Listen To Article
I heard recently about an area church that doesn’t sing.
They don’t dislike music. There’s still a small band that plays music throughout the service.
But the people just listen.
I think the argument this church makes is that not everyone loves to sing. And not everyone can sing…or at least they don’t sing well enough to feel comfortable doing so in front of other people. So this church offers people a way to experience music without having to participate in the making of it.
I’m not against listening to music. I’m a firm believer that receiving music in a worship service – allowing it to wash over you as a gift – can be a deeply worshipful experience.
But boy, I’d miss the singing.
On Easter Sunday, I had the delightful experience of conducting our church choir. The choir hadn’t sung in three years, and doesn’t have a regular choral director, so I decided to give it a whirl.
It was SUCH fun.
I’ve sung in choirs all my life, and to be on the other end of it now – preparing the music, leading rehearsals in the weeks preceding Easter, circling the spots that needed review, flapping my arms about, and repeating all the little tips and tricks I’ve heard over the years – was a deeply rewarding experience.
But what struck me in particular was how much this choir represented for me a way of existing in community together. Each Thursday as I prayed at the beginning of rehearsal, I thanked God for the opportunity to stand side-by-side, to offer our voices, but also to listen closely to one another, so that together we would make something that could not exist in the same way if we were not paying attention to the presence of the others around us.
That’s a beauty of making music together. It brings us into an awareness of others, and an awareness of our need of others.
I was talking about this with my friend a few months ago. She grew up in church, but is now what we might call “spiritual but not religious” (though for a really good take on why we need a better categorical term than that, see Krista Tippet’s recent interview with Barbara Brown Taylor on the OnBeing podcast). What my friend misses most about church, she said, is the singing. Because with singing comes the knowledge, the sense, of being part of something larger than yourself. And that sense stirs the soul in a particularly powerful way.
It’s the same sense you get at concerts, singing en masse along with the band to a song that lives deep in your bones, reveling in being part of a group that shares a similar love of the music.
People are hungry for that sense of belonging, of meaning, of something beyond their own individual selves.
And people are tapping into that longing.
One group that’s paying attention to this longing is Pub Choir, a music act out of Brisbane, Australia. At each “show,” the conductor and composer Astrid Jorgensen arranges a popular song and teaches it to the audience in three-part harmony. At the end of the evening, the audience performs the song along with the band, and the video of their performance gets uploaded to social media. Anyone can participate, regardless of music talent or ability, and be part of this music-making together.
Or there’s Choir! Choir! Choir!, a weekly drop-in singing event that meets on Tuesday evenings at a pub in Toronto. Led by Daveed Goldman and Nobu Adilman, these pop-up choirs have been joined by guest singers including Bruce Cockburn, Sarah Harmer, and Rufus Wainwright, and they’ve performed on large stages across North America, but mostly they’re just gatherings of people who get a lyric sheet at the door, and by the end of the evening are performing a song to and with each other.
Or there’s Jacob Collier, the British singer, song-writer, and musician. My Facebook feed has been filled recently with videos of Collier’s shows, particularly his audience engagement. Collier turns the entire crowd into a mass choir, splitting them into sections and directing them through chord progressions that produce amazing harmonies and truly ethereal music.
In all these cases, the music isn’t going to be perfectly finessed or worthy of Royal Albert Hall. But people aren’t participating for the sake of making exceptional music…they’re participating to just make music with other people, to be part of something larger than themselves.
Our church choir sang well on Easter Sunday. I was so pleased and grateful for their hard work and how it paid off. But hands down, my favourite moment in that service was when we brought the voices of the congregation into our song. As our response of praise after communion, the choir sang an arrangement of “Behold the Lamb,” an old gospel hymn by Dottie Rambo. The piece concludes with the first verse of “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” and a few bars before that familiar verse I turned and invited the congregation to stand and join us.
It was a magnificent sound, this sanctuary full of people rejoicing at the end of this service of celebration. Nevermind that the music was slightly different than what the congregation was used to and we got a little out of sync and it wasn’t perfect. It was beautiful. It was exactly right.
Singing together pulls us out of ourselves, pulls us into the story, pulls us into the community of people who aren’t perfect and polished and always on key, but whose presence in the song reminds us that each person is part of something bigger, something grand, and something meaningful – together.
Amen to the power of singing together in a congregation (or a concert hall). I will never forget when John Bell led the opening worship for an RCA. Synod in the newly reopened round Catholic Church in Holland, MI Like Jacob Collier, he got us all singing Iona music in parts and harmonizing with each other. We were all singing new songs together like a choir of angels that had been singing them forever, It was a holy moment! A similar thing happened during the 1998 WCC meeting in Harare, Zimbabwe singing the music of the world church together led by a mixed choir made up of local churches and delegates. It was another holy moment!
Even our own little fellowship here led by volunteers and sometimes just one family, gets us to a holy place…
Oh Laura! Goosebumps!!!
I’m currently engaged in a study with my colleague Shantelle Weber from Stellenbosch University in South Africa on how faith is formed in young people by the participation in choirs. (We’re looking at Soul Children Choir of Norway and Ndlovu Youth Choir from South Africa). As we have presented the very early stages of this so many people have commented how meaningful it is to participate in choir and the deep meaning it has for them. You’ve tapped into some form of collective longing here – thanks for sharing.
Wonderful! Collier video was beautiful. Also remembering General Synod with John Bell leading us in worship and song, and daily knitting us together as a community, making us stronger together each day.
O Laura, how I loved this! Thank you! My most powerful group singing experiences have also been at large events, including annual conferences of the Hymn Society in the US and Canada (in 2021 scheduled to be hosted in Grand Rapids in 2021 but so sadly only on-line because of COVID). Who could be a new John Bell in West Michigan offering an open welcome to such a gathering? I would come in a heartbeat! Especially if we could sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, indeed, to “sing into something more.”
Thank you so much for this Laura! Brought back many memories of singing in a choir, especially at large events, including ICS conferences (ask your Dad) and youth conventions. Such deeply meaningful times. I would have loved to see you flap your arms. 😀
I follow (FB) a public school music teacher on Staten Island in the US… Greg Breinberg who is the chorus director for their grade 5 students. Brilliant stuff comes from that group and they’re invited to sing at many places and events. Check out Gregg Breinberg (ps22 chorus director). Watch the June 2022 and of season video to see the impact that choir has on those students.
From the beginning God’s people sang when they came together. This is so deeply wired into us. That is why C.S. Lewis’s portrayal of Aslan SINGING the cosmos into being in the beginning was brilliant and just right. Again, it’s part of who we are. Which is why when I went to a Paul McCartney concert a few years back, we all sang along on most every song but everyone was just waiting for the ultimate sing-a-long moment as the concert ended with “Hey, Jude.” And then the moment came when Paul stopped singing and let us be the performers. I tell you, for one brief shining moment we were, each and every one of us, a Beatle!
Amen and thank you.
Singing generally can be a 1+1=3 experience, but singing to/for/about God has an incredible multiplier effect.
Garrison Keillor would say a hearty AMEN to this; he gets his every audience to sing the old songs, with It Is Well With My Soul his favorite.
To participate in worship via Zoom can be so disappointing. For this very reason.
If you’ve read The Body Keeps the Score, it’s interesting to note that one of the things Bessel van der Kolk recommends for trauma recovery is to join a community choir. As a whole, the CRC is not trauma-informed, but most of our churches do know how to sing together.
Thanks Laura. I cannot carry a tune, yet I relish congregational singing. It brings us together as a community, and in at times the songs are the most memorable parts of a service.
Wonderful thoughts. Thank you for this. The yearning to be a part of something beautiful and bigger than ourselves – that’s it exactly! When I see a huge flock of birds swooping and tumbling together in mysterious synchrony, I always think, “That is what singing in a big choir feels like.” Transcendent! And what do we go to church for, if not to catch a glimpse of (and be a part of) something transcendent, side by side with one another!
Yes! I’d rather make music, especially choral music, than listen any day.
For those of us who love to sing, we can’t fathom why someone wouldn’t want to. I have sat in many congregations watching the worshippers around me standing mute. Some people just don’t like to sing, don’t like to sing something they don’t know (which makes teaching new music so important), can’t sing and know it, or just don’t have the same reaction to choral singing that I do.
I say that their listening to others sing can be a powerful experience for them as well. When congregational participation can be limited in a service, singing is the one way to transcend the people up front/people in the congregation barrier.
For over 35 years, I have been worshipping with young children in Godly Play gatherings. Suddenly, I noticed that when the children went on to Sunday School, they stopped singing.
We did several creative Christmas pageants and then suddenly there was a resistance to being on stage. I chalked it up to being videotaped and posted on social media from birth but now I wonder. These are children who sing in other places but not church. Any thoughts?