What the Choral Music Academy Can Learn from the Evolution of Church Music

There has been much discussion in recent years over the changing nature of worship music in mainline orthodox and evangelical churches, particularly as it pertains to that centuries-old staple of the church: the choir. Opinions surrounding the decline of traditional worship practice vary wildly, from generational shifts to questions about substance to cultural critique of the larger American church. While there are snippets of validity in all of these observations, there is very little agreement on whether the declining numbers in church choirs, the increase of contemporary praise bands and worship services, and the shifting demographics and percentages of music worship participants bodes well or ill for the future of the organized church, in America or elsewhere.

Furthermore, the current and developing trends in church worship culture have an influence on school music education, particularly in terms of vocal music. Historically, secular school chorus programs have been symbiotically linked to strong sacred singing traditions in public, private, and parochial schools. The wearing of robes in public school choirs is a surface-level example of the enduring influence of church choirs in the secular sphere. Repertoire selection, size of ensemble, accompaniment or a cappella arrangements, and calendar dates of school concert programs are but a few more connections between the historic home of the choir and its modern day incarnation as a public school institution. This partnership manifests itself in larger trends and practices, altering the old paradigm and introducing an increasingly stronger new set of rules and expectations for both institutions of faith and education.

The Problems
There are three common trends in both church and school choral music that are making the greatest difference in this shifting paradigm. They are:

“Binning” of worship music traditions. The music education world has already studied and identified a process known as “binning”, which refers to the partition and assignment of individuals, music, and pedagogy to specific musical styles and traditions. School music has done this for a long time, as specific ensembles that practice and perform music under the monickers “jazz”, “madrigals”, “pop”, “show”, and “concert”. Similarly, worship services are often “binned” by their worship music style: “traditional”, “contemporary”, “blended”, etc. A bi-product of this system is that it creates the need for specialists and experts within each bin to serve as authorities and leaders in the genre, which narrows the field of participants to those who have or take the time to achieve a certain level of proficiency in the specialized skills of each bin.

Seismic shifts in the definition of the term “literacy”. In a previous article I discussed the changing nature of music literacy in the 21st century and what it might mean for the contemporary and future choral music educator and the choral profession at large. This same metamorphosis has begun taking place in the church, and, for better or for worse, it has changed the way congregations use music in worship and evangelism. When the historical worship practice of the church is dependent upon congregational fluency in the skills, knowledge, and rituals of that practice, a generational shift in the understanding of what it means to be musically literate has significant consequences.

Diminishing returns. This trend is really a bi-product of  binning and changing literacy expectations. As churches have “binned” their worship music into increasingly specific categories, the need has arisen for specialists to maintain the integrity of the medium. However, as specialization requires refined skills and knowledge, the deeper the degree of specialization required, the fewer individuals who are able to maintain it. Churches have spent thousands of dollars to hire full-time contemporary worship musicians and leaders, individuals who have, in many instances, received formal specialized training in the field of contemporary worship music. These individuals play “contemporary” instruments, sing with “contemporary” technique, and have “contemporary” literacy skills, all of which are frequently at odds with traditional instrumentation, technique, and literacy expectations. Of course, funding is required to purchase new instruments, put up sound systems and display screens, provide microphones and sheet music rights.

Several churches have eliminated their organist position or eliminated their choir director, reducing him/her to a part-time or stipend-based position. Older congregants, who make up the heart of most church choirs, are frequently left behind during these transitions, though they often are told that such change is necessary to bring new blood to the church, though there is some evidence that the millennial generation is less concerned with which “bin” of music a church offers than with the quality of that music. The overarching result has been that fewer long-time volunteer musicians are participating in contemporary worship music, while younger people are content to sit back and watch the trained “experts” present the music to them. As churches wait for new parishioners who never come, those still attending lose the opportunity to transfer the tradition, knowledge, and value of their musical experiences and rituals to the next generation of worshipers. A self-made cycle of diminishing returns is the inevitable result.


From the outside looking in, the choral academy in secondary and post-secondary education might look at the troubles of the changing church music landscape with a degree of apathy, but a closer examination of school music shows that similar problems persist. Extra-curricular offerings like musicals, vocal jazz and show choir have come to dominate the landscape of many school choral music programs, utilizing half or more of the available financial, personnel, and time resources of many choral directors, students, and parent booster groups. Specialist coaches, equipment, camps, training sessions, rehearsals, costumes, etc. all take time and money to provide. These heightened expenses can also deter and eliminate certain students from participating in music, as the financial or time commitments prove too heavy for their personal and family circumstances. The binning process also frequently wreaks havoc on faculty hiring decisions, as teachers are sought who bring “expertise” in a specific area at the expense of others.

Of course, this binning process has long had an effect on student participation in school choirs. The percentage of the student body that participates in ensemble music at the secondary level has declined since the early 90s, though the last decade has seen a stabilization to approximately 20%, which includes enrollment in all band, choir, and orchestra ensembles. This percentage fluctuates based on the size of the school, the wealth of the community, and the strength of the cultural role the music program plays in the institutional and community culture, but it serves a stark reminder that student participation in school music is already a highly selective endeavor.


So, what can the choral music academy learn from the plight of church choirs and worship music directors around the country?

  1. Quality trumps quantity. One lesson we can learn is that the type of choral music that we offer is less important than the quality with which it is learned and experienced by the students. School choral programs should do fewer things well. Show choir may seem like the best pathway toward enticing students to become lifelong participants in choral music, but the trends in church music participation and literacy have clearly shown that contemporary doesn’t equal long-term growth.
  2. Infuse your binned offerings with traditional literacy skills. Contrary to the popular belief of many of traditional choral music fan, vocal jazz, musical theater, and contemporary worship music can all be excellent vehicles to teach traditional music literacy to students, but the instruction must be intentional. Otherwise, accept a new paradigm. As contemporary worship music teaches people to harmonize by ear and learn melodies by rote, hymns and hymnals lose their potency and value in the eyes of worshipers. An entire generation of choral students who only know the alto line to the fifty pieces of music they sang in high school does not a literate generation make.
  3. Community values are important, as are yours. If you haven’t looked at your philosophy of music education since your junior year of undergrad (or you burned it after the course was finished), you may wish to revisit what you value. The most successful and thriving music traditions in congregations are not those that found a compromise or that offered something for everyone but those that embraced the values of their congregation. What are the values of your community? Are they the same as yours? If so, what kind of music do those values evoke? It may not be what you’re currently pursuing, and that’s a problem.