A Case for the Church Choir: Where Have All Our Choirs Gone?
By Dr. Will Whittaker
Chorus America, a nationally-known advocacy, research, and leadership development organization that supports choral art, has written much on the benefits of singing. Most recently, an article came out in June of 2019 that lauds the benefits of singing for a lifetime. After first reading this article and the major findings of the story, I was very encouraged by the increase in choral participation in America.[i]
At the same time, I was reading this article, I was discussing with friends across the nation about the continued decline of choirs in churches all over the nation. I don’t want to list the myriad of reasons why choirs are declining in our churches because they are vast and many. However, if the current Chorus America research suggests that choral singing in America is not declining, maybe our churches shouldn’t assume that no one wants to sing in a choir. Further, with many singers actively singing in a choir, our churches shouldn’t assume that no one wants to listen to a choir either. What I found interesting, was the authors indicated that in the last ten years worship attendance has declined as well as social clubs, while choral participation has done just the opposite.
While the article mentions the benefits of singing to increased quality of life, physical health, greater activity in their churches and community, and stronger relationships, I want to focus on a few items that I think stick out to me as it pertains to why church choirs should be an integral part of the intergenerational church:
43 million American adults and 11 million children are singing in choirs today. A total of 54 million Americans.
Please remind me why naysayers say no one without white hair wants to hear or participate in a choir? In fact, this research suggests that having choirs will increase participation in any organization e.g. community, school, or church. The researchers also find an increase in participation to 17% from 14% since 2008.
This research suggests that having choirs will increase participation in any organization.
The key to lifelong singing is starting when children are young
The findings, either school or faith communities that have graded choir programs, see the greatest number of students who will become lifelong singers. I’m convinced that churches that cease to invest in fully graded choirs from pre-school through students will never have a strong adult program.
Having a choir might actually increase your attendance in your faith community
In every church I’ve been a part of, the music ministry participants are among the more faithful and more committed to corporate worship. I believe people are more committed when they have a place and reason to serve.
The National Congregation Study, a research project from the Association of Religion Data Archives, has conducted several research projects related to congregational life, including data related to music ministry. The original study, conducted in 1998, has since been replicated four times for the most current data and compared.
In the initial data collected in 1998, choirs were present in over half of all US congregations. In the latest research “wave” conducted in 2018-19, the percentage of choirs in worship had decreased 12 percent in twenty years to just over 40 percent of congregations. Not an encouraging sign for those who value the choir in worship. Here is a snapshot of the data trends in the study:
- Churches with choirs are more likely found in churches in the southern United States.
- Theologically moderate churches are more likely to have choirs than liberal or conservative or evangelical churches.
- Black Protestant churches are the most likely to still have church choirs at 75 percent, followed closely by Roman Catholic churches.
- White liberal congregations are more likely (47 percent) to have a choir than white conservative/evangelical/fundamentalist churches (34.3 percent), but both are at least a third behind Black Protestant and Roman Catholic churches.[ii]
A few things concern me about this data. First, evangelical, white churches clearly have fewer choirs than any other religious group in America. Secondly, outside of the southern region of America, fewer than a third of all white evangelical churches have choirs that lead in worship. Where have all our choirs gone? Our white, conservative, evangelical churches have clearly moved from choir-led worship in favor of band-led, praise team-only worship services because music in worship services certainly hasn’t lessened in importance. The percentages, which have made a downward trend since the 1998 original study, suggest this trend will continue.
Before too long, there will only be a handful of white, evangelical churches still using the choir. This trend concerns me because I believe there is no greater way to involve many people in worship leadership outside the choir. Sure, an overly polished, slick sound is perhaps better achieved with a few of your best musicians, but the Lord has certainly called more than a few very talented people to serve in worship ministry. It is essential for the skilled to sit alongside the weaker singers of all ages to encourage, inspire, and help so all may work together for the glory of God. We must work together to push for authentic worship leadership which is modeled for the congregation.
While having a choir or not does not indicate whether or not your church is intergenerational, I believe our churches have a deeper problem. Our churches have failed to remember that the church should be made of people from varied and diverse backgrounds, various ages, and skillsets. When we fail to recognize that relegating worship leadership to a select few today will result in no new worship leaders tomorrow, we’re short-sighted. When we get rid of a fully orbed music ministry for all ages, we don’t have the opportunity to start this “discipleship of unity” early in the spiritual formation of the kids and students, the future worship leadership of our churches.
I have to wonder if one of the reasons evangelical churches are seeing a decline in church attendance is linked to the decline of the church choir mentioned in this study.
It makes sense to me that the more people are committed to serving in worship leadership, the more they make church attendance a priority. Further, the decline of the church choir has removed one of the most visible models of unity on display in our local churches. Week in and out, vibrant church choirs model unity as the Body of Christ in worship leadership. Let’s not abandon them.
[ii] Mark Chaves et al. “The National Congregations Study (2018-2019.” The Association of Religion Data Archives. https://www.thearda.com/Archive/Files/Analysis/NCSIV/NCSIV_Var341_1.asp
This article first appeared at drwillwhittaker.org and was reposted here with permission.