by: Rev. Dr. Anna Hall
As church members age, and memberships get smaller, one common concern is how to continue traditions of congregational singing. We may struggle to hit the high notes and realize our hymns don’t sound the way they did. Our lay musicians may be present less often as they travel on retirement adventures and to see their grandchildren. Some may still not be comfortable singing in groups due to the risk of covid or other airborne diseases.
Choirs, in particular, can struggle once their members are older and fewer in number. I recently read an article from Bryan Hehn, Director of the Center for Congregational Song, that highlighted the dilemmas of a choir director whose musicians were not only aging but in declining health. The advice provided was encouraging even for a choir facing many challenges, so I wanted to share that with you in full – it can be accessed here: https://congregationalsong.org/questions-for-the-director-a-problem-in-my-aging-church/.
My own congregation once had a beloved member with severe cerebral palsy. She could not speak and used a communication device to make her brilliant thoughts visible to those of us in community with her. An advocate for disability rights, talented artist, and community creator, her value as a congregational lay leader was undeniable. One of the ways she led us was to participate in the Gospel Choir. While her vocalization of the lyrics could not be understood, her joy and spirit were a gift to the congregation every time she sat in her motorized wheelchair at the front of that choir during their selections.
That experience, and the article linked above, show that choir is about so much more than presenting music that is pleasing to the congregation. In fact, two additional functions were highlighted in the article: to enliven congregational song and to serve as a small-group for faith formation. As a member of choirs myself in the past, I can testify to the power of choir to become a true community that cares for and supports its members. According to many research studies, choir singing improves many aspects of quality of life for older adults. Even if the choir only sings the melody with gusto, having those who know hymns by heart lead in worship is a true gift to newcomers and those who are less confident singers.
If you are looking for practical tips, the article linked above has several, and I will only add:
- Choose music that is adaptable to older voices
- Stay flexible – plans can quickly change with a small choir if a few people are absent
- Have fun! Singing together is one of the great joys of life, no matter how old we are.
In truth, our worries about aging choirs can come more from performance and consumerist values than from our Christian faith. If we can let go of our attachment to sing certain kinds of music or sound like we did in the past, and if we can lean into the unique gifts of the people we have in the choir and the pews, we will all benefit. Creating opportunities for singers of all ages and abilities to find community, feel valued, and provide leadership is a powerful way to show God’s inclusive and affirming love.
If you’d like to talk through music dilemmas or any other challenges of church, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you or your congregation are looking for new songs to sing, check out Convergence Music Project, where songwriters share new music for worship that embodies progressive values.