Congregation as Choir—Issue #145
For many congregations church music is synonymous with ensemble music—the chancel choir rehearsing and singing anthems, the handbell choir playing in worship, children's choirs, youth choirs, brass and other instrumental groups, and so forth. At Saint Mark's United Methodist Church in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, the congregation is the most important choir. All of the church's musical ensembles understand that their primary role is to support and enable the congregation to experience the presence of God in worship through singing.
Rev. Jackson Henry, Minister of Music and Worship, spends time in choir rehearsals preparing the members to lead, sing, and understand the hymns. They rehearse phrasing, diction, and discuss the theology of a text. They plan changes in tempo, volume, and mood between stanzas of a hymn in order to make the text understandable and plain when the congregation sings.
Saint Mark's has hymnals in the pews, but words are projected on a screen to encourage people to get their heads up and engage with the leader and each other. There is also a screen at the rear of the sanctuary for the choir and leaders to see, thus helping them to keep their heads up as well and promoting visual engagement with the people.
Rev. Henry has taken time to know the congregation, their likes and dislikes, and also their theology. He chooses music that "represents the people authentically. Authenticity in singing is more important than musical style." While old standards are frequently updated with rhythmic and harmonic changes, Rev. Henry advises, "Don't mess with the melody. That's their point of familiarity with a song."
The accompaniment for singing varies, sometimes using piano or organ, a cappella, a band, a single guitar, or other instruments, but always with the goal of strengthening and enabling the congregation to sing. St. Mark's choirs still offer their own unique music, but they understand that the congregation is the main choir of the church.
Questions for Discussion
- What are the hymns and other musical offerings that authentically represent your congregation?
- What steps might be taken to help your congregation understand itself as the main choir of the church?