Choirs in Worship

concertchoir_lg-cropIn an earlier post I mentioned a question left in one of the comments. Collin wrote:

With my limited experience I am able to lead a full band on Sunday mornings but it stops there. Our church has many capable individuals that would be involved in a choir but my limitations keep me from taking the plunge and just going for it with some simple choir pieces. Do have any suggestions, for someone with my limited experience, how to go about leading a choir? Should I hold off and wait until I have proper training in leading a choir? I know a choir would serve our worship time so it is something I would like to see on occasion on Sunday mornings.

In the same comments section Kyle wrote:

My pastor, choir leaders, and I have been asking ourselves how to incorporate a choir ministry into a modern context in a way that makes sense, and doesn’t feel disconnected from the rest of the meeting – and, hopefully, in a way that will encourage more people to become involved with the ministry.

The Good and Bad of Choirs
These two questions highlight the ambiguity of Scripture regarding who should lead worship. There’s nothing in Scripture that says choirs are mandatory nor should be excluded when we meet to worship God. It all depends on how we use them and for what purpose. Choirs can become monsters that drain a church’s resources, energies, and time, and accomplish little for the advance of the gospel. They can be breeding grounds for gossip, slander, immorality, and envy. On the other hand, choirs can be a powerful means of encouraging Christ-exalting, Spirit-empowered worship of God, made up of with people who want to praise God not only with their song, but with their lives. I’ve seen both, and definitely want to do everything I can to discourage the former and promote the latter.

Choirs, like every worship leader, are meant to make Jesus look good and great, not themselves. That means that while musical skill is valuable and important, it should never overshadow or determine the focus. The goal is not musical excellence and proficiency by itself, but an “undistracting excellence” (John Piper’s phrase) that draws attention to the One we’re worshiping. Here’s what a choir can add to a meeting:

  • a model of responsiveness to and engagement with the words we’re singing
  • musical variety
  • harmonies that display another aspect of God’s beauty
  • opportunities for people to use their musical gifts to serve others

I’m sure there are other good reasons.

Kinds of Choirs
Here are a few ways I think about choirs.

Melody ensemble: This is a group of expressive but not necessarily experienced vocalists. A group like this is generally a good place to start if you have limited time but a number of vocalists who are available. Their primary purpose is to reinforce the melody, and if you know the tune you can lead them.

Parts choir: This is a step above a melody ensemble. People are actually singing harmonies. If you have some vocalists that are gifted musically, they can work out parts for the choruses, or in the case of hymns, on later verses. Anyone who knows how to work out parts and has something of a leadership gift can lead this choir. Groups like the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir have taken this idea to a new level of excellence.

Trained choir: This is a group of people who know how to read music and can prepare special songs to sing for the church. The advantage of a choir like this is the amount of repertoire that’s available to sing. The disadvantage is that sometimes choirs like this can become confused about the difference between producing excellent music and worshiping God. That certainly doesn’t have to be the case, but often is. Another drawback is that you need a trained individual to lead it.

Ideas for Getting Started
If I were starting a choir from scratch, I’d start with auditions. It’s always good to know what you’re working with. I’d evaluate the gifts I had, and then make decisions. If we had a lot of wiling people who weren’t musically trained, but sounded good, I’d have them sing about once a month. It’s certainly going to help to have training in leading a choir, but it’s not crucial for starting out. God has a surprising way of bringing in people to do what’s required. I’m especially going to be looking for someone who might be able to lead the choir instead of me!

When I first arrived at Covenant Life we only used choirs on special occasions for special numbers. Over time we began to see the value of involving more people, but couldn’t get the participation level up to a degree where it made sense. Now, we have about 20+ people singing once a month. The quality is improving along with what we’re requiring of the members. We’ve also seen the importance of starting choral training early, so we’ve been running three kids choirs for a number of years now (elementary, middle school, high school). We’re trying to prepare for the future.

Hope this is helpful. If you have thoughts, experiences to share, or questions, please feel free to leave a comment.

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24 Responses to Choirs in Worship

  1. Collin V. June 26, 2008 at 5:27 PM #

    Bob,

    Thank you that was very helpful in how to go in the right direction. With my limited Choral experience and also with how i envision the choir being a part of worship and not separate as performers, I really see the value in a melody ensemble. I think we will start over with the choir have some tryouts and see what kind of interest there is in our church and go for it.

    Thank you for the encouraging post and may we all be inspiring others to worship with their lives through the music we play and words we sing.

  2. John Carlson June 26, 2008 at 5:41 PM #

    You might consider looking within your congregation, vocal team, etc. for someone who has choir leading experience already. Someone who was a classical vocal major, conducting major, a local high school choral director, etc. Delegate some leadership/building of the choir towards a person such as this if you have them in your midst. You never know who is out there thinking they’d love the opportunity but may not see a place for themselves until they see an invitation.

  3. matt June 26, 2008 at 5:58 PM #

    Bob,

    You touched on something I’ve been thinking on lately. Could you possibly elaborate on why it is important to do choral training in a church at a young age? I’m convinced of it (as a classically trained musician) but not sure I can accurately convey why a church should invest resources in developing young musicians, specifically through kids choirs.

    Thanks for all you do!

    Matt

  4. Zach Nielsen June 26, 2008 at 8:38 PM #

    How do you use your kids choirs?

    z

  5. Bob Kauflin June 26, 2008 at 9:14 PM #

    Matt,

    I’ve become convinced there are a number of good reasons for good choirs, just as, I suppose, there are a number of bad ones. God commands us to sing. There are good ways and bad ways to sing. So teaching children to sing early on accomplishes a number of goals.

    1. it teaches them how to sing without hurting their voices
    2. our age is increasingly more of a “listening” culture than a “singing” culture. Involving kids in a choir at an early age counteracts that tendency.
    3. choirs can introduce them to great music and lyrics they wouldn’t have otherwise heard
    4. choirs can teach them music theory which may enable them to serve the church more effectively as they grow older
    5. choirs can teach them to use their musical gifts to serve others
    6. with the right music, choirs can be a means of teaching kids good theology

    Using the musical training that took place in the 1 Chronicles 25:1-8 as a loose model (because there’s nothing about this in the NT), it seems that music training that the church does should relate fairly directly to the corporate worship of the church. Of course, it will probably benefit other areas as well. I did a post on this a while back called Are We Responsible for Musical Literacy in the Church.

    BTW, Harold Best gives some of the most compelling arguments for children’s choirs I’ve read in the last two chapters of Music Through the Eyes of Faith.

    Helpful?

  6. Bob Kauflin June 26, 2008 at 9:18 PM #

    Zach,

    Twice a year (December and May), we have music academy concerts, at which the kid’s choirs sing 2-4 songs each. They may use those songs to sing at nursing homes or the mall. We’ll also use them on special occasions like Christmas, Easter, Mother’s Day, etc.

  7. Nicki O'Donovan June 27, 2008 at 1:36 AM #

    Thanks Bob,
    I found that extremely helpful! One question I have is this: You do the auditions and you find a lot of vocal talent…which is one thing. How do you establish that the person wanting to join the choir leads a life of worship (which is what you want your choir to consist of…true worshippers). And that their motive for joining is truly to magnify God. It’s easy to say that that is your motive when in reality it’s an opportunity to show off your talent. How do you prevent a situation from arising that you have members of the choir that say they are there to glorify God but actually the fruit of their lives show otherwise…and so bring a dynamic into the choir that you don’t really want. Do you set boundaries on who can join the choir? And how would you say no to someone who is obviously joining for the wrong reasons even if they can sing?

    Thanks again Bob…I’ve been learning so much from your posts!! I’m eager to learn all the wisdom I can get from one who so evidently has wisdom to impart!

  8. Bob Kauflin June 27, 2008 at 7:53 AM #

    Nicki,

    Thanks for your encouragement.

    There’s no foolproof way to insure that your choir members are living Christ-exalting lives. They can deceive you. But you can ask them to get a recommendation from their pastor or small group leader before they join. You can also check in with them regularly through personal communication or some kind of annual sign-up process.

    We expect that people in the choirs are living a life that wouldn’t be out of sync with their public position. In other words, they’re members of the church, pursuing growth in God through fellowship and ministry.

    On saying no to someone who has wrong motives, I’d take a lot of time asking questions to make sure I was seeing things accurately. If it was evident they were motivated primarily by a desire to be in the spotlight, I’d talk to them about it, and explain what kind of musician God wants to serve in the church – humble. If they expressed a desire to change, I’d probably add them to the choir and suggest ways they could pursue humility.

    That’s a brief answer. Please feel free to follow up.

  9. Craig Sterling June 27, 2008 at 10:05 AM #

    Bob,

    Thank you for another insightful post. As a member of the CLC choir, I have found membership in this choir to be very different than past experiences. I have been in choirs where gossip overshadows Godly encouragement. I have been in highly trained choirs where pridefulness is much more evident than humbleness.
    At CLC, I am thankful to know men and women who come to choir to express exuberant praise to God in worship. Folks are willing to not only encourage good singing, but also humble orthodoxy in living. Folks are willing to not only forgive offenses, but to gently correct one another in righteousness.
    Choir at CLC not only is a means of leadership in worship, but also a ministry within a ministry.
    I am incredibly thankful for you and Ken and the excellence in teaching and grace you both so generously extend.

  10. Bob Kauflin June 27, 2008 at 10:58 AM #

    Craig,

    Thanks for leaving a comment and bringing some credibility to what I’m saying.

  11. Nicki O'Donovan June 27, 2008 at 11:24 AM #

    Excellent advice…thank you Bob! I appreciate your reply.

  12. Matthew Westerholm June 28, 2008 at 9:16 AM #

    One of the craziest things our church does (about twice a year) is what we call “spontanious choir.”

    We set up risers and microphones, and as a part of the call to worship, our worship leader says “the first 40 people on stage are in the choir this morning.”

    While the “choir” gathers, the worship leader exhorts the congregation that we are all the choir, singing our praise to the Lord. To encourage participation, we’ll prep about five people to come up first.

    If the sound guy likes what he hears, he turns them up. If they sound poor, they aren’t in the house mix. It’s a big hit in the church.

  13. Paul Hayes June 30, 2008 at 11:51 AM #

    Bob,
    I think that continued practice and performance consistently over the years makes the difference in the cohesiveness and quality of our choir. I have many non-readers, but they have grown in their “following” skills so that after being part of the choir for three years, they are able to catch on almost as fast as the readers they lean on. We are thus able to sing a repertoire that varies from classical to contemporary. I also think that the weekly devotionals we do help focus the choir’s attitude to God-centeredness and the desire to worship and not “perform”. Try leading choirs folks-they are the symphony of the human voice! Paul

  14. Dean Lusk June 30, 2008 at 11:51 AM #

    “They can be breeding grounds for gossip, slander, immorality, and envy.”

    Whew! That’s a pretty indicting statement, but sadly, more possible than many realize.

    As leaders, it’s easy to unintentionally distance ourselves from the dynamics of the social interaction in our larger groups, like choirs, moreso than we do from our more closely-knit instrumental or vocal teams. But that’s a sharp reminder of why NOT to allow this to happen.

  15. Thomas Clay June 30, 2008 at 12:50 PM #

    Another wonderful way that we use our choir here at Grace Life Church (formerly First Baptist Church of Muscle Shoals) is using the choir to introduce new congegationals as specials. Then, when they are sung as congregationals, there is rich, confident, four-part harmony supplementing the congregation as it sings.

    Several examples would be arrangements of In Christ Alone, Be Unto Your Name, and My Chains Are Gone that are very powerful additions to a congregational set when a choir of 100 are singing along! The congregation heard them as choir specials several times before I asked them to sing as congregationals.

  16. Giovanni July 6, 2008 at 9:54 AM #

    You totally didn’t even mention Praise Bands/Teams.. any special reason why?

  17. Bob Kauflin July 6, 2008 at 4:50 PM #

    Giovanni,

    Thanks for stopping by. If you check out other portions of my blog, you’ll see that I’m just addressing one aspect of leading worship here. In other posts I’ve talked about praise bands and worship teams.

  18. Dustin B. July 16, 2008 at 4:00 PM #

    Church choirs can be a blessing and a curse. I have been in church choirs for about ten years, led church choirs for two years, and sang in top-notch (ACDA level) collegiate choral programs. I believe that the choir should be well done or not done at all. The church which I currently serve in and worship lead in had a pastor in the past that drove the choir program into the dirt. He claimed to have choral experience, when truthfully he did not. I had a hard time convincing some people to rejoin the choir because of their bad past experiences. This is just the musical side of it, there can be spiritual problems as well (as you noted).

    However, even though a choral program can be done poorly both musically and spiritually, it can also be a tremendous benefit to the church. Although I am bigger proponent of congregational worship than I am of choral addition in worship, this is a tool many evangelical churches are missing out on. The choir can help worship by doing a choral octavo which helps the listeners (and singers) focus on a new text or new setting to an old text.

    I also personally believe a well done church choral program can help listeners see there is more to Christian music than contemporary pop, rock, and indie albums. There is amazing Christian choral music being recorded that doesn’t sound unintelligible like the Cambridge singers or stuffy and warble-y like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. I do not believe we are serving our congregation by teaching them that classical and/or classical choral recordings are out of touch and are for “old” people by giving them only Christian “band” exposure.

  19. Alvin Hoi September 19, 2008 at 12:33 AM #

    Hi Bob,

    Thanks for everything that you are doing here. You are a great encouragement to me and from all your writings, i can see the humility that is portrayed here and it’s serve as a standard to myself to good at what i do but still keep that heart of learning and humility within me. Thank you for your sharings and teachings here. Am looking forward to sharing everything here with my ministry back here in Singapore! You are impacting nations my brother… keep on preaching!

  20. Bob Kauflin September 19, 2008 at 9:47 AM #

    Alvin,

    Thanks for your encouraging words.

  21. Sarah May 13, 2009 at 9:59 AM #

    How might one deal with the issue of choir versus praise team?

    We have had praise teams for years leading worship at our church, but in front of a choir that has been part of a longer tradition. In the training of the choir that they are lead-worshippers and not performers, thus facilitating worship alongside the praise team, we have lost many memebrs. And the members we do have are not consistent. Most don’t see their value – that they are “dispensable” since the praise team are the ones more out front and with a mic in their hands. (Basically you have to have a good voice for praise team – in a choir you can “hide” your vocal inconsistencies). The purpose of the choir has changed and has been clearly communicated and upheld: it is a worship choir who helps lead congregational songs and introduce new ones as well as singing a special anthem every month.

    True, some choir memebrs are showing pride in their feeling of being “upstaged”, but on the other hand the choir seems left with a lack of a purpose. How do you deal with this apparent competition conflict of values? Should the choir be held to the same musical standard as the praise team to keep the bar high and thus increase accountability and value? How? Practically, the praise team does need better musicians. We try to communicate that both groups are held to the same spiritual standard. Do we put the praise team beside the choir on the platform and not in front of the choir?

    Any other ideas as to how we can maintain our worship choir and recruit even more members, keeping the praise team elitist threat at bay?

    Thank you

    • Bob Kauflin May 13, 2009 at 11:47 AM #

      Sarah, great question. A few thoughts…Make sure that everyone understands the purpose of the choir clearly. They’re not simply an “add-on.” They contribute visually, musically, and hopefully, spiritually, as they give their hearts to exalting the Savior.

      The choir needs to understand the concept of a team – some players are better than others, but everyone is needed. We found it helpful to raise the expected level of musicianship for the choir over a period of time. That helped the choir members to be more committed. We also have them sign up for one year.

      Make sure all your up front vocalists serve as part of the choir first. Most of our solo vocalists continue to serve in the choir on various occasions.

      Finally, issues of the heart need to be regularly discussed and addressed, if necessary. Pride, envy, and comparison are constant temptations for those on a music team, and we find grace as we humbly acknowledge our sins to others and draw upon the riches of grace found in the gospel.

      Is that helpful?

  22. Ken May 13, 2009 at 2:56 PM #

    Sarah,

    The two messages on the lower right of this page may be of help to you. We have anyone who participates on Sundays listen to those before they serve. You wouldn’t need to use those messages, but listening to them might give you some more handles on how to communicate it to your team.

  23. Sarah May 25, 2009 at 12:05 PM #

    Very helpful! Thank you!

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