Chorus America, a nationally known advocacy, research and leadership development organization that supports the choral arts, has written much on the benefits of singing. Most recently, an article came out in June 2019 that lauds the benefits of singing for a lifetime. After first reading this article and the major findings of the story, I was encouraged by the increase in choral participation in America.
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 that 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 is that the authors indicated in the last 10 years, attendance has declined in church worship as well as social clubs, while choral participation has done just the opposite.
While the article mentions the benefits of singing to increase quality of life, physical health, greater activity in churches and community, and stronger relationships, I want to focus on a few items that stick out to me as it pertains to why church choirs should be an integral part of the intergenerational church:
First, 43 million American adults and 11 million children are singing in choirs today. That’s 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, whether community, school or church. The researchers also find an increase in participation in choral singing to 17% from 14% since 2008.
Second, the key to lifelong singing is starting when children are young. The findings show that both schools and faith communities that have graded choir programs produce the greatest number of students who will become lifelong singers. I’m convinced that churches that cease to invest in fully graded choirs from preschool through students will never have a strong adult program.
Third, 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 Congregations Study has conducted several research projects related to congregational life, including data related to music ministry. The original study, conducted in 1998, since has been replicated four times for the most current data and then compared.
“Having a choir might actually increase your attendance in your faith community.”
In the initial data collected in 1998, choirs were present in more than half of all U.S. congregations. In the latest research wave conducted in 2018-19, the percentage of choirs in worship had decreased 12% in 20 years to just over 40% 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%, followed closely by Roman Catholic churches.
- White liberal congregations are more likely (47% ) to have a choir than white conservative/evangelical/fundamentalist churches (34.3%), but both are at least a third behind Black Protestant and Roman Catholic churches.
A few things concern me about this data. First, white evangelical churches clearly have fewer choirs than any other religious group in America. Second, 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 clearly have 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 a 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 certainly has 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.
“The Lord certainly has called more than a few very talented people to serve in worship ministry.”
We must work together to push for authentic worship leadership that is modeled for the congregation.
While having a choir or not does not indicate whether 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 skill sets.
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 church choirs. 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.
Will Whittaker serves as adjunct professor of church music at Truett McConnell University and minister of music at Ivy Creek Baptist Church in Gwinnett County, Ga.