A View from the Pew: Aging of the Choir

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I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who enjoyed hearing the choir perform Christmas music during last Sunday’s worship service.

I’ve had a fondness for Christmas cantatas, lessons and carols services, and other performances of sacred Christmas music since I was a boy fidgeting in the third-row pew while my parents rehearsed portions of Handel’s “Messiah.”

Our choir this Sunday was as intriguing as their performance was beautiful. I noticed four or five younger people, including one teen, swelling the membership. Later that day, I asked our minister of music if he thought he’d keep any of the younger voices now that the performance was over. Enthusiastic, he said, “I sure hope so.”

But it can be difficult to build a choir on hope.

In churches with a predominantly traditional approach to worship, the demographic makeup of the sanctuary choir skews in the senior direction. The fresh faces in ours this Christmas made me realize just how much the generation gap in our choir had grown in recent years and prompted me to think about why.

After some reflection, here’s what I came up with:

Overfilled schedules. People of all ages contend with full schedules these days, but younger adults, particularly those with kids, have enormous challenges fitting in church at all, much less extra commitments like singing in the choir. We do our best to protect church activities, but even the most devout find that their involvement and their children’s activities can prevent them from committing to mid-week rehearsals and weekly performances. If singing in the choir isn’t already a priority, it’s hard to add to today’s time-starved schedules.

Lack of appreciation and knowledge. With the erosion of singing traditional hymns in the church, people who might be drawn to sing in the choir because of a love for sacred music don’t develop an appreciation of the style. If you don’t know the songs, you aren’t drawn to sing them, with a choir at church or with anyone anywhere.

Praise bands. There isn’t a Levitical law on the age of choir members or praise bands, but generally speaking, church praise bands tend to be younger and choirs tend to be older. Now in my mid-40s, I’m probably at or near the dividing the line between the two.

Ear buds. We do a lot of listening to music privately in society, even in church society. With our headphones on or earbuds in, we fill our ears with music that supports our tastes without engaging with the wider Christian or non-Christian community. Communal singing can be a profound bonding experience, and without the practice, we stay in our heads and silently join the concert playing only in our ears. In short, music is largely a solitary experience, while choirs are by definition a group activity.

Poor recruiting. I have known choir directors and music ministers who incessantly prowled for new blood, but I’ve also seen them downtrodden, so frequently rejected they don’t even bother to ask people to join the choir anymore. Perhaps our music minister’s strategy is viable: recruit younger voices for special events, showcase their talents, communicate their importance, encourage them to stay, and ask others to join their peers in the choir.

When I was teenager, singing in the choir was as compulsory as military service is in Israel. I simply had no choice. But neither did I push against it. I enjoyed the camaraderie, and if positioned between two very strong singers, I could actually add volume, if not quality, to the performance. Still, I haven’t rejoined the choir since those days for a variety of reasons, some of which are reflected above.

If you are able, maybe this would be a good time to think about joining the choir at your church. Maybe I, too, will get back into the choir and have an opportunity to sing in the “Messiah”—probably when I’m older.

Lance Wallace_for_webLance Wallace is a Baptist layperson and member of Parkway Baptist Church in Johns Creek, GA, does media relations and issues management at his day job, and blogs at newsouthessays.com.

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