Kai Ton Chau on Small Church Choirs

Small church choirs can do far more than sing anthems. Despite perceived challenges, small church choirs can successfully help lead and enliven worship.

Kai Ton Chau is a resource development specialist for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and associate editor of Reformed Worship in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has degrees in choral conducting, international business, and worship. In this edited conversation, Chau talks about challenges and solutions for small church choirs, including for Chinese congregations in North America.

How do you define a small church choir?

For simplicity, I consider a small-to-medium congregation as having fewer than 200 people. This number often reflects the number of people attending a typical Sunday worship service. A church choir can loosely be defined as a group of singers that is organized to lead worship through music. A service choir therefore often sings an anthem and other liturgical music at various segments of a worship service. A small church choir is a service choir for a small congregation, not one of many smaller choirs (such as age-based choirs) of a large church.

How large is a typical small church choir?

There is no clear consensus among choir directors between an ensemble or a choir. We often refer to a small group of three to six singers as an ensemble (a trio, quartet, etc.), and a group with more singers as a choir. Small church choirs often have eight to fifteen singers. Some may have twenty. (Many church choir directors would feel ecstatic to have consistent attendance from that many singers.) The phrase “the faithful fifteen” reflects the size of a typical small church choir. Ten to twelve singers often form the core of a choir. 

Why would a small church need or want a choir?

The reasons are similar to those of a larger church. The ministry of a church choir is leading worship mainly through choral music. I say “mainly” because a choir can lead worship not only with singing but also through scripture reading and other worship arts as well. Logically, a smaller church usually has fewer resources than a larger church.

If a smaller congregation is determined to have a choir, it is a positive sign that the congregation sees the choir ministry as just as necessary and important as other roles in worship leading—instrumental players, scripture readers, prayer leaders, ushers, tech people, etc. It also indicates that the congregation desires lay leaders (mostly volunteers) of different ages and ability levels to lead worship.

Why might a small church decide not to have a choir?

Some small churches desire to have a choir, but they can’t find a choir director or pianist. Without skillful leaders, many church choirs struggle to bring together songs that can enhance worship. Other small churches say they lack resources—human, talent, financial, space, etc. Recruitment can be difficult, because a small church has a smaller pool of people for ministry. Since there are other church ministries that require participation, people may feel stressed as they try to fill many needs. Although some small churches don’t have a regular Sunday choir, they gather a group of singers for special church events or services, such as for Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter.

What common challenges do small church choir directors face when recruiting choir members?

People often say, “I can't sing” or “You don't want me to sing in the choir.” They think that their untrained voices will stand out too much or hurt the choir’s overall quality. However, it is more challenging to blend the sound of a smaller group—but if people don’t join, the choir remains small!

Joining a small church choir requires relatively more time and consistent attendance compared to other church ministry opportunities. With hectic work and family demands, people often hesitate to commit to a weekly practice session of 1.5 to 2 hours. A typical church choir practices a song for two to three weeks before a Sunday service. Inconsistent attendance at choir practice will affect the performance.

What solutions can you offer?

Whether choir directors serve in small or large churches, I encourage them to focus on God. Psalm 84:11 and Philippians 4:19 remind us that God provides. The success of a choir ministry does not solely depend on our own strength, skills, or even charisma, to develop and sustain the music ministry. Let the Holy Spirit guide the strategies and planning.

Adapt to small congregation ecology by leading choir members pastorally and spiritually as well as musically. Encourage singers when the choir achieves good diction or vocal harmony, even coincidentally. Based on the singers’ ability, choose suitable repertoire that a small choir can do well. Encourage others to join the choir for special occasions.

Think intergenerationally. A small church choir provides a unique opportunity to invite people of different ages to participate. Young singers can do well when singing together with adults. Older adults are surprisingly welcoming to youth singing with them.

Choirs can do more than sing anthems. They can occasionally sing one verse of a congregational song so that the congregation may listen and reflect on the lyrics. A choir could lead in a sung prayer or sing a psalm or other scripture selections rather than reading the passages. In fact, a choir can read scripture passages as solo reading or unison reading. If the worship service uses a contemporary band, a small choir could provide very effective vocal harmony. Choir directors can encourage choir members to play (or learn to play) small musical instruments, such as hand drums, cajón [Peruvian box drum], or ukulele.

You network with and develop resources for Chinese congregations across North America. What unique challenges do they face? 

In North America, small Chinese churches—like many small congregations—seek to balance using traditional hymns and contemporary praise songs, choirs and worship bands, structured liturgies and freedom of expression.

Many smaller Chinese church choirs are made up of first-generation immigrants who do not read music and likely have never sung in anything but a church choir. As a choir director once said, a small church choir director could be the only voice teacher that a church singer may ever have in his or her life. This phenomenon is especially true among Chinese churches. That said, even the choir directors in many Chinese churches (small or large) have limited (or no) musical training, making it more difficult for singers and congregations to have a satisfying ministry experience.

Nevertheless, Chinese churches in North America are blessed with talents and therefore have huge musical potential. Many second- and third- generation Chinese in North America are not only musically gifted but also very proficient in playing different kinds of musical instruments. Smaller Chinese congregations need to motivate and welcome the younger generations into ministry.

LEARN MORE

Read “10 Ways to Lead Music Without a Musician” and “5 Ways to Still Lead a Worship Service WITHOUT Musicians.” Download Wanda P. Galloway’s “Music in the Small Membership Church” from Hinton Rural Life Center.

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