by John Chisum
You’ve spent months culling through music, thinking, praying, and planning. You’ve set up a calendar and scheduled the perfect songs for just the right Sundays. You’ve thought through instrumentation and which musicians need to be scheduled. You’ve talked with the lead pastor about sermon subjects, series, and Scriptures. You’ve got all the ducks in neat little rows and you’ve battened down the hatches.
Then, the first Wednesday night of the fall choir season finally arrives but almost no one shows up and the ones who did come aren’t your strongest singers. Suddenly, you’re standing there trying to put on a happy face as you describe what a great fall season this is going to be, yet all the while fighting that all-too-familiar sinking feeling inside. If this has happened to you in the past (or you’re afraid it’ll happen to you in just a few weeks), I want you to know three things:
- It doesn’t happen because you’re not called to be a choir director, worship pastor, or leader
- It doesn’t happen because people don’t want to sing in choirs anymore
- It doesn’t happen because choirs aren’t cool
The reason people aren’t joining your choir is because they don’t see value in it.
Here’s the deal, you know how busy your potential choir members are, especially in the fall. Every potential singer has about a million things on their plate and showing up for rehearsals and early for services is probably at the bottom of their list, no matter how prepared you think you are to lead them.
But here’s the real shift you need to make in order to avoid an empty rehearsal space in a few weeks: realize that it’s not about your leadership. It’s all about the people whom you serve.
We’ve been taught so much about leadership over the last few decades that we’ve sometimes forgotten that we have to meet people where they are, not where we are. Oftentimes, people don’t care about our leadership. They don’t know nor do they care about the long hours we’ve spent prepping to lead them. They only care about their experience, their time, their money, their families, their commitments, their pain, and their lives. Our choir ministry is secondary, at best, if it makes the list at all.
Now, before you write me off completely and move on to your next email or phone call, think about it — this is just how human beings are wired. Until such a time that they (we) have been so spiritually transformed as to truly reflect the selfless love of Jesus Christ, the vast majority of our lives are spent consumed with all of the things I’ve just mentioned. Every person you see in the sanctuary or halls or in the grocery or at school is wondering the same thing, ”How am I going to pay these bills? How will I survive this relationship? How can I raise my children? How can I make it through tomorrow and the next day and the next and the next?”
Accepting the fact that people are primarily self-focused (I didn’t say selfish) is the first step to building your choir because you then have the opportunity to show them how it will bless and benefit them to participate. Do you believe it will benefit them to participate? Do you believe in the camaraderie, the community, the prayer support, the deeper worship, the fun, and the ministry that your choir provides? Then learn to help them believe in it, too.
Start to gear all communications to potential (and existing) members towards the pain points and benefits of being in your area of ministry. Ask them in emails and in one-on-one conversations, “Are you feeling lonely in your call to sing for the Lord? Do you long for great friends, a great community of believers, and the opportunity to take your worship life to a deeper level? Do you ever feel like you could step up your level of service to others and long to use your musical gift to do it?”
Then list all the benefits you can find about being part of your music ministry. “Choir here at First Church is much more than singing on Sundays… it’s a caring, praying, worshiping community of believers that has become a vital part of the worship lives of so many…” and then share testimonies of the group’s caring for one another, the fun you have together, and the sense of belonging that is offered and experienced.
In the end, real leadership is taking off the “Leadership Badge” and picking up a towel to serve. To serve well, we have to meet people where they are in their struggles, fears, loneliness, and pain. When we can demonstrate with real stories that our choir members are finding value in participating, we’ll take some giant strides towards filling the chairs. When you’re focused on your leadership or the building of your program, your eyes are on the wrong thing and people will intuitively pick up on it and steer clear. Learning to lead is learning to love. Learn to love and you and your choir program will flourish.
About the author: John Chisum has been active in the Christian music industry as a songwriter, arranger, producer, music publisher, and recording artist. He has served alongside some of the world’s greatest and best-loved artists such as Bill & Gloria Gaither, Don Moen, Twila Paris, Paul Baloche, and many more. John is currently Managing Partner of Nashville Christian Songwriters and recently celebrated his 36th wedding anniversary with his wife, Donna. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.