This post isn’t so much about something amateur that I do. In fact, it’s relevant to something professional I do, which is choir directing. But, I don’t want to create a new blog for this post, so I’m filing it here. This topic has been explored many times by other writers, but I have found that there is a tremendous bias against contemporary worship by most of them. There’s an undercurrent of “THIS [choral music] is the kind of music that people SHOULD like”. You will not find that perspective in this post.
I was raised in a traditional, liturgical church tradition: Presbyterian Church USA, and now I’m in a traditional setting of the United Methodist Church. I’ve been singing in or directing choirs since I was 15. It never even occurred to me to ask the question of whether or not choirs were relevant to church until the last few years. A young lady in my church recently shared with me that she didn’t like the kind of music that our choir sings. She preferred contemporary praise music. That didn’t surprise me because she and I are singing in a praise band together at the moment. And I think this is the view of many Christians today. I think there are a few reasons for this.
1.) It’s not familiar
Much of the choral repertory is not adapted from contemporary songs. They are original compositions and some hymn arrangements. And although the music is not generally classical, it’s not exactly pop either. It’s “traditional”. It’s music that is written out note for note for bass, tenor, alto, and soprano and a piano accompaniment. This is not a setting that you will hear on the radio, except at Christmas time. So, it’s not familiar enough to attach meaning to for many people.
2.) It’s not participatory
In a praise service, everyone is welcome to sing along with the band. In fact, everyone SHOULD be singing along (but that’s an issue for another post) With a choir, the congregation becomes something of an audience. A choir runs the risk of becoming a performance ensemble. Like, we stopped worship and decided to have a concert for everyone to clap at. (another topic for another time)
So why is it still relevant? Why do I continue to direct choirs and stand behind the tradition of choral music? There’s no one answer to this so I’ll try to break it down.
Choirs in church is a centuries old tradition dating back to the Medieval period. Do we really just want to toss it out the door? Choirs of angels praised God singing “Glory to God in the highest” when Jesus was born. Shouldn’t we still be doing this?
2.) Some people still prefer traditional worship
There is still a place for traditional worship. There are still those who find meaning in liturgy and creeds and hymns and corporate prayers. Not everyone wants to rock out with God. (Although I find meaning in contemporary worship as well). There are dozens of opportunities in my town on Sunday mornings for contemporary worship experiences. There needs to be a place where traditional services are still offered. And a traditional service needs a choir.
My choir sings music that has stood the test of hundreds of years. How many of our beloved contemporary christian praise songs will we be singing in two hundred years? It’s hard to say. Is there bad choral music? Of course. But there’s something to be said for music composed by musicians who have received many years of training in composition. And at this point in history, there’s more quality choral music to choose from than quality contemporary praise music. It’s worth noting that my choir does sing quality arrangements of quality gospel and praise music.
4.) Worship Leadership
I believe in the power of participating in worship leadership, whether it be as a preacher, a liturgist, an acolyte, a pianist, or a singer. Every Sunday morning, I facilitate 17 or so people in leading an act of worship. It helps people fulfill a calling.
5.) Everyone needs a place where they are needed
It’s important to find your place in a church. Small groups get people involved with each other in meaningful ways, and give people a sense of place and purpose. And what other group in a church prepares a group worship offering every week? If you want to find some of the most dedicated members of a church, check the choir room.
Finally, and this is really the most important reason for me, just as the pastor offers a witness to the Word in the form of a sermon, the choir presents a witness to the Word in music in the form of an anthem. A choir can express the themes of scripture and faith in a form that cannot be expressed in words alone. A good anthem can turn a worshiper’s heart to God just as effectively as a sermon can. And turning hearts to God is the most important part of this. If my choir doesn’t have an effect on my congregation, then we have failed and we cease to be relevant (another topic for another post).
You might say that I’m biased, but I don’t think that I am. I find just as much meaning in a praise service with a band as I do in a traditional service with a choir. I think they both have an important place in the world. It’s worth noting that what we now call traditional worship and music were contemporary at one time. And if there is any value in what is considered contemporary now, it will one day become traditional itself. There’s always something new and there’s always something old. And there’s something to be said for old things.