflection of what is already present in the congregation. The choir is one the most visible ways to involve multiple generations in the worship service. What other ministries outside of worship involves the youngest and the eldest members of the church simultaneously on a regular basis?

  • Older and Younger Members should learn from each other

       These leaders have identified what I call mutual submission or mutual learning. Young people bring excitement and enthusiasm, which is contagious. Likewise, the older members can pour into younger members the wealth of knowledge they’ve gained along the way. Each generation must learn to be respectful of all as the intergenerational church learns how to live in community.

  • It’s Biblical

You may be surprised to hear that only 20 percent of those leaders I interviewed even mentioned the biblical model for intergenerational worship. Of the 20 percent, the leaders overwhelmingly were older Millennials and leaders from Generation X. My research questions did not allow for why this was the case, but my thought is that our younger music leaders are being encouraged to consider the biblical model because they grew up in the “worship wars,” and are beginning to receive some training in college or seminary, whereas older leaders never were taught many years ago why they should be intergenerational, because there was no need to.[ii]

            Unity in purpose and unity musically are essential for any choral group. Unlike a solo singer, who has great latitude when singing, choir singers must subdue their own 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 in community 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.

            The choir has the opportunity to pave the way/model intergenerational behavior throughout the rest of the church. The choir must work together to overcome music style differences, traditions, and preferences in order to lead in worship. Because they are the leaders who must strive for unity musically, choir members are in a strategic position to model unity for the rest of the church. We leaders must teach the biblical mandate to worship together or we’ll lose our focus on the why. Failing to have the “driving” factor of biblical precedent as our guide seriously diminishes the value of intergenerational ministry in the first place. 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).         

            Becoming intentionally intergenerational is pragmatically a good idea also. We need future leaders, we need to learn from each other, but intergenerational philosophy should be guided by what the Bible says. In short, pragmatism is the nuts and bolts of intergenerationality, but philosophy should be the wrench.


[i] William T. Whittaker, “Exploring Characteristics of Choral Ministry Within Georgia Southern Baptist Churches Committed to Intergenerational Ministry.” (D.M.A. dissertation, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, 2015), 3.

[ii] Ibid., 53.

I’m a Champion of Intergenerational Worship Because of My Grandfather

If you asked me what life event compelled me to be a champion for intergenerational worship, I’d quickly tell you it was my singing in the adult choir in my home church next to my grandfather while in high school.

When I was fifteen, I had just felt the call of the Lord to vocational ministry. I was hungry to get some experience learning, watching, and singing in an adult choir since this is what I wanted to do with my life. My grandfather, who had always sung in our church choir, personally contacted our minister of music asking if I could sing with them. In fact because I was only fifteen, he agreed to bring me home after choir practice each week. I was honored to get to sit next to him in the choir and to get to see a different side of him than I did normally. I met some other great giants of the faith in our church and we worshiped together while making music and sharing life together. Little did I know how significant this experience would be for me, because honestly, in the early 1990s it was normal to know and experience worship with all ages.

My grandfather was a great singer, but not a music reader. He was, however, what I would call a great functional music reader. He knew basic rhythms and could follow his part very well. His tonal memory and retention were excellent. He used to kid me that with my music reading skills next to him, he became a better musician himself. Of course having his approval meant everything to me. He’d invested so much in my own life; I was honored I could even invest in his in some way.

My favorite memory during those years singing with him was during a particularly difficult choir rehearsal. We were working on a difficult passage and our music minister kept stopping us constantly. You could tell my grandfather was getting a little frustrated, and I was too. We were sight-reading so it wasn’t familiar to us yet. I’ll never forget what happened next because I can still remember distinctly to this day. He said to me, “You know, we’d get this the next time around if he’d just let us do it again.” This stuck with me and I remembered thinking, “I better remember this so I don’t frustrate my own choirs.”

Fast forward several years and I’m directing my first church choir while in college. We’re reading a new piece and there were tricky parts and I started stopping every measure or so to correct. I could hear the deep sighs in my choir room and immediately I was ushered back to that moment when my grandfather’s voice echoed in mine and said, let them do it again–pick your battles–it’s frustrating to start and stop all the time. I’ve tried to mend my ways—you’ll have to ask those I lead if I’ve gotten any better over the years!

Fast forward to today. I think about my years singing with my grandfather often. It was one of the sweetest and formative times in my life. I learned what it meant to BE in a church choir and the community building it affords. I learned as much, if not more, than the adults during that experience. While I was already a good singer and sight-reader, I learned more about relating and interacting with adults than any other time in my childhood, which has benefitted me as a worship pastor. The tenor of my home section loved that I brought vitality and singing skills, but their investment in me was unmatched. I’m still benefitting.