February 28, 2020

Lent Choral Music for Church Choirs

Church choir directors are pastoral musicians. Choose songs that are theologically sound, musically rich, and vocally healthy for singers.

Choral music is alive and well in many worshiping communities. Singers of a wide range of ages and musical abilities gather—whether weekly or seasonally—and lead worship services with anthems and congregational songs. As I work with choir directors and church choirs of different sizes, I am often encouraged by their eagerness to learn and their commitment to serve—wholeheartedly, joyfully, and continually.

Church choir directors are pastoral musicians. As we choose music, teach and rehearse the choir, and lead singing at worship services, we want to select repertoire that is theologically sound, musically rich, and vocally healthy for singers. Choosing songs that your congregation can echo or even participate is definitely a plus.

I recently presented choral reading workshops in Hamilton, Ontario, and at the Calvin Symposium on Worship, focusing on smaller church choirs with a limited number of singers (and limited musical training, I presumed). We call these choristers “the faithful fifteen.” Those workshops included music selections that are musically manageable by a smaller ensemble. More importantly, however, I chose them because each piece has some teachable opportunities.

Here are several choral pieces that I recommend for the Lent season.

Come to Me, O Weary Traveler

Words: Sylvia G. Dunstan

Music: Paul A. Tate

SATB choir, keyboard, guitar, optional C-instrument, congregation

GIA, G-9135

Sylvia Dunstan was a Canadian hymn writer and ordained minister with the United Church of Canada. She wrote this thoughtful text based on Matthew 11:28–30. Musically, the piece opens with a solo (or choir in unison), then in two-part, and later in four-part. As the performing force expands, you can include a C-instrument and also invite the congregation to participate in the hymn-like melody.

Teaching notes: The 2-part and SATB sections end on a unison note. Encourage your singers to listen carefully and come to a true unison—one pitch, pure sound, senza vibrato.

Jesus Is Mine

Words and Music: Matt Merker, Jordan Kauflin, and Keith Getty

Arrangement: Molly Ijames

SATB choir, keyboard, optional instruments (flute, violin, and cello)

Celebrating Grace, 810015

The updated text is loosely based on Catherine Bonar’s “Fade, Fade, Each Earthly Joy.” The phrases in the first two verses offer a stark contrast between our earthy strife and the blessed assurance that “Jesus is mine.” The hymn-like melody begins in unison and grows into four-part. The emotion builds as the vocal range increases.

Teaching notes: In verses 2 and 3, the altos and basses have the melody. They’ll love it! The sopranos and tenors, however, must learn to dance with the altos and basses—sharing the dance without being dominating, and being above the melody line yet supporting the melody. Control the dynamics throughout the piece. Watch for measures with poco rit. and rit. Be sure to express the emotion of the songs naturally with good vocal control.

These Forty Days

Words: Susan Naus Dengler

Music: Lee Dengler

SATB choir, keyboard, optional C-instrument, congregation 

Celebrating Grace, 810039

This song for the Lenten season begins by telling the desert story of Jesus. In verse 2, the wilderness story turns into a call to follow Jesus’ footsteps to aloneness and a time for self-reflection. The lyrics climax at the delight of journeying with Jesus through Lent and the joy of Easter. The anthem is designed to be sung throughout the Lent season. After the song is introduced by the choir in the first week, the congregation may join in for the remaining Sundays of Lent. This idea of repeating an anthem creates an opportunity to pair it with a Lent sermon series. (And the choir has only one song to practice for Lent, leaving time to prepare for the Good Friday and Easter services!)

Teaching notes: The melody includes several leaps of minor sixth. Take the opportunity to help the choir not to slide vocally on the leaps. Additionally, the melody and the parts have several occasions with notes sitting on the submediant (the sixth note of the scale) and the leading-tone (the seventh note). These notes can go flat easily if the singers are not paying attention. This is a wonderful opportunity to train the choir, both aurally and vocally, to recognize a correct pitch.


Dr. Kai Ton Chau is associate editor of Reformed Worship and resource development specialist at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. He is a member and choir director at Blythefield Christian Reformed Church in Rockford, Michigan.