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 more than 200 references to singing in the Bible, and it was common practice in the early church to include singing, playing instruments and dancing whenever worshippers would gather.
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 so, technically, anyone who can speak can also sing.
The difference is that some people are born with “musical ears” – 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.
Psalm 100 says that we are to “make a joyful noise unto the Lord … come before God’s presence with singing,” so 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, praise team, 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 worshippers
Performs for 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 and informal.
The earlier paradigm is performance-oriented, though it does have some merit. Yet, the emerging paradigm is more worthy because it is biblically based and worship-oriented.
Admittedly, there are horizontal aspects to our worship (for instance, 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.
Worship leaders should not desire 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?”
Naomi K. Walker is an ordained Baptist minister. Now retired, she served as music/worship pastor at Immanuel Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky, from 1995 to 2017.