Sunday, October 25, 2009

"The Auxiliary Choir"

It took a while, but I finally figured out that Calvin and the other Reformers were right in emphasizing congregational singing. The reason why I didn’t get it immediately is that I was overwhelmed by the professional and amateur musicians, and not a few clergy, who campaign and compete in churches for people to sing in their choirs.

In some parishes, choirs take on a life of their own. A particular choir’s reputation for beautiful singing will make the rounds and draw worshippers. Regular Sunday worship may be displaced by special concert-like services. The calendar of the Christian Year may be subject to minor adjustment in order to accommodate a choral event. The church choir can just get too prominent.

The Reformed tradition says that essentially the true choir is the congregation. In order to assist and encourage congregational singing, there may be an auxiliary choir.

Don’t get me wrong. No one likes good, robust choral music more than I do, especially that which proclaims the faith. Everything from rip-snorting Gospel music to Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” brings inspiration and excitement. And a congregation can get fired up when major efforts produce such concerts—especially if they are done on an ecumenical basis where different traditions are given exposure.

The problem for me is when the “concert” creeps into the Lord’s Day worship service and becomes more of a distraction than an inspiration, more performance than prayer. When that happens, the church musicians forget the proper role of the choir: to assist the congregation in its singing.

One way the auxiliary choir can help bolster and improve congregational singing is to use the “anthem” slot to introduce new music. Perhaps a new, contemporary hymn would benefit from such an introduction. Even more, they might well introduce fresh settings of service music: the Gloria, the Holy, Holy, Holy, the Sanctus, Simeon’s Song, Mary’s Song, and so forth.

Placement of the auxiliary choir in the room can effect how the auxiliary choir performs its function. The “choir loft” may be in the back or in a rear balcony to reinforce congregational singing, but really doesn’t work well for “anthems.” Other churches have the auxiliary choir behind the pulpit platform (in a central pulpit/table arrangement), making it difficult to avoid the impression that they are placed there to perform. Still others compromise by having the auxiliary choir toward the front, but off to one side. The “split chancel” arrangement is, of course, commonly used in many churches.

We all have to do with what we’ve got. Few have the luxury of placing the auxiliary choir in the “perfect” spot, even if they could figure out what that spot is. What we need to do is remember that the people in the pews are the true choir; they are the laos in the liturgy, the people who do the work of worship. It is the business of the church musicians to support and encourage them.

In what ways do the musicians (including the auxiliary choir) in your church bolster the singing of the true choir?


  1. I completely agree, Don, and this aligns with the Reformed Tradition conviction that God is the audience, not the congregation. For the congregation as choir and as you name it the "auxiliary choir" to be fully embraced, the Minister of Music needs to share and vocalize this perspective. I'm fortunate to serve a congregation where that is the case.

  2. Once again, you're on the mark. I've been trying to convince our choir that they're there to help the congregation, not be the center of attraction.
    Maybe it's a distraction, but it helps for our choir to go down into the congregation after the anthem.
    I've also done a takeoff on WGY's old "Tool Time With Don and John" (Tool Time With John and Donna) to introduce new hymns, which the choir has gone over first.

  3. Thank you for this one of a continuing series of such thoughtful pieces about worship. About this particular one, I would ask the question: "Is the choir not part of the congregation too?" It seems that if pastor and musician are working carefully to plan a seamless liturgy of spoken word and music the choral contribution will be part of a coherent whole. Granted, the choir may have some gifted musicians who can offer leadership on behalf of the congregation, but if done so with the goal of communal worship and offering to God, it is not performance. An anthem, well chosen and well placed, can be as I have heard a pastor describe, "a second sermon," another rendering of the Scripture or theological theme for the day. The music gives meaning and depth to the words in new ways, the music providing a vehicle to carry the words differently. What seems critical is that pastor and musician each use individual gifts and training as theologians and musicians to plan toward an integrated liturgy, with the goal of engaging all of the people with the best possible music for the glory of God. Charlotte Kroeker

  4. Thanks, Charlotte, for your comments. Your point of "integrated" or "seamless" liturgy is well made and well taken. A lot depends, I think, on the ability of the pastor and musician to put it all together cohesively, and not run on parallel tracks, each doing her/his thing without real consultation, much less theological conversation. As you state it so well, the goal is "engaging all of the people with the best possible music for the glory of God." Amen to that.

  5. We had a pianist in Amsterdam who was a former Vaudville piano player. We started an early service and she discovered that the people who came were a bit timid about singing. She told them one Sunday to pick a hymn that they would like to sing. Then she proceeded to help them learn to sing it. Every week, just prior to the beginning of worship she would do a couple of the congregation's hymn selections. It wasnt long before the singing in the early service was better than that of the later service which had 10 times as many people in it.

    It seems to me that that should be the purpose of any church choir -- to help the congregation learn to sing the songs of Worship.

    I share the concern that too many people today go to church to be entertained. If they walk away feeling duly entertained then they think of themselves as having worshipped God.

    We live in such a consumeristic society that all too many times the church is trying to figure out how to "market" the church. This is thought to be "evangelism".

    But it is not evangelism if all we are doing is trying to please people enough to entice them to come and stay for a while.

    When we gather for worship the center of the worship should be God and striving to understand what God wants from us and what God is doing in this world. We are there to seek the relationship between God and ourselves that will aid us in the formation of such relationships with others in the Body and beyond the Body.


Thanks for joining in the conversation!