A few months ago my family and I began attending a different church in our community from the one of which we have been members for several years. The reasons for that are not the topic of this article, nor do I plan to discuss them in this space other than to say that so far we find the overall culture and particularly the liturgy of the new (to us) congregation to be more suitable. One big difference, which you might be surprised to learn did not influence our decision to visit and begin attending this church, was that it has a choir that sings one or two Sundays per month. Although we had intended to visit quietly for several weeks or even months without actively participating, the choir director also happens to be our son’s violin teacher, and we quickly found ourselves “drafted” into membership. This has been a delightful experience that has both confirmed and furthered changes in my thinking on church music that I have been processing for a while.
You see, prior to our attending this church we had not been members of a congregation that had a choir in over a decade. In most cases the reasons for this had largely to do with size. We spent four years as part of new church plants (yes, more than one, which is itself a long story) and nearly eight in churches whose membership or facilities were not large enough to facilitate regular choral singing. Additionally, after coming to the Reformed faith I had drunk deeply from the writings of staunch Presbyterians of the old school who were suspicious of choirs, instrumental music—pretty much anything other than unaccompanied metrical Psalms. While I never came to the point of embracing that level of austerity (though I enjoy and appreciate singing from the Psalter), between reading these authors and processing my experiences as a sometimes itinerant church musician through that lens I began to think that a greater simplicity in church music was called for. I wanted to see church music dominated by congregational singing—vigorous, quality congregational singing—with somewhat minimal instrumental accompaniment. At no point was I willing to say that churches shouldn’t have choirs, but I had been reasonably happy without them in the smaller churches of which I had been a part.
So what changed? In a way, very little. I still think congregational singing should be the primary musical experience in corporate worship, and I am always on guard against the tendency for church music—of any genre—to overflow its banks, as it were, and turn the worship service into a concert. What has changed, though, is my opinion of the place of choral music in the church’s life, a place that I find myself after all this time once again heartily promoting. Here are a few reasons why.
1. Choirs teach God’s people to sing well. It was perhaps too easy for me, as a classically trained musician with perfect pitch, to take for granted the ability to sing vigorously, in time, and in tune during the worship service, and then in turn to expect everyone else to do the same. And in some cases the choir-less congregations of which we were part, a couple of which had very good congregational singing, had above-average amounts of musical training among their members, as well, training which, incidentally, sometimes had come in prior churches with graded choral music programs. When done well, church choir programs from preschool and children’s programs through adult choirs provide a forum in which members of congregations learn at least something of the fundamentals of tone production and music reading. This necessarily leads not only to fine choral performances, but also to improved congregational singing, both by the choir members themselves and by other congregants who follow their lead.
2. Choirs teach God’s people to sing good things. Like many others of my particular theological and musical stripes, I have lamented the increasing loss of the great hymns of the faith as they seem to be giving way to contemporary selections of often inferior quality. This is not to say that all contemporary hymns and songs are poor, but the typical hymnal contains selections which have encouraged, instructed, and admonished God’s people for centuries, and have been in effect vetted by their continued usefulness over the generations. The tendency to jettison all of this in favor of the new and trendy is shortsighted and hubristic. Children’s choirs in particular are a perfect place to combat this tendency by teaching young people to read and sing using the old hymns and psalm settings. More advanced choral settings of these beloved hymns should form part of adult choirs’ repertoire, as well.
3. God is pleased and glorified by beauty. In Philippians 4 Paul tells us to think on those things that are often summarized as “good, true, and beautiful.” Although I think the argument can be made that New Testament worship ought to be simple, simplicity is not synonymous with ugliness. The God who directs us to sing his praises also delights in his own beauty and in that of the world he created. As we fulfill the command to teach and admonish one another using psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, we should seek to do so in the most beautiful manner possible. Once again, choirs provide a means to that end.
4. Choirs provide opportunity for fellowship, support, and growth. I read an article recently in which the author described the adult choir as the best “small group” a church can have. At its best, the choir is not only a forum for training singers or enhancing corporate worship. Rather, it is a multigenerational community within the congregation that becomes a place where people are encouraged, admonished, loved, and prayed for. Given the tendency toward atomistic living even among Christians in our society, a forum for greater connection is both welcome and necessary.