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National Congregations Study: Choirs and the Power of Small Groups

National Congregations Study: Choirs and the Power of Small Groups

This post is part of a series on the National Congregations Study, a sociological study of religious congregations in America. Check out my summary of the study's main findings and specifics on worship services, the growing informality of worship services, and the surprises and highlights of the study.

In reading through the National Congregations Study’s full report and then sifting through the 826 questions in the study, I learned about trends in the church as a whole and trends in what we do in our worship services. And while I found some surprises, most of what I learned was confirmation of what I already knew anecdotally. 

The decline in choirs, from 54% to 45% since 1998, was one of those non-surprises.

The study alone can’t tell us the why behind this decrease, but it could be related to the rise in contemporary worship music—music styles that fall under that umbrella don’t usually feature a choir or include one for back-up vocals, unless you count the mass of people singing in a blurry unison that some recordings use. 

I don’t think a church choir is necessarily better/worse than a band, a cantor+organist, or any other particular configuration of musicians leading singing—and some churches have almost completely eliminated their choir in favor of more congregational singing.

But if your church has a choir (or wants to start one), here’s something else the study tells us that could strengthen an existing choir or help a new one grow into a cohesive unit: the power of small groups.

The power of small groups to serve the community

“Small groups” here doesn’t mean “small group” like it’s often used in church circles (a mini-Bible study, a Sunday School, a “community group” that’s a subset of the congregation and meets in someone’s home every week).

Rather, it just means: a small group. As in, a subset of the congregation who meet for a particular task/activity.

Or, as the study defines them: “small groups of volunteers [who] carry out well-defined tasks on a periodic basis.” 

These are the groups who make sack lunches for a home shelter once a month, who volunteer at a natural disaster site, who sing and pray with nursing home residents, who assemble boxes of toiletries for refugees.

Small groups like this are one of the most powerful—and distinct—things congregations have to serve their communities, according to the report:

Congregations are very good perhaps uniquely good in American society at mobilizing small groups of volunteers for this kind of work. … [It] may be congregations’ special niche in the complex web of government agencies, nonprofit organizations, extended families, and informal social networks that constitute a community’s social services system. Since delivering social services rarely, if ever, is a congregation’s primary mission, and since congregation members are not immune to the time crunches created by family and work pressures faced by many Americans, it makes sense that this emerges as a particularly common way for congregations to serve their communities.

How a choir is like a small group

What are the unifying features of a small group like the NCS describes?

First, the group has a specific task. Not: help people who are homeless. Instead: organize and execute a drive for winter coats and deliver them to a shelter.

Second, the job has a specific time frame: one lunch-bag assembly each month; every Tuesday for after-school tutoring.

Third, a particular community the small group serves: families who need rides and babysitting to visit incarcerated relatives.

A choir has all three of these features: a specific task, time frame, and a community they serve. The task might be singing a psalm, an anthem, or singing with the congregation. The time frame might be every Wednesday for an hour-and-a-half rehearsal and again on Sunday for a service; it might be two weeknights a month and one Sunday morning. And the community the choir serves is their fellow sisters and brothers in the congregation.

How to shape your choir as a small group

First, clearly articulate your service mission.

This means that choir members should understand both their task(s) and whom they serve. While most people probably know of more obvious things the choir does (I.e. Singing an anthem on Sundays), they might not realize that one of their primary jobs is to lead the congregation in confident singing. They also might not think of their singing as something that is both for God and for the spiritual benefit of the rest of the congregation.  

Second, foster the differing skills and interests of individuals 

Within a small group, some people will be gifted in different areas. Use these gifts wisely. It might seem a no brainer to pull in a particularly skill vocalist for a solo, but that’s not all I mean. Some folks would do great organizing the food for a choir retreat or filing music. Someone who might not be the obvious choice for a solo could be a person who blossoms in a small ensemble—small enough that they have to stretch their comfort zone, but big enough so they aren’t nervous singing by themselves.

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