The Choir and the Congregation Need to Sing Together

The Choir and the Congregation Need to Sing Together

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Welcome to The Daily Prayer Team messages, each day includes a passage of scripture, a reflection and a prayer. Sponsored by Saint John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL.

And it was the duty of the trumpeters and sings to make themselves head in unison in praise and thanksgiving to the Lord, and when the song was raised, with trumpets and cymbals and other musical instrument, in praise to the Lord, “For He is good, for His steadfast love endures forever,” the house, the house of the Lord, was filled with a  cloud, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God. 2 Chronicles 5: 13-14

The most fun I’ve ever had giving a sermon was a sermon about how the choir and he congregation are supposed to interact.  At the beginning of the sermon, I brought in a boom-box with a CD of college football fight songs on it representing the colleges and universities in my state.  I asked members of the congregation to stand up and “do what comes naturally” when you hear the fight song from your college or university.  The people affiliated with the University of Florida did the “chomp” and the people from Florida State University did the “tomahawk chop” when their songs came on.  Everyone was enthusiastic and knew exactly what to do when they heard their song.

I then asked everyone affiliated with the Orthodox Church to stand up and do what comes naturally.  I intoned “let us pray to the Lord,” and I got a mumbling of “Lord, have mercy”.  And then I made my points about the congregation and the choir comparing them to a college football game.

The band takes the role of the choir—the band plays, the fans stand, and cheer and make the school sign.  Without the band, the fans won’t know when to stand and will be disorganized in their cheering.

The fans are the congregation.  Imagine that the band plays at the college football game and no one stands or cheers.  There would be a great sense of emptiness.  The lack of enthusiasm would be noticeable.  Part of what makes a college football game so fun is precisely because the fans cheer and get into it.

The band needs the fans.  The fans need the band.  When both do their roles right, the game is entertaining and a fun experience.  Of course, the team on the field winning helps, and I suppose that would be analogous to the overall presentation of the Divine Liturgy.

Every church needs a competent choir to lead the responses.  The music should not be so difficult that it cannot be followed or sung with.  The choir serves to lead the congregation in worship, not merely perform for them.

The people in the pews are worshippers, not spectators.  They should sing along with the choir, so that everyone is engaged in worship.  At the football game, the band doesn’t have to invite the fans to cheer.  It comes naturally to the fans.  Ideally, worship will become as natural for the people in our churches.

The “winning” formula for worship includes a good choir, music that it easy to sing, and a participating congregation.  This does not mean that the choir should vary it’s renditions of the hymns that are heard every Sunday.  It also doesn’t mean that the faithful should be expected to sing along with hymns are only sung once a year on special feast days.  However, it does mean a concerted effort to match choir and congregation so that choir is leading, not performing, and congregation is participating, and not spectating.

There is one more elephant in the room, and this concerns the language of the services.  The original language of the services is Greek, actually it is Patristic Greek, the Greek of the early centuries of the church, when the hymns we sing today were composed.  The Greek of the Liturgy is not the spoken the same modern spoken Greek.  The Orthodox Church has always adapted to the language of the people in the country in which it is present.  In Russian, they sing in Russian or Slavonic.  In Greece, they sing in Greek.  In Africa, they sing in Swahili and other local languages.  In America, where the majority of people in the majority of congregations do not speak Greek (yes, there are some people in every congregation who speak Greek, and in some congregations, it is still the majority), and in nearly all the congregations where VERY FEW people understand the Liturgical Greek of the services, it is necessary to offer the Divine Liturgy in English.  It is unrealistic to expect people to sing their hearts out singing words that they don’t know or understand.  It is unrealistic to expect people to learn an entirely new language in order for them to feel able to function in church.  The investment of time would be immense, and would be much greater than most people are willing to offer.

However, we must be cognizant that because the hymns were written in Greek, there has to be special care in translating the hymns, both for accuracy and for sing-ability (words that are easy to sing and to understand) as well as matching the hymns to the original melodies.

There are some who think we should write entirely new music scores that are American-sounding and make an entirely American sounding musical experience in our church—I personally disagree with this.  I’ve worked hard with my choirs to put hymns to English while keeping them true to the original melodies, tones, etc.  I actually like the use of the organ, when it is used properly.  And even though the “four part harmony” is not “traditional” when it comes to Orthodoxy, in keeping in line with adapting to a new country while not entirely changing I think that organs and four part harmonies can be both American (contemporary) while staying traditional, when done appropriately.  As I mentioned previously, this is my opinion, and there are others who have differing opinions on the subject.

What I hope most can agree on is an older chanter droning on in Greek that is impossible to sing along with is not something that is going to attract many people to worship.  We want to get people excited and enthusiastic for worship.  Imagine people having the same enthusiasm for worship that they have for a college football game!  This is the ideal, for people to flock to the churches to worship, and to worship with enthusiastic participation.  The choir and the congregation, working together, can accomplish this!

Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered, let those who hate Him flee before Him!  As smoke is driven away, so drive them away; as wax melts before fire, let the wicked perish before God! But let the righteous be joyful; let them exult before God; let them be jubilant with joy!  Sing to God, sing praises to His name; lift up a song to Him who rides upon the clouds; His name is the Lord, exult before Him.  Psalm 68:1-4

The choir leads.  The congregation sings along.  The language is English.  The setting of the hymns retains traditional melodies.  In my opinion, this is the ideal worship experience.  Because worship is not watching—it is participating!

The Revised Standard Version of the Bible is copyrighted 1946, 1952, 1971, and 1973 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. and used by permission. From the Online Chapel of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

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Fr. Stavros Akrotirianakis

Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Proistamenos of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL. Fr. contributes the Prayer Team Ministry, a daily reflection, which began in February 2015, has produced two books, “Let All Creation Rejoice: Reflections on Advent, the Nativity and Epiphany”: “https://amzn.to/2t1rXwh and “The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week and the Resurrection.” https://amzn.to/2WAcfG0