It was a warm, summer Sunday evening and I, a curious seventeen year-old, snuck into the back of the house of worship as the music began. A friend had invited me, and I had no idea what I was in for. The B-3 hummed, the drummer crashed the cymbals and ignited a thumping groove as around one hundred folks on the platform of every color and age swayed, clapped, and sang a thunderous phrase over and over, “Praise, Praise His Name!” I’d never experienced a “wall” of sonic joy like this, especially in church. The worship leader guided us in response to God and His goodness for about 30 minutes. It was a journey of joy and repentance, praise, and prayer. My heart awakened to the presence of the Divine in a way like never before. I distinctly remember thinking; EVERYONE is singing . . . EVERYONE is connected. It felt like community. It felt like family. It felt like an invincible army. In those 30 minutes I experienced so many things: conviction, inspiration, passion, strength, courage, peace, and forgiveness. I had seen choirs sing in church before. They performed, and we watched. There was some applause and it all seemed perfectly fine and appropriate.
This experience was different. I wasn’t watching the worship. I was IN it. We were all in it, together. It was moms and dads, sons and daughters, grandparents and teenagers, all joining in celebration and reverence of our Redeemer.
As I reflect on that encounter, we were clearly being led by a worship leader, but the platform presence of this choir and band wrapped it’s arms around the whole room and lifted us all. It was through this beautiful and diverse mosaic of everyday, normal people singing their guts out in praise that the atmosphere was rocked, and I wanted in.
I’ve been so blessed to have led worship and played music in countless diverse environments throughout my ministry life. As a teenager, I started working with the choir I described earlier. It was an incredible experience. After college, I toured as an artist and worship leader in nearly every state and about 20 countries. I’ve served in a church where we built a choir from scratch. I’ve served in churches with just a band and a few singers. Now, I serve in a church that has a 30-year history of a mass choir. I’ve loved every season.
Over the past several years there has been quite a bit of commentary on the use, relevance and importance of choirs in our worship environments. At Prestonwood, our choir is relevant, important, and much more. We just released a worship experience with a collection of modern worship songs (Songs of the People) that fully engage, and are led with, our choir. It is quite simply the most powerful project I have ever been involved in. The concept and title were birthed from a devotional I gave at my first rehearsal with the team. Here’s a little of the content and spirit of what I shared.
We at Prestonwood and the music ministries of the church at large have a storied tradition of presenting musical offerings of worship to God. It is glorious and beautiful, however we cannot let it stop there. We must continue to move the song from the platform to the people. It has to be a song of the people, rising up in praise and adoration. We are here to wash their feet and help them fix their gaze on Jesus and bring their song to Him. We are here to continually point to, magnify, praise and adore, Jesus. The worship of Jesus cannot be relegated to the platform. It must move through every seat and permeate every corner of our community of faith. Jesus completely adored and praised at the center of everything, nothing less.
I could tell the people were with me, but were still wondering what was to come. They had been through a couple of brutal transitions of leadership and trust with me would take time. By God’s grace, and the leadership of our team, we are more unified and emboldened than ever.
Here’s the question – Can we have both presentation and participation? Wholeheartedly, I believe the answer is yes. I believe we need both.
On presentational musical worship: There is art, creativity and beauty that can only be expressed by those gifted and trained to do so. Choirs, fine artists, designers, dancers, musicians, videographers and others can point to the magnificence of God in ways that transcend the common. We were created to create! We must always reach for the most compelling, artistic echoes of the Gospel and our worship of Jesus.
On congregational musical worship: To LEAD in musical worship is to model, equip, disciple, train and ignite our people to praise and express their adoration to God. Personal and corporate singing, confession, adoration, and repentance are vital to the whole person’s worship of the Almighty. We must dethrone ourselves from our hearts, and enthrone Jesus. Congregational environments of corporate expression are key to this discipleship.
In our worship experiences, I believe we can and should have both.
I love utilizing many “colors” of the creative palette to design our corporate worship experiences. To me, the choir is one of the amazing “colors” we get to paint with. Here are seven thoughts on why I love leading with a healthy, vibrant choir.
- The choir is a microcosm of the church. It is socioeconomic, racial, age and gender diverse.
- It models community and collaboration in addition to individual talent.
- It is a place where everyone can belong and be nurtured on their faith journey.
- It is a family of care and support.
- It is an army of unstoppable praise pushing back the darkness.
- It can destroy the world’s system of hierarchies and talent and place immense worth and value on everyone.
- It can artistically express musical art that individuals cannot.
If you have the opportunity to lead worship with a choir, or are contemplating starting one, I would say “Wonderful!” Like any other “model” of music ministry, it can become an idol. By that I mean, the choir can begin to think it exists for itself and it’s own agenda of participation and gratification. In worship ministry, we are exalting Jesus, and tearing down idols. If we are not careful, the choir can become a place of entitlement, gossip, envy, and strife. Choirs (like all areas of church ministry) need to be carefully tended and led well. It is math. It’s more people, which means more opportunities for strength and unity, or more opportunities for division and strife.
Idolatry, pride and elitism can slither its way into our lives and ministries whether there’s a choir, orchestra, or only a rhythm section and a singer.
I say be true to the calling of your local context. Serve the vision of your pastor and your leaders and enjoy the “farmland” you’ve been given to tend. If you get the joy of leading a strong and healthy choir in your ministry, I pray it’s a rich a fruitful experience… I know mine is.
“Songs and stories. That’s how God’s been using me. That’s who I am.” – Michael Neale
Michael serves as the Lead Worship Pastor at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, where he leads a talented group of vocals and musicians, including their orchestra and 450+ member choir. Leading the charge, Michael and the Prestonwood team just released their first-ever album with Integrity Music, entitled, “Songs of the People.”
Click here to listen to it on iTunes.
As a Dove Award-Winning songwriter, Michael’s songs have been recorded by artists such as Michael W. Smith, Natalie Grant, Lacey Sturm (Flyleaf), Rebecca St. James, Anthony Evans, Jr., Todd Agnew, and Phillips, Craig and Dean, to name a few. Michael signed on as an artist and songwriter with Integrity Music in September 2014, and his 100+ songs can be heard through churches around the world.
Michael is also the CEO and Founding Board Member of LEAD | READ | LIVE, an Arts-Empowered
Literacy Foundation that is dedicated to raising the tide of student literacy across the country.
THE RIVER is the flagship project for LEAD | READ | LIVE.
Michael divides his time among leading worship in churches, songwriting, visiting schools and
organizations to promote Arts-Empowered Literacy, and being a featured leader and teacher at
conferences around the country. Michael and his wife, Leah, and their three children, Micah, Maisie,
and Wyatt, live in Plano, TX.
Visit: www.michaelneale.com // http://prestonwood.org/about/our-people/songs-of-the-people // leadreadlive.com
Follow: @leadreadlive // @mwneale