Modern Church Orchestration Evolution and what it means for you: too many vocalists!

Quick overview:
Why do we even have a band? Because the scriptures tell us to be creative (made in God’s image Gen 1) and gives us freedom to use every instrument at our disposal for His praise (Psalm 150) and to accompany the people as they sing.

What musical style/language should we use? Since music is a language and we are someday going to worship God in every language and tongue and therefore musical style, we are free to use any one we want, whichever is most useful, most likely the one that is our own natural tongue (think reasoning for using modern translations in church). This philosophy of missional outreach is clearly seen in the scriptures. Every time God interacts with humans, he does so in their own language so they can understand, wanting to be close to them, not expecting them to learn some angelic language to communicate with him. The incarnation of Jesus as an ordinary Jewish human, speaking the local language and relating his message to fishing with the fisherman, sowing with the farmers, … and his disciples like Paul relating to their philosophers’ teachings, their statues to the unknown God, and 1 Corinthians 9:22b, here’s a little snippet “ I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” That was a huge part of the reformation: translate the truth of scriptures into the local vernacular language and have the services in that same language, not in Latin, which no one spoke anymore outside of church. Our little church had to make that same decision, to speak Swedish like they had always done, or shift to English as the culture around them shifted that way, in order to stay relevant. Either we bring the gospel and our services in a way that people can relate to, or we lose our ability to connect people to God and become irrelevant because we are holding onto a language that makes God seem foreign, antiquated, out of touch, cheesy, … God is the great I am, not the Great I was. We are free to use any language we want, but we must be thinking about leaving the 99 to go out and rescue the 1 that is lost! Is it hard for church families to change with the times? Yep. Is it a necessary sacrifice to make sure that the REAL heritage that we pass on is the GOSPEL and not our little particular language and stylistic preferences? Yep. Should it be a constant shift and balancing act? Yep. At least that is my take.

Historically, changes in orchestration have changed from time to time, which leads to controversy in the church. Currently we are moving from pop/rock band with vocalist ensemble of 4-8 to just lead vocal with maybe 1 or 2 backup singers at times. This shift is causing lots of relational stress in many churches at the moment and needs to be understood in a broader historical and philosophical context to minimize the inevitable conflict that all transitions cause. Think of it similar to moving from KJV to more modern translations, or churches moving from Bus ministry picking up kids, to more modern children’s ministry, or from large pageant style theatrical christmas dinner productions to feeding the homeless dinner instead or some other ministry. There are always those clinging on to former ways of doing ministry and have a hard time with job retraining as the market shifts.

Old Testament worship

Worship with instruments in the Bible starts off in Genesis 4 with Jubal who “the first of all who play the harp and flute.” Moses mentions tamborines and dancing in Exodus as they celebrate the victory at the Red Sea. Then in the days of David and Solomon at the height of temple worship, they had choirs, ram horn (shofar) blowers, cymbal bangers, tamborines and various other percussionists and some stringed instruments (fore-runners to guitars like the lyre, ….) at the temple for celebrations of worship. It was probably very loud, and quite dissonant to our ears. And when people complain about the loud drums, besides the Psalm 150:5 “Praise him with the loud/clashing cymbals” you can check out 1 Chronicles 15 and 16 and notice that King David put Asaph in charge of the worship music and his instrument was… the cymbals? Why? Pragmatic of course: the cymbals are louder and more rhythmic of all the instruments, so it is the most logical for helping to keep the band in time! This orchestration lasted for many years, depending on the state of the temple. See Nehemiah 12 for a description and remember every time you read “trumpet” that you are talking about a shofar, not a modern finely tuned diatonic instrument. Psalm 150 makes it clear that we are free to use all the instruments we can find to worship God with.

New Testament Worship

I am honestly not that familiar with the instrumentation accompanying typical synagogue singing, but once the temple was destroyed and the church went underground, there was obviously not a whole lot of instrumentation and people met in secret, in their houses and catacombs and such.

Singing in Cathedrals

Once the church came back into public acceptability and people started building these massive buildings to honor God with, pointing to his majesty and his divine nature with their most modern architecture, using the top technology of the day, singing by large groups of monks and nuns was the order of the day. In order to really bring this to unity and highest beauty, the musical notation staff that we all know today started being developed while they had this new fancy singing style that we name after the pope of the day: Gregorian chant. It was similar to the way the scriptures and prayers were chanted in the Jewish synagogue, but more modern, eventually allowing for multiple octaves and shock of shocks, harmonies!

Revolution in music: Pipe Organ and Congregational Singing

In the middle ages, pipe organs became more and more common in churches to accompany the choir and fill the room with sound. During the reformation there was a renewed emphasis on congregational singing and the organ helped a lot to allow not just professional clergy to sing, but the congregation to memorize Psalms and scriptures and prayers and really participate more fully in the worship with their own singing.

“The singing of the Genevan psalms was unsuccessful without the organ. Many churches needed the organ to support congre-gational singing so that the people could worship God in spirit and in truth.” (

Musically, during the Baroque period we had the culmination of harmonic theory with famous composers like Handel, Pachelbel (canon in D, yes you’ve heard it at a thousand weddings and other things) and probably the most famous of them all: J.S. Bach, of course. Modern harmony theory still taught in universities today still teaches some of the innovations that Bach developed.

Next Revolution: The Piano(forte) (Italian for Soft-Loud)

Not just a revolution in church music, but secular music too, the ability to change the dynamics from soft to loud and back so quickly the way a piano uniquely can, led to a lot of the innovations of classical and romantic periods. Pianos were expensive still compared to organs in smaller churches for a long time, so again in most churches around the world, choir and organ were the mainstays in almost every church until they could afford a piano. It was the same at our little church in Stanwood, WA.

The Next Revolution (in Secular Music Only)

Big Band Jazz Dance music in the 1920s was not compatible with the church ideals of the day. Dancing was not allowed and sadly seen as only capable of being used as sexual mating rituals, but that’s for a whole different post. What’s of note here is that a whole generation of musicians and style of music was not allowed in churches. Take a look at your hymnal and look for popular songs from the 1920s and beyond. You probably won’t find many songs. Look for yourself. Most of the songs in american hymnals are from the great revivals (+-1750 to +-1850 have the most well known hymns, I’ve graphed it in our own hymnal, but check yours out and you’ll see)

From Big Band to Rock ‘n Roll

Again, not in the church, but with the invention of the microphone (whole ‘nother post again) if you can fill a stadium or burn a record with a full sound with your 5 piece rock band: drums, keys(organ/piano), bass, guitar, voice … instead of a whole orchestra or big band, economically it has become the standard since the late 1950s. Turn on the radio now and see if you aren’t hearing basically that same orchestration on just about every song: live or programmed drums, live or programmed bass, keys/piano/organ , guitars, voice. And it is still the same to this day.

The Jesus Freak Revolution = folk praise choruses

In the church, very shortly after the normal hippy revolution a whole generation of believers found Jesus in their search, a revival, and just like every one before it, people started writing new music using the instruments and language that was their mother language. And so acoustic guitars entered the church with simple camp fire songs like “It only takes a spark” that made their way into churches and even hymnals and eventually simple choruses like Laurie Klein’s “I love you, Lord” from 1978 published by Maranatha music. Electric guitars in most places were still considered too dangerous and loud and modern, drums too, so bands like Love Song and early pioneer artists like Larry Norman would often be hated by the world for being Christian and hated by many in the church for being too “worldly” and wouldn’t even be allowed to play on a Sunday night in churches. Over time though, these young hippy believers came into power in the church, and new songs were finally allowed into the official mix.

The Praise Team

If you were brave enough to not just add acoustic guitar, but also drums, and you shrunk the choir down so you could have singers on microphones, …. now you have an interesting ensemble sound that was typical of the new big publishing companies of the era: Maranatha Music (with the southern California Calvary Chapel denomination as place of origin, more at and Hosanna Integrity label (with Nashville as epicenter) which were both sporting this same basic orchestration:

Rhythm Section: Drums, guitar, bass, piano/keys

Singers: 4-8ish singers kind of like the vocal jazz groups of every high school and college institution, to this day

What is interesting about this hybrid is that you wouldn’t really find it in the secular world. It was almost an exclusively church “sound” because of the vocal orchestration. Look in the early 80s to 90s for music in the secular world that sounds like that and you’ll have a hard time.

Why so many singers? In moving from a choir there was a desire to keep encouraging people singing all the parts, plus lots of voices up there got lots of people involved, plus the influence from the institutions like I mentioned.

Confusingly, this style was called “contemporary” because it sounded a whole lot more like the style often heard on popular radio stations than the organ music or folk praise that came before, but still … especially the vocals were quite different.

Modern Worship Orchestration and “sound”

If you listen to the most popular “worship artists” of today, you will find that same 5 piece pop rock orchestration noted for the secular music above since the 1950s: drums, bass, piano/keys, guitars, 1 lead vocal plus sometimes 1 or 2 “backup” vocals.

And for the most part that shrinking of the vocals section is often a rub as the shift happens in many churches who used to do “contemporary” for their time but are now moving to the more modern sound with one main vocal lead and then possibly a vocal or 2 at most on some parts of the song.

Too Many Vocalists!

So now we have a bunch of vocalists who have been on the “worship team” for years who aren’t really needed for the backup band and as a matter of fact, make the sound muddier and harder to follow and immediately sound out of sync and foreign to our modern pop rock ears. Visually too, it has the same muddying effect. Who am I following? Who am I supposed to look at? There are 4 (or worse yet) 8 of them up there! If we are going to reach the people around us, do we want to speak in a funny accent on purpose, just because it’s the way we’ve always done it? I don’t think so. If so, let’s use King James too and forget about these modern translations.

The American Educational Institution effect

As mentioned above, almost every high school and college in the nation has a “vocal jazz” ensemble and they get out of those institutions only to find that the market share of people actually looking for people who can do that is very small… but look, they have a place for me at church! Yay for me! For the modern worship leader: Ugh!
The American Idol effect, The High School Musical/Glee effect

Now add all the current talent shows with everyone itching to sing … and add the pop icons of “High School Musical” and “Glee” which again are somewhat reinforcing those same stereotypes, but in actuality with use of autotune it’s not the same and even then, listen to the actual track and the majority of what you are hearing is 1, count it 1 lead vocal for the majority of most songs, …. and suddenly you have even more singers that are vying for the very limited spots.

The Result

The end result is the same in so many congregations that I know: you have ten times the number of vocalist volunteers than you need and have to figure out how to gently help them see the value as singing as part of the congregational choir.

A Note to Pastors: What does this mean for you?

You need to understand at least a little of this music history, make an informed decision of the orchestration you want at your church in close cooperation with your worship leader and be prepared to back him up when he has to explain to disappointed vocal volunteer after volunteer that the best place for them to serve is as part of the congregation singing along, not on the platform.

A Note to Vocalists: What does this mean for you?

God wants us all to worship! That is the most important thing. God is listening to all of us, not just those on the platform. If the church leaders in your church have decided on an orchestration that has less vocalists, it is not a personal attack on you, as much as it might feel that way. It’s just that times are changing and we want a backup band for the congregation that sounds familiar and helps them to sing along. Too many vocalists can be confusing. Most people are going to sign the melody. Those who can hear the harmony parts can and should be encouraged to sing them if they feel so led! We aren’t going to pass out sheet music to our congregations with SATB parts written on it. We don’t need SATB example singers up front to model those parts. I know this transition is difficult, but try not to take it personally and with humility step down and sing with all your might directly to God who hears your humble prayer and LOVES IT! Who are you really singing for anyway, men or God? This is one really clear test to find out. Please don’t attack your worship leader. He or she is not trying to hurt you, although we know it hurts to have your skill not be needed up front anymore. God will give you the strength to lay this down.

Notes to Worship Leaders

Once again, this calls you to be right in the middle of dealing with delicate artists feelings in the middle of controversial transition. Remember your duties to the flock. You are not just musicians, but have pastoral duties. LOVE GODS SHEEP! Be gentle but firm. Tell the truth in love. Don’t lie to make it go down easier – it will come back to bite you and is not honoring to God. Expect to be crucified and misunderstood. This is part of the suffering you have been called to for Jesus. Be compassionate and understand how much this hurts.

Stick close to your church leadership on this issue. Make sure you are in agreement on the necessary transition and the timing. Feelings are going to get hurt. Make sure you have a tight back to back bond with your lead pastor and row through these troubled waters together!

Communicate Clearly and consider adding a high bar that will help people to understand what you ARE looking for. I know some worship teams that say up front: we do not have pure vocalists. We have instrumentalists that can sing too. To be on the worship team, you must play an instrument. We have enough keyboard players, bass players, guitar players, …. to add the necessary extra vocal parts. Another possible way is to say that your vocalists must be able to harmonize by ear. That right there will surely cut your volunteer crew in half.

Don’t just say NO: redirect. If God isn’t calling person X to sing on the platform, what is their role? Singing with the congregation? What about the time they would have dedicated to practicing and coming to mid week rehearsal? What other ministries are begging for helpers? How can you redirect this energy and willingness to serve into a different area?

In the end, you will still probably have to turn some people down, which you hate to do, but it is part of leadership. Get ‘er done … in the spirit! Make sure you are all prayed up before any meeting.

I’m sure there are a ton of you out there with stories to share about this, please do!

Also, if there are any disagreements on the philosophy or history parts, I’d love to hear them. When I’ve explained my little historical view I’ve often seen light bulbs go off, but maybe I am missing something …

Any other words of wisdom you who have walked through this can offer?


3 Responses to From Old Testament to Rock ‘n Roll

  1. Jai says:

    This article is interesting, especially thinking about the history, which I think is very much from a USA “caucasian” church perspective. In “black” churches, having many vocalists, singing strong harmonies, with the congregation joining where they can is the norm. For another perspective – UK black-led churches read British Black Gospel: The Foundations of This Vibrant UK Sound by Steve Alexander Smith.

    • jchollar says:

      Fascinating Jai! Can you pass along some links to some modern recordings of the sound you are talking about?

  2. I’ve found the best way to redirect vocalists is to create a choir. Our church has a really modern sound and look, so when we add a choir it’s like a whole new thing people have never seen before. We use them to add a crowd sound to whole songs, like gang vocals. Both our fantastic, up and coming backing vocalists and our most basic singers are in this group, and it serves such a huge purpose. People see this happy, excited group of people worshipping Jesus in authenticity and they feel overwhelmed with the need to worship Him too.

    I think the lesson here is don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Some modern rock bands would KILL to have a choir on some of their songs (U2, a modern worship influence, LOVES using a choir).

    Too many vocalists…not a problem, but and opportunity. 🙂
    Thanks Jason

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