First Thoughts: The Complication of (Church) Choirs

Editors Note: In my doctoral studies, one of the biblical components I am dealing with is the use of, and biblicity of, choirs in the context of public worship. While this piece may come across as contrarian, I hope my readers will hear its tone as pastoral. I am not saying we should ditch choirs, praise teams, or (for that matter) leaders that garner attention from the flock. What I AM saying is that (as in all things in the church) we need to be careful as parishioners, and doubly careful as pastors and leaders, to make sure that we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus as the main thing.

I have to make a confession. I am a trained musician, specifically in the areas of vocal and choral pedagogy. I have grown up singing in church choirs my entire life. I have been directing choirs in some way, shape, or form for the last 15 years of my life.

And I have grown so frustrated with how choirs are regarded by congregations in terms of their placement in worship I am ready to kick the whole thing to the curb.

Now, before I get too rash and ahead of myself (not to mention commit vocational suicide), I should probably explain why. In the old days of the church, the physical placement of the choir was behind the congregation, as a means of reinforcing their singing. Without getting in to the merits of choral placement (that’s probably another entry), one thing was common. The choir was not a showpiece, but rather a band of men and women to participate in “service”. There is a reason why the congregational music is called “service music”, because it serves a specific function.

Somewhere, along the way, something happened. The primacy of service music gave way to “special music.”

This isn’t without cause, though. In Chronicles, David called out Levitical priests who were skilled to offer music to the Lord.

But in classic contemporary form, the message has somehow gotten lost in favor of the medium. What the choir sings is now no longer nearly as important as that the choir sings.

I remember tragically one summer in a church I was serving where the choir took the summer off. It was much needed, and offered the choristers a chance to reconnect with their families, worship among the people instead of in front of the people, and take a respite. When the choir resumed their duties in the loft, one parishioner remarked to one of the Elders that “we finally had a proper worship service… the choir was in the loft.”

My emotions ranged after hearing that comment from sad to horrified to anger to frustration. And, as is often the case when I get frustrated, I just want to chuck the whole thing, bathwater and all, and say forget it. Hence my opening comments.

But, it might be good to go back to the Scriptures and ask, exactly, what a choir was intended (at least by David) to accomplish. In his book From Silence to Song: The Davidic Liturgical Revolution, Dr. Peter Leithart speaks of the Hebrew word zakar and it’s relationship to the call by King David for priests (Levites) to offer skilled praise (song) before the Lord:

“Specifically, the verb form of zakar is used in 1 Chronicles 16:4 means “to cause to remember,” and the Authorized Version is closer to the Hebrew here: David “appointed certain of the Levites to minister before the ark of the Lord, and to record and to thank and praise the Lord God of Israel.” Thus, the Levitical ministry of music was designed not only to please and glorify Yahweh by thanks and praise, but also to “cause Him to remember.”

Leithart goes on to explain his position further:

“Thus, the one explicit reference to worship music in the Pentateuch employs the notion of “memorial,” and this was the basis for David’s instructions to the Levites concerning their choral worship.”

One of the chief concerns of choral worship in the church should be memory… to cause God to remember his covenant promises and to remind the people of God exactly what God has sworn to fulfill by oath in his blood.

360 Choir in the 360 church

Image via Wikipedia

Problematically, however, in much church choral music, there are issues. First, much church choral music that has been popularized has followed the exact same trail that much CCM has followed: that is to say, it has become highly individualized (the weight of the music is on the individual, not on God), highly personalized (what I am doing, what I am feeling), and highly stylized (syncopation rarely, if ever, works chorally. Only in the most unique of circumstances does it corporately either).

So, if we were to draw regulative implications for biblically overarching narrative regarding choral music, one of the things that we can surmise is that great care must be taken when (and if) we use choral music in worship. Much of the music can fall in the same trap that we try (read: should try) to shield our congregations from in corporate music: words and forms that take the emphasis off of the community of faith and the saving actions of a covenant making and covenant keeping Lord, and instead places them inward and introspective.

Unfortunately, like so many other things in the church, choirs get made by parishioners and pastors alike into yet one more gilded bovine. The promises sung give way to the desire for the performance given. And heaven forbid the choir not be there.

Just as the case is with all elements of worship, great shepherding care is needed by pastors and elders to come around the flock and, by God’s grace, help to safe-guard their hearts from idolatrous leanings that do peril to their hearts and place unfair expectations on the church and her servant-leaders.

I am a pastor, a husband, a father, and a lover of Jesus. I am also an unpredictable blogger, who can go for several years without blogging a thing, and then inexplicably write a book. Perhaps this is one of those times.

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Posted in Worship Matters
2 comments on “First Thoughts: The Complication of (Church) Choirs
  1. Eric says:

    I have come to absolutely hate “special music”. I wish I could take about a decade off from it and then re-evaluate whether it has any edifying purpose other than “I like that song/style.”

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