By Andy High
The church puts a lot of focus on fostering strong youth programs. Examples abound of high school outreaches, mission trips, hip-looking rooms filled with beanbag chairs and foosball tables, and even youth-oriented Sunday morning services. The choir loft, in contrast, remains a stalwart bastion of stodgy old squares.
Youth participation in choir seems to be an endangered species these days. Dwindling participation in the late ‘90s and ‘00s led to the shuttering of many youth choral programs, and the thought of reopening such fledgling programs seems ill-advised, at best. Youth involvement in adult choirs does not fare much better.
This is an unfortunate disconnect within the church itself. The upside is this disconnect presents a tremendous opportunity for growth. Choir members are some of the most engaged people in the church, and the modern youth movement is head-over-heels in love with polyphonic singing. Here are three reasons why (re)starting and nurturing youth engagement in your choir is a necessary and worthwhile endeavor.
Youth Are Singing
With or without you, today’s high school and college students are some of the most well-educated and enthusiastic singers you can find today. They have been inundated with more choir in pop culture than anyone in close to 100 years.
The trend started with High School Musical and has exploded with cultural phenomena such as Glee, The Sing-Off, and the surprising success of groups such as Pentatonix. As a result, high school choirs are bursting at the seams. Many community choirs have tripled in size over the last ten years. College applicants are listing choir on their applications more than ever. Huge student and youth ministries such as the Passion Conference are utilizing choirs like never before.
The church has, up to now, not seen the same sort of explosive growth. Why not? There is perhaps a stigma to Ye Olde Churche Choire, but I think it largely stems from lack of invitation and lackluster repertoire choice.
Youth want to sing, but what they see on TV and what they sing in high school choirs are challenging, sonically interesting music from composers such as Eric Whitacre and Moses Hogan. They watch exciting quick-cut videos by Pentatonix on Youtube. Then they often arrive in church on Sunday morning to see a group of people fifty years older than them sing music that they would think is as difficult as a warm-up exercise.
Of course, that can create a lot of tension in the choir director’s mind. Your bread and butter attendee is often older and may be used to less challenging music. So how do we reconcile the two? I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I can share what has worked for me in my multi-generational choir.
First, we must choose more challenging music. Never play down to your audience. I experienced some backlash when initially selecting more difficult material, but with good direction and encouragement, the group persevered and had a much more positive view of their singing than they had in years past. It’s extremely beneficial for a choir’s confidence to climb a mountain that initially seemed insurmountable. Note that it might be wise to scale back the number of pieces you tackle.
Secondly, find ways to specially engage the more trained and gifted members of your choir, often youth. This can be done in many ways. Having special solos, quartets, etc. is a good place to start. To take this a step further, you can make those members your section leaders and task them with teaching their part to those in their sections. This has a myriad of benefits, including maximizing your rehearsal time, giving your talented youth members a sense of ownership over what they’re singing, and fostering empathy with the less-trained members of the choir.
It boils down to “engage them, and they will engage with you.” A simple concept, but it can be often overlooked. It can be difficult to overcome inertia and change rehearsal style and repertoire to help engage new singers, but in the long run it is more than worth the effort. Especially because…
Youth Are the Future
The truth is, if you can’t engage the youth in a choir setting, your choir will eventually dwindle to nothing. The math is simple: if you don’t involve the younger generation in your choir, when that generation fully matures they won’t have any desire to participate, and the choir will go up in smoke.
This ultimately has repercussions far beyond the choir and worship setting itself. Research shows that choir members are generally some of the most active people inside the church. The choir is a community within a community, and those who feel they belong to that community are typically the same ones who are more than happy to come early to setup chairs, cook for Wednesday night dinners, and volunteer their time for the Saturday morning playground mulching sessions. The choir is a holistic community experience, and a strong choral community positively affects many other aspects of the ministry. Gaining such involvement can be a surprising benefit.
Encouraging this involvement may be easier than it first appears. As previously mentioned, youth are more engaged in choirs in the culture in general. Additionally, there is a strong movement among the younger generation toward deeply-rooted traditions in the church: liturgy, authenticity, and yes, choir. Nothing is older and more traditional in the church than praising God with voice, and the youth crowd is abandoning flashy stage lighting and drum-driven arena rock for a more traditional approach to worship. This trend has been noted from various researchers such as as Pew and Washington Post and shows no signs of slowing.
Youth Are Energetic
This is not particularly surprising news to any parent of a teenager, although perhaps they would amend it to “youth are energetic provided it’s at least 11:00 am or not a school day.” At any rate, capturing youth engagement in the choir is also capturing those who are potentially the choir’s most vocal advocates.
Youth are the most likely to invite others to participate in many aspects of church and worship life, from conferences to lock-ins to even choir. Putting that energy towards the act of communal worship is a very powerful influence.
They can bring an energy to each choir rehearsal that can often lack otherwise. It is a particular strength of the age group. One of the benefits of a multi-generational choir is that each generation brings their best qualities and the group as a whole becomes more vibrant and healthy because of the blending of strengths. Being able to capture that energy is a huge benefit to the health of any choir and will reflect on Sunday morning as the choir reaches the rest of the congregation.
Youth are a vital part of any choir, and the church has done a woeful job of engaging them of late. Somewhat paradoxically, the rest of the culture is dripping with young choir outreach from head to toe. The church, which arguably invented the modern choir, is falling behind.
It’s not too late. If you recognize the importance of youth in your church’s choir setting and take steps to engage them on their level, your youth can help your entire choir reach another level of energy, professionalism, and engaging worship. Youth are excited, they’re willing, and most importantly, they’re singing. The long-term health of the church depends upon them singing with you.