Last week I asked a heavily loaded question: Do you have a choir at your church? The use of choirs in the worship service, especially in bodies like the United Reformed Churches in North America, tends to be a controversial subject, so that question was actually pregnant with another one: Should you have a choir at your church?
To help set the issue in context, I brought Revs. Idzerd Van Dellen and Martin Monsma into the discussion with their 1967 work The Revised Church Order Commentary. Their insight explained the traditional and well-founded aversion to church choirs in the Reformed heritage, but we left off with little practical advice. Today I’d like to wrap up this discussion with some more down-to-earth ideas for the average United Reformed congregation.
Van Dellen and Monsma provide a nicely succinct sort of thesis for their own position regarding choirs, which agrees with the historic stance of the old Christian Reformed Church:
Rather than seek our strength in choirs and in special numbers of all kinds, let us continue to appreciate and emphasize worthy and vigorous congregational singing.
To some extent, the relationship between the choir and the congregation is an “either-or” proposition. The authors ably demonstrate that the choir was one of the chief factors, if not the chief factor, in silencing the singing of the congregation in the medieval Roman Catholic Church. At the time this commentary was written, Van Dellen and Monsma noted that “many churches all around us have excellent choirs and soloists, but congregational singing in these very churches is often extremely weak.” And it’s not hard to draw a parallel between the ostentatious church choirs of the mid-1900s and the blaring praise bands of the present day. In decisions such as that made by the Synod of 1926, the Christian Reformed Church expressed strong reservations about the use of choirs in worship, rightly noticing a definite inverse relationship: Where choirs sing, the congregation becomes silent.
Van Dellen and Monsma fear more than just weakened congregational singing, however:
Choirs easily sing songs which are inferior or unsound doctrinally, because the music or sentiment of certain songs appeal. Neither should it be forgotten that good solo and choir singing easily becomes an attraction at church services. Some singers are tempted to exhibit. And some church-goers go not so much to worship and to listen to the message of God’s Word, but to hear good singing. The singing by experts occupies the center of their interest. Furthermore, churches in their attempt to secure good choirs are often tempted to let unworthy persons sing in their choir. Many employ paid singers. But even if the commercial element is avoided the primary requisite with many is not true spirituality, but rather a good voice, ability to sing well. Church choirs have often been a source of trouble and grief. Petty jealousies and unworthy ambitions are factors which have made for ill-will again and again.
Taking all of these concerns into account, I think the regulative principle of worship and historic Reformed practice make a compelling case for the complete exclusion of choirs from our worship services, at least as an art form. But before you disband your loyal group of singers in dismay, let me try to reframe this conclusion in practical terms.
The highest form of musical praise the church can offer is through corporate singing. What a beautiful sound and sight when the entire congregation sings together with joy and vigor! This kind of music, Van Dellen and Monsma note, keeps the Word of God at the center of the worship services (if the psalms are sung, as they should be!) and serves as a wonderful united expression of praise. “[I]n the church,” they say, “we believe it is best for the whole church to sing. Strangers who may happen to visit our services often express their appreciation of the fact that we have splendid congregational singing, that all, young and old, sing at our church services.” The psalms contain plenty of individual exhortations to lift one’s voice to the Lord, but their commands to the congregation are also unequivocal: “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth!” (Psalm 100:1). Give me a group of however many hundred men, women, and children singing with joy to the Lord over any little group of trained singers—any day, any time.
But alas, not all of our churches are blessed with large membership, musical literacy, or even favorable acoustics in their meeting places. What many of us witness on a Sunday morning is not a hundreds-strong congregation belting out the psalms with gusto, but a smattering of unenthusiastic voices growling out unfamiliar tunes. How can an ordinary church translate from the latter picture to the former? A church choir can’t infuse the right attitude into the worshipers’ hearts or magically triple the size of the congregation, but I believe its use in these situations can still be beneficial, if—and only if—the following points are clearly understood:
- The choir is a teaching choir, not a performing choir. The purpose of the choir ought to be to instruct its members in the habits of good singing and musical literacy. This is not a group primarily for performance in the worship service or elsewhere, although putting on special programs is not out of the question.
- The choir is to consist only of members of the congregation. This should simply make sense if the purpose of the choir is clear as explained above. The introduction of paid singers would be proof that the choir’s mission had changed. And the director of the choir absolutely must understand and uphold the key principles of Reformed worship as well.
- The choir should learn only what will be helpful in inculcating better congregational singing. I hesitate to exclude all complex anthems or oratorios, but as far as corporate worship goes, they are at best irrelevant and at worst distracting. A small teaching choir can’t go wrong with a repertoire built mainly on simple four-part psalm and hymn arrangements.
- The choir should sing in the worship service as the exception rather than the rule. This is tricky territory; I would highly prefer having the choir sing only on special occasions rather than in a Sunday worship service. However, this decision must take into account the needs and expectations of each individual congregation.
- The choir is nothing more than a slice of the congregation. It would be ideal, of course, if every member of the church would join the choir as a kind of “Singing 101” class. At the very least, however, the members of the choir will hopefully develop an appreciation and love for the psalms and hymns of Reformed worship. Then they merely have to carry that renewed enthusiasm back to the pews with them on Sunday morning. If they do, the choir has fulfilled its mission.
I would welcome your additions or corrections to this list, but I submit to you that the points above set forth a justifiable and properly-regulated domain for the church choir which is in keeping with the standards of Biblical, Reformed worship. They are not foolproof, but at least they are fall protection.
The seventy-fifth anniversary booklet of my home church, then the West Sayville Christian Reformed Church in 1951, refers specifically to improved congregational singing as one of the goals of its Choral Society, dating all the way from 1915: “Programs are given once or twice a season and on special occasions. The Choral Society also has done much toward the improvement of congregational singing as well as in the field of music appreciation.”
The choir, then, can serve the church only as it serves congregational singing. Would Van Dellen and Monsma agree? I think so. They conclude:
All this does not mean that we should not bring our congregational singing to higher levels. We should improve our singing whenever possible. The organization of Choral Societies should be encouraged. Good singing should be promoted. But let us continue to emphasize and to improve congregational singing. And let our good singers help to improve our congregational singing.
Amen! “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!”
The excerpts quoted here are from The Revised Church Order Commentary by Idzerd Van Dellen and Martin Monsma, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1969 (third printing), pp. 205, 206.