Monday, September 22, 2014

Fading Notes for Church Choirs


Wanna hear more?

More music stuff, that is.  Last Friday, I blasted evangelical Christians who like rap music and think Lecrae, a popular Christian rapper who's currently topping the Billboard charts, is appropriately "prophetic" in his salacious lyrics.

Today, I'm responding to an article by Religion News Service claiming to answer the question of why church choirs are dying.  Written by Cathy Lynn Grossman, this article references the current popularity of contemporary music, stage bands, and the corresponding lack of enthusiasm in many congregations for more traditional methods of incorporating singing in corporate worship.

I still don't like writing about music anymore, as I confessed on Friday, but this is an excellent opportunity for me to balance both the Lecrae fluff and the choir fizzle back-to-back.  You see, just because Lecrae is popular doesn't mean his style of music is a good way to express God's Gospel.  But neither is the traditional church choir so sacrosanct as to be considered the opposite side of the righteousness spectrum from Christian rap.

And I say that as an eight-year-member of a large choir at a prosperous Presbyterian church in the Bible Belt.

Frankly, it's no surprise that choir music has fallen out of favor within much of our evangelical ghetto.  Lecrae's ascension amongst our ranks, although his isn't exactly worship service material, is itself proof of what's hot today, even if, in many black congregations, the choir remains a Sunday morning staple.  On the white side of the most segregated day in America, choirs have languished ever since the seeker-sensitive movement decided all manifestations of traditionalism - of which choirs reek - were killing church attendance.

Music has changed significantly in the past several decades, both in its quality, and how we interact with it.  Many people in North America are today uneducated when it comes to genuine musical aptitude.  Sure, Americans still listen to music, and they think they know what they like, but they're not informed regarding those things that create the qualities of sounds and lyrics that stand the test of time.  Most Americans don't know how to read music, don't care that they don't know how to read music, and don't know there's a difference between knowing the mathematics of music, and simply playing and hearing tunes that they think sound good.

Then there's the financial angle.  Money, after all, and how much something costs, are convenient scapegoats when we don't like something, or want to change something.  In her article, Grossman quotes pastors trying to sound fiscally pious and practical about why they don't want a choir.  They understand that legitimate choirs require leaders and accompanists who know music, can read it, and interpret it, and guide other people with it.  And such people usually deserve to be paid, since they've gone to school to learn about music.

Nevertheless, a lot of congregations these days don't think paying musicians is a wise way to spend God's money, since congregants themselves don't understand the type of music people go to school to learn about.  It's easier to say that a church's financial resources are better spent on things that appeal to the broadest cross-section of the congregation - or the target demographic a church wants to be its congregation  - than selling that target demographic on why a particular style of music - in this case, choral singing - is worthy of their financial investment.

You have to understand that contemporary church is all about the consumer these days.  And if consumers don't want it, they don't get it.  And contemporary consumers are definitely not demanding choir music.

Of course, it's not just the preacher or congregation as an audience which is at fault here.  Where do you think any church choir comes from?

Sure, some churches pay their choirs, but let's assume that most churches don't prize such an elitist performance metric (even if they pay through the nose for the latest audio-visual technology).  In a conventional church choir, singers come as unpaid volunteers from within the congregation, and you know what they say:  you get what you pay for.

Hey - I admit:  Your typical church choir has never been the best place to hear world-class singing, has it?   I'm like you in this regard:  I've had to sit through some pretty awful choir music, and that's part of the risk - if you want to call it that - of church choirs.  So, modern church leaders have discovered that it's a lot easier to control the music quality with "praise teams," a select few people who can carry a tune better than most.  Of course, most of the music people sing in church these days isn't very complicated, either - in terms of its musical composition, lyrics, or theology.  But the main point here is that a large group of volunteers can sing bad music even worse than a praise team can, so why bother?

Besides, bad music has become so ubiquitous in our society, a lot of people have become dulled to the reality of what genuinely good music is, and what it should sound like.  Pastors like to justify their arguments against choirs - and for stylish praise teams - by saying their congregation's expectations in the music they hear are so much higher these days, thanks to all of the professionally-produced music available via radio, television, the movies, and even live concerts.  Ironically, even bad music can be made to sound technically flawless, and it's hard to get a bunch of volunteer singers to compete well against such a standard.

With all of this reality, then, why should anybody be surprised that church choirs are losing their popularity?

I have to confess:  I don't particularly enjoy choir music, and I don't particularly enjoy singing in the choir at my church.  But I do it because I believe I should be involved in some way in the church's visible ministry, and I don't do nursery duty.  I can just barely read music, and can carry a tune if somebody else knows what it is.  Plus, the church I attend has the right motive for having a choir, and that motive is for the choir to help lead the congregation in worship of Almighty God.  That's what choirs did in the Bible, from the Levitical priests, to the angels who announced Christ's birth to the shepherds, to the choirs in Heaven as recounted in the book of Revelation.

Sure, a congregation can worship God without a choir, and there are two big reasons why a church shouldn't have a choir.  The choir should not be for show, nor should it be considered an elite club of super-saints.

It could also be argued that if a church doesn't have enough qualified congregants to sing in a choir - either because the church is very small, or its members have a deficiency in reading or vocalizing music - then it would be counterproductive to try and form one.  Then there's the fact that many smaller congregations can't afford to pay for a professional choir director.

At any rate, a church choir isn't an end unto itself, and it's not required for Biblical worship.

Considering all of this, however, it is troubling to note a trend that appears to be spreading across our evangelical ghetto.  I've heard about a number of churches hiring music leaders who can't read a note of music, but justifying such decisions by claiming that their new worship leader's music simply sounds good.  Now, that may be a culturally-acceptable reason, particularly considering how casual we Americans like to be about stuff these days, and that most of the music sung in church these days is of negligible quality and requires little effort, but are any of these excuses Biblical rationales for hiring a pop-culture lead musician?  In 1 Chronicles 15:22, we see the hiring of the first worship music director when David appoints Chenaniah to the post.  And why did David specifically appoint Chenaniah?  Because he was skilled in music.

Skilled.  An uncommon word these days, to be sure.  And of course, back then, there was no Juilliard or Eastman or Royal Conservatory, but... if we're talking about the worship of God, do we consider it appropriate to let unskilled preachers get up into our pulpits?

Okay, forget that analogy...!  But hopefully you see the incongruity.

From the tone of Grossman's article, it seems as though churches that have done away with choirs have done so because of the negative impression choirs convey when it comes to attracting new people to church, as well as keeping the folks who already attend.  The preference for church choirs has diminished considerably over the past couple of decades, and the thinking obviously is that if it's not trendy anymore, it shouldn't be done.

But is that a good reason not to have choirs?  Sure, not having the money to hire an educated musician to lead a choir is a good reason not to have one.  So is not having enough qualified singers.  Maybe your church building is small, and was built without a choir loft - what my church calls a "chancel."  I'm not sure it's worth the money to remodel a small church building just to accommodate a choir and the acoustics a proper choir requires.  Like I said, I'm not fanatical about choirs.  Nevertheless, any fellowship of believers should base their music decisions on considerations involving more than style, logistics, and funding.

We need to keep purpose ahead of preference.  And when it comes to choirs, we cannot ignore their purpose.

I've told you that the church I attend has the proper purpose for its choir:  to serve as an element of leadership for the congregational worship of God.  And that's the only reason.  For the record, it's a wealthy church, and a very white one, and I've already told our music pastors that if we ever begin to justify having a choir because choirs are expected in traditional, wealthy, white churches, then I'm no longer part of it.  But ours is not a show choir, and we even discourage applause after choral anthems to reduce the temptation to presume otherwise.

In terms of attracting and retaining congregants, however, if a choir is done correctly, should it be an impediment in terms of marketing a church?

As a Reformed evangelical, I believe in predestination, and that it's the Holy Spirit Who draws people to Himself.  Not the style of music, or even the hipness of the preaching.  But most churches these days - from the ones that have hung on for decades, to the new church plants - run on a basic formula that incorporates elements of marketing and investing that depend on lowest common denominators for maximum numeric impact.

Meanwhile, what does the Bible teach us about salvation?  Is the Way broad, or narrow?  Is the Gospel popular, or unpopular?  Is God holy, or average?  Indeed, how a church views God will dictate what its corporate worship looks like.  And maybe even whether it has a choir.

It's not that any church needs a choir to worship God well.  Shucks, some liberal, mainline, traditional churches with choirs aren't really worshipping God at all.

But it's why churches don't have a choir that could be the problem.



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