What is the purpose of a choir during a worship service? Are church musicians even necessary for worship? Do they function primarily as leaders or as performers--or both?
Music has always been an integral part of worship. There are over 200 references to singing in the Bible. It was common practice in the
to include singing--and playing instruments, dancing--whenever worshipers would gather. Early Church
Robert Mitchell, in Ministry and Music, once wrote that the primary purpose of a church choir is "to prompt and enable each worshiper to worship; each choir member is at the same time prompter and individual worshiper before God."
Contrary to popular perceptions, the main function of a choir is not to perform, but to enable congregational singing.
Some in the congregation may scoff, "Well that's fine for some folks, but I've been told all my life that I can't sing, so I don't even try."
What a shame.
Every human being has innate musical abilities, whether they realize it or not. Singing is simply sustained speech on varying pitches. Technically, anyone who can speak can also sing.
The difference is that some people are born with "musical ears," i.e., the ability to discern and match pitches. Others need a little coaching to train their ears and discover their "singing voice." From there it's just a matter of practice.
But God doesn't really care whether or not everyone sings on pitch during worship. The Psalmist says that we are to "make a joyful noise unto the Lord…come before God's presence with singing" (Psalm 100). What is important to God is our sincere participation in worship.
Time and again, I've heard people with "undiscovered" musical abilities comment that when they are surrounded by good singers, their inhibitions vanish and they enjoy singing along. While they may never be offered a microphone, that synergy describes the main role of the choir: to inspire everyone to worship through singing.
In addition, the choir (or praise team or soloist or instrumentalist) has priestly responsibilities during worship.
Because of choir members' advanced musical skills and commitment to preparation, when the choir sings an anthem, it is doing something that the congregation cannot do by itself.
Thus, the choir enables corporate worship by offering music to God on behalf of the congregation--a priestly function.
It is easy for choirs and congregations to become confused about the difference between secular musical performances and sacred musical presentations. Each has a distinctly different purpose:
Secular musical performances are designed to showcase the performers themselves. Their purpose is to entertain.
Sacred musical "presentations" or musical "offerings" (either term seems more worthy than "performances" when describing church music) should be designed to showcase God. Their purpose is to lead in worship.
Several years ago I came across an article by Dave Williamson, titled "Worship Leading Choirs." He noted a shift in paradigms regarding the primary function of church choirs and other musical worship leaders:
Outward Signs of Earlier Paradigm Outward Signs of Emerging Paradigm
●Sings horizontally, to the people ●Sings vertically, to the Lord
●Practical role: Spiritual Entertainers ●Practical role: Lead Worshipers
●Performs for Jesus ●Worships Jesus
●Celebrates the Gift (music) ●Celebrates the Giver (God)
●Hopes to hear, "You sang great!" ●Hopes to hear, "God IS great!"
●Engenders emotion for the moment ●Engenders significance for eternity
The differences between the paradigms are subtle, but important. Both apply to all styles of worship and church music--gospel, contemporary, traditional, liturgical, global, formal, informal.
The earlier paradigm is performance-oriented, though it does have some merit. The emerging paradigm is more worthy because it is biblically-based and worship-oriented.
Admittedly, there are horizontal aspects to our worship (ex., giving personal testimony about how God is working in someone's life), but our primary focus during worship should be vertical: from God to God's people, and from God's people to God.
As church musicians, the ultimate goal of presenting our best talents to God during worship is not to draw the spotlight on ourselves, but to reflect the spotlight so that it shines on God. Not to hear, "You are so talented!" but to hear, "You really helped me praise God today!"
So the only question that remains, for both church musicians and congregation, is: "What will be my focus today during musical worship?"
"Sing praise to God who reigns above, The God of all creation,
The God of pow'r, the God of love...To God all praise and glory.'"
See you in worship this Sunday - Naomi