On Easter Sunday, we introduced a “praise choir” at Bethel. The whole experience was really great and I figured I’d share the why and how we did it in case some of you out there might want to give it a shot in your church!
Before we get into this, let me say that this was our first attempt and while it was successful, we aren’t praise choir experts – by any means! As we say a lot around here, the skill of analysis is vital to leading worship…even though it was just a few days ago, we’ve already made some mental notes of things to change, keep or try out when we do it again. (And we WILL do it again!)
For most folks, this is the obvious question…why would a church that’s relatively ‘contemporary’ utilize a choir? To some, it seems like a step back in time, but for us, it was a good move. Here’s why…
- Participation – The choir idea started here. At Bethel, we’ve got quite a few people who have expressed interest in singing on Sunday morning. The problem is that we just don’t have enough space (on stage & in our monthly schedule) to rotate 10 or 12 vocalists. The choir was a great way to give these folks a chance to sing and serve without waiting every 8 weeks to sing one set of songs. By grouping these people, we’re able to have more people leading worship more frequently. We don’t do ‘auditions’ at Bethel, but we do listen to people when they wanna’ get involved and we try to find a place for them that’s built for their strengths and schedules and likes.
- Modeling – I have to thank Frank Hart for encouraging me in this early on. Frank is an amazing musician and worship leader and I had been intrigued by use of a choir in his church. Frank was very supportive when I asked him for some guidance. I was most surprised by Frank’s commitment to the modeling aspect of a choir. Within Frank’s church, the ministry of leading worship is stressed to the choir. Their smiles, clapping, lifted hands, facial expressions…all of that is important for a congregation. Suddenly, the modeling aspect became a new focus.
- The Way It Is – The fact is this. Vocals are everywhere. Even in projects that aren’t “choir albums,” there’s lots of vocal overdubs on the backing tracks. For Bethel in particular, I tend to pick songs that actually have choirs. (Michael Neale, Tommy Walker, some live worship stuff that has crowd parts.) The choir allowed us to gain some of that natural energy inherent within the songs we try to use.
I was really surprised at how easy this part came together. I don’t think we ever had any real confusion (other than where to put 11 people on stage!)
- Selection – I looked back at the folks I had auditioned or heard sing over the past year. A few of the names were people with musical backgrounds that had served at Bethel long before I got there. It was a list of about 15 people. I mailed a letter to them with instructions. I stressed three things – the modeling aspect, the rehearsal schedule and a clear idea of what their role would be. (No choir specials…they would be there to accent normal worship.) I ended up getting 12 or 13 positive responses. A few of those ended up being unavailable due to the schedule so we ended up with 10 people in the ensemble.
- Songs – I picked a setlist and made that available to both band and the choir. I did this about 2 weeks out. Three weeks early would have been even better, but I think it was okay on the two weeks. The week before rehearsal, I met with Elizabeth Anderson. Elizabeth is my right-hand girl. She’s led worship, she plays piano, she’s done choir and she’s been at Bethel a long time. She was the perfect person for this job. Elizabeth and I listened through the songs and identified where the choir should and shouldn’t sing. This didn’t take long – Elizabeth made simple song orders and took them with her to look over as she listened to the tune.
- Practice – We met for our normal Thursday rehearsal at 7pm. We put the choir in our youth room. We provided lead sheets, a CD player and keyboard for Elizabeth to play through parts. While the choir worked their stuff, the band I set up risers and mics and then played through the songs to get ready. Around 8, we all came together and rehearsed for about 40 minutes. (We had told everyone to expect a 2 hour practice, and we actually came in under the wire on it!) We ran the songs and Elizabeth helped the choir to get honed it. Elizabeth then got on the piano. She never ‘directed’ the choir…they just did it on their own! As we played, we made a few changes. The choir was much better and stronger on a couple of songs, so we let them take the lead on those. That wasn’t necessarily planned, but it the Bethel band is pretty flexible, so it was fun. On Sunday, we met for our normal 8am practice and then did our services.
There really wasn’t a bad part about this project. Everybody had a great attitude and the choir worked very hard to get their parts down. We didn’t have them doing tons of vocal acrobatics – we just utilized two part harmony and played with a couple of small echo sections.
I had never led with a choir before, and I have to tell you, it was cool.
If you ever wanted to try this in your church, I’d encourage you to formulate a good plan of attack. Figure out who it will be and what sort of advance rehearsal you’ll need. Some worship leaders are great at organizing vocals in addition to leading, but I think having someone oversee the parts is much smarter. By delegating that, you’re allowing someone else the chance to serve and you realize that you’re not the smartest person in the room – you don’t have to do everything! Let smarter people do it!
My thanks to Elizabeth and the choir for their outstanding work on the Easter set. They’ll be coming back in May and I’m excited to see how it goes!