Tag Archives: unity

The Unfortunate Decline of the Choir

When I was researching choirs in intergenerational churches several years ago, I used a statistic from the National Congregations Study conducted by Chavez to make the point that choirs were still in a majority of our churches in the southern US.

See data here: https://www.thearda.com/Archive/Files/Analysis/NCSIV/NCSIV_Var341_1.asp

The original study, conducted in 1998, researched many aspects of congregational life, one of which was music in worship. In 1998 choirs were present in over half of all US congregations. In subsequent research “waves,” the percentage of choirs in worship has decreased 12% in twenty years to just over 40% of congregations. If the trends continue their downward trajectory, this number that is likely to continue to fall. Here is a snapshot of the data trends in the study:

  1. Churches with choirs are more likely found in churches in the southern US.
  2. Theologically moderate churches are more likely to have choirs than liberal or conservative churches.
  3. Politically, the churches more conservative have the lowest percentages of choirs, although right in step with the overall percentage of churches when considered collectively.
  4. Black Protestant churches are the most likely to still have church choirs, followed closely by Roman Catholic churches.
  5. White liberal congregations are more likely (47%) to have a choir than white conservative/evangelical/fundamentalist churches (34.3%), but both are at least a third behind Black Protestant and Roman Catholic churches.

Here’s what I see:

  1. It doesn’t surprise me that the southern US has more church choirs. Most of my own contacts in music ministry are fellow southerners. The study simply reports, but does not give reasons, why this is the case. However, because this is the case, I suggest we pro-choir southern worship pastors continue to bear the responsibility of using all of our folks with some musical talent in the ministry of the choir.
  2. It doesn’t surprise me that our Black Protestant churches have a great deal of choir singing. Many of our Black churches haven’t tried to bend to pop culture, but have kept church a sacred space- valuing the whole rather than simply a few, even as they are solo-dominated in their choir singing. Choir-led worship IS the hallmark of the Black church expression of worship. They have figured out the secret to keeping the choir alive. We who value the choir need to take notes from them on how to utilize the choir in creative ways.
  3. Our white, conservative, evangelical churches have clearly moved from choir-led worship in favor of band-led, praise team only worship services. I think anybody who’s been to these types of churches has seen the shift happen over the last few decades. The percentages are evidence that this trend will continue. I believe before too long, there will only be a handful of white, evangelical churches still using the choir if a change in philosophy doesn’t occur.

The trends, especially among our white, conservative, evangelical churches, concerns me. I see 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 called me to equip all who feel the call to worship ministry. It is essential for the skilled to sit alongside the weaker singers 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.

Fellow pro-choir worship pastors—let’s continue to promote the biblical merits of utilizing the choir in worship. Let’s promote the merits of unity it brings in order to build the Kingdom. Selah

Resuming Choir Rehearsals During a Pandemic- How we’ve done it.

Being a firm believer that all ages should be engaged in serving the Lord in music ministry, finding ways during a pandemic has been challenging. Since March, our church like virtually all others, has had to adapt to the ever changing challenges of providing music leadership in the safest way possible. As I’ve talked with many of my fellow worship leaders, I’ve realized there is not a one-size fits all approach. Context, location of church, demographics of the church, number of people in the fellowship affected by the virus and so on, will influence decisions related to how best to utilize your musical teams. In my next blog post I’ll explain our process of reincorporating our orchestra into worship, but I wanted to share with you about our first choir rehearsal in six months on August 26th.

The church choir is about music for sure, but more importantly, it’s about setting aside our personal preferences and working in unity to serve and proclaim the message of the Gospel. 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).  The first song I chose for us to sing in our rehearsal was “By Our Love,” a song of unity for the church. It was quite emotional for everyone in the room. This was the first time most of our people had sung outside their home or car in 6 months.

I’m a list guy; I love them. Anyone who knows me well knows that lists keep me focused. I see information better in a list than in written prose. When I email my college students at Truett McConnell reminders about what’s due and what we’ve worked on, I tell them a Whittaker list is coming! In fact most of my blog posts include a list of something. So, I started a list of things related to this first rehearsal so I would remember what happened and wanted to share my observations with you. Behold! a Whittaker list:

  1. 95 active singers on roll, 69 returned for first rehearsal. 73% rate of initial return.
  2. When I look at the 16 singers who didn’t come, I noticed health concerns (them or a family member who is immunocompromised) as the number one factor for not attending.
  3. Singers of all ages–YES, intergenerational!
  4. All wore masks when entering and exiting.
  5. Soprano/Bass had one entrance to the foyer and Tenor/Alto had another entrance. The middle of the foyer was blocked off by rope and hand sanitizing machines. The folders were laid out for retrieving. Each entering should wait on the 6ft markers on the floor to enter.
  6. Each person was given a temperature check before entering.
  7. 75 (actually 80) minute rehearsal. One 10 minute “quiet” break after 30 minutes of singing where I did some encouragement (devotion) and announcements to let the air clean.
  8. Use entire floor of sanctuary spread out 6-10 feet apart all around each singer unless next to family member.
  9. Told we would mask entire rehearsal, but sang one tune without masks (which we recorded to use next Sunday morning for worship). All but one sang this song unmasked. In fact I got the impression from the affirmation that the singers there would’ve been fine to remain unmasked through the entire rehearsal.
  10. I asked those who were most uncomfortable singing without a mask to go to the back of the room, since the back of the choir seems to be the “safest” place to sing right now.
  11. We had HVAC going strong. One benefit in our room is that we have a large surplus of AC tonnage because of our stained glassed windows that emit much heat. You can literally feel the air moving in the room when you’re in it.
  12. The distance all around, the HVAC, and the large room with very high ceilings, basically mimicked an outdoor singing space.
  13. When we did sing with masks (90 percent of time), the sound was greatly affected. Maybe 40% of the sound gets out of the masks. Little dynamic shading or articulation of text possible, which is already hard with a room as “live” as ours is. Not a fan of the masked singing, neither were my people.
  14. The live room and the masks muffling sound made it hard to hear each other, which also contributed to dragging tempi on lyrical tunes.
  15. Normal types of masks caused glasses to fog up when singing for long periods of time. The alternative for a very few was to just use the mask to cover the mouth, and some did that.
  16. I think no one would’ve come to our rehearsal had they been truly “scared” to get COVID. The risks of singing are very well-documented so the choice to come was in spite of that risk. Therefore, I tried to mitigate the true risks with HVAC and distancing; the use of masks is a added barrier of protection.
  17. General consensus was rehearsal was a WIN! I want to skip a week before we meet again, primarily to make sure no one gets COVID.
  18. At our next rehearsal (two weeks from this rehearsal) we will also record one or two songs for use in worship. Tentatively, I would like to start separating my group into 2-3 teams and use them on Sundays beginning second weekend in October if things continue to trend downward. Not sure about mask use for that service or how we’ll mic them properly with our orchestra, but I’ll cross that bridge soon.

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Here is a snapshot of (most of) us recording our song for worship. Four generations present, worshiping and encouraging each other–what a blessing!

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?