The State of Choirs in the Modern Worship Landscape: A Holy Discontent

Last week I led a one-day gathering of worship leaders and/or choir directors in Atlanta that we called a “choir/worship ministry intensive”. 27 people (from 20 different churches, 10 states (and the UK), six different denominations, big congregations, small congregations, and from worship ministries that utilize a choir and ones that don’t) gathered for an amazing time of worship, fellowship, teaching, conversation, and learning.

If you’ve been wondering why this blog has been so quiet recently, now you know why! 🙂

We were exploring together the challenge and the possibilities of cultivating growing, thriving, worship-leading choirs in the modern worship landscape that finds choirs dwindling at a rapid pace. Since our time was short, I encouraged us all to “cut to the chase” and share openly and honestly with each other what we were experiencing in our own congregations and worship ministries/choirs. There was a lot of encouraging stuff to be shared, and also a lot of challenges across the board.

We came from different places, with different stories, different strengths, and different weakness. But fundamentally, we were all there for the same reason. And that reason was this: deep down in our hearts, there is a level of what Bill Hybels calls “holy discontent” about the way things are. And in particular, the way things are in our worship ministries. And even more specifically, the way things are when it comes to choirs, the direction that choirs are headed, and where we find ourselves in 2017 when it comes to a fairly pronounced divide between choirs and contemporary worship.

We’re not happy with the way things are. We think there must be a better way. And we’re looking around – saying to ourselves “am I the only one who’s thinking this? Am I crazy?”

This gathering answered that question: no, we’re not crazy. A lot of worship leaders and choir directors are struggling with the same things and asking the same questions.

This “holy discontent” about the direction of choirs in modern worship has been building over several decades in my life. And it still surprises me, to be honest with you.

I’ve seen choirs that are extinct, or dead, or hostile, or performance-minded, or divorced from contemporary music (with occasional awkward family visits at Christmas and Easter), or dwindling and grasping at straws. And something finally broke inside of me. I couldn’t take it anymore.

So I began to pray the most heartfelt prayer of my life: “God, you’ve got to make this work”. God, in his sense of humor, had placed me as worship director for a church with a history of a vibrant choir ministry, which was now at a place of transition.

So obviously, I needed help. And there were many moments when I had no faith, mostly because I knew I had some significant weaknesses. But instead of making me into a worship superman who can somehow do everything myself, God began to put people around me who had gifts and strengths that I don’t have, who could help me begin to turn this “holy discontent” into fresh vision.

And as we began to pray about what exactly we were “discontent” with, some things began to surface that had boggled my mind for years:

  1. Good singers who would NEVER consider singing in the choir
  2. Good singers who (like me) can’t read music, so are ruled out of the choir
  3. A culture in the choir (and the choir room itself) that screamed exclusivity
  4. A choir that could sing a French Requiem, or a Bach cantata, but looked at a four-part harmony of a Chris Tomlin song like it was a poopy diaper
  5. Services in which the choir and band play a game of musical ping pong
  6. A choir that spends 95% of its time working on an anthem that takes up 5% of the service, and doesn’t contribute much (either sonically or visually) on the other music, resulting in a dynamic which finds the choir MOST engaged when the congregation is LEAST engaged, and vice versa
  7. A pronounced white-ness and grey-haired-ness of choirs. Could there be more of a spread of ages and ethnicities?

And I just can’t take it anymore. God has stirred up a holy discontent within me – a contemporary/non-classically trained musician, lifelong Anglican, preacher’s kid – and many others too. I’m realizing that there is a growing contingent of worship leaders and choir directors all around the world who are desperate to see if there isn’t a way that in the mainline protestant church and beyond, we can’t see God breathe new life into the idea of a choir.

(Sidebar: I’m not the first person to ask this question, by a long shot. This has been the topic of countless articles, books, and even conferences for quite some time. Sidebar over.)

We all know that the odds are stacked against us…

The National Study of Congregations (Duke University) showed that in a 14 year period, between 1998 and 2012, the utilization of choirs in mainline protestant churches dropped 30%. And from what I’ve seen – in the last 5 years, that’s continued to drop.

Some churches strong, growing, stable choirs. That is the exception, not the norm. The trends are downward.

(Now a quick timeout: how is this conversation any different than, say, a conversation of organists and/or organ enthusiasts, bemoaning the dwindling utilization of organs in worship? Another traditional hallmark of classical music and more formal worship. What’s the difference? Are we just holding on to a relic? Are we just trying to re-arrange deck chairs on the Titanic? (And for the record, I love the organ, and we use it every Sunday at my church.))

Here’s why:

Because a choir provides the Church a unique demonstration of the gospel – in that people from all tribes and tongues, generations, races, backgrounds, and skill levels – are redeemed and joined together to the praise of God’s glorious grace, they are not merely a decoration to be saved from the trash heap of musical yesteryear, but are a vehicle for TODAY’S CHURCH to display a microcosm of God’s ransomed people, joined together as the worshipping body of Christ.

That’s something I can get excited about. And I still can’t quite believe I’m hearing myself say that.

10 or 15 years ago I wouldn’t have said that. But I came across a church webcast that showed a choir doing something that was SO unlike anything I had ever seen a church choir do before. And it rattled me. And thrilled me. And made my jaw drop.

Here’s one of the clips I saw:

See what I mean?

The church’s name is Mount Paran Church of God. It’s a different kind of church from the ones I’ve attended and served, it belongs a different denomination (which is VERY different from my stream of reformed Anglicanism in many many ways), and I had never even heard of it before. But oh how wonderful – and how broad – is the Body of Christ. And this church had something to teach me about what choirs could do. That clip shows something most Anglican churches would NEVER EVER consider doing with a choir and band on Easter Sunday. And maybe that’s part of our problem. God may have more for us, and more for choirs, than we think.

God has planted in me – and my colleagues at my church – an audacious vision. I long to see a choir that is:

  • Multi-ethnic
  • Cross-generational
  • Made up of “trained” singers and “amateur” singers
  • Growing
  • Able to sing difficult, classical pieces
  • Able to sing modern music with vigor
  • Meaningfully engaged in worship
  • Part of a unified team alongside the band
  • Such a welcoming family that people can’t resist joining
  • A worship leading engine, pointing the congregation to Jesus

At my church we’ve begun to simply repeat two different phrases over and over: First, “the choir is a community of worshippers and worship leaders” and secondly, “God has given us a vision of an 80-voice choir”.

We’re not quite sure how we’ll get to that number. 50 or 60 we could maybe do if we recruit really well. But 80? We don’t know. It’s forcing us to our knees in prayer.

God is stirring up a holy discontent. And he’s planting an audacious vision. That we wouldn’t continue to see choirs dwindle, or just live in a divorced relationship with contemporary music.

And that’s why a bunch of us gathered in Atlanta last week. To say “God, stir up a holy discontent inside of us” and “God, give us an audacious vision”. However that’s supposed to look in our own setting.

– Whether it’s numerical growth, or perhaps some strategic pruning.
– Whether it’s to do with our administration, or our repertoire.
– Whether it’s imitating something new, or killing something old

During our gathering last week in Atlanta, we learned from each other, learned from the amazing team at Mount Paran, and came away with a huge dose of encouragement. I’ll be sharing more of what we learned in the weeks to come, but for now, I’ll share this short little audio clip of a room full of worship leaders and choir directors from all over the country, who after a long day of wrestling with some big questions, lifted their voices together to sing “Praise God from whom all blessings flow”. May he use this little gathering we had in ways that surprise us in the years to come.

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