The following is taken from an interview with Benjamin Good, conducted by Reagan Schrock. Benjamin is a teacher and choir director at Sharon Mennonite Bible Institute and has been regularly involved in various Mennonite choirs and conservative singing groups. He lives with his wife and children in Harrisonville, PA.
I have been teaching full-time at SMBI (Sharon Mennonite Bible Institute) since 2012. I grew up in a family that sang together quite a lot, so I’ve been singing all my life. I had my first experience in conducting here at SMBI, and I took a conducting class here. Besides directing the choir I also teach classes in music theory and music theology, as well as some Bible classes.
One reason that Mennonites have so many choirs is simply because singing is fun! People enjoy singing and listening to choirs. One reason we have so many choirs is because of the demand for them. While at a border crossing during an SMBI choir tour in Canada, one of the officials asked a student, “What are you doing on this tour?”
“It’s a singing tour.” the student replied.
“How much do they pay you to be a part of this tour?”
“Oh no,” the student said “I pay to be a part of the tour.”
“Strange,” the official replied.
Singing has always been important to the Christian church. The first century of Christians sang a great deal. They believed in the power of congregational singing. We see this in the Bible and in extra-biblical sources. Singing is worship, but there’s a lot more entailed in it than that. It teaches the truth and is a way of witnessing and joining people together. There is a great deal of power in music—specifically in singing—that we as a church understand and want to tap into. God asks us to sing. We praise Him through both congregational singing as well as in performance; praise flows out of our hearts. We sing to glorify our God.
Anabaptists in general strongly prefer and uphold a capella (without instruments) singing in our worship. People learn to sing in four-part harmony from childhood, and choirs have become a natural extension of that ability. Youth choirs are a way of involving young people in a healthy activity, giving them opportunity to interact with other young people, and when they go on tour they are able to see what God is doing in other churches.
Choirs have not always been a part of the church. In the first century, singing was a big part of the church. When the church became a state entity, choirs produced all the music in the church. For hundreds of years, congregants would go, sit in the pews, and not make a sound. Then the Reformation came along and many reformers, including some of the leading Anabaptists, said, “We want to get the congregation involved in singing again.” They pushed hard for everyone to be actively involved in worship, and for congregational singing. There’s little record of choirs in Anabaptist circles until soon before the 20th century. Then in late 20th century, choirs in our circles began to flourish. Prior to this, Sunday evening youth singings were common, and choirs formed out of these gatherings.
I believe we may currently have the strongest balance of choirs and congregational music the church has ever had: strong congregational singing, with choirs (sometimes touring) to supplement that.
We are concerned that our choirs do not take the place of congregational singing. Some are concerned that we’re heading that direction. But those of us involved in choirs care very much about our typical, local worship service, with congregational singing playing a major part in corporate worship. We don’t want that to ever go away.
The positive outcome of choirs in our circles is that it fosters congregational participation. In the pre-Reformation eras, the church leaders led worship, the choir sang, and the lay people (the congregation) merely observed worship. Congregational involvement is key to what we do. It’s what we believe. A capella singing depends on everyone knowing how to sing and desiring to sing along. Choirs also train people to sing well in a congregation, and they inspire the congregation to sing.
Another value in a capella singing (which is somewhat undermined when instrumental music is included in worship) is the focus on the truth of the lyrics. The Gospel message needs the clarity of the text. So, while we enjoy the beautiful music that helps draw our hearts and minds towards God, the lyrics are what drives the message home.
I believe choirs strengthen congregational singing by teaching people how to sing. They teach congregations new songs and promote the joy of singing. Having choirs helps to strengthen congregational music, and, through touring, helps to spiritually strengthen the church as well.