Traveling United Methodist youth choirs sing the Good News
Centuries ago, Methodist circuit riders rode hundreds of miles on horseback over treacherous terrain through all kinds of weather to deliver the message of God’s love to listeners across the country.
Today, United Methodist youth choirs also ride hundreds of miles through all kinds of weather to deliver the same message across the United States and to countries around the world.
Whether they are singing with amazement of God’s love in Charles Wesley’s “And Can It Be,” joyfully in Keith Hampton’s “Praise His Holy Name,” or other inspirational hymns and songs, United Methodist youth choirs deliver faith-filled performances to people and communities they’ve never met before.
“The most important part for our choir is to see the tours as part of the congregation's ministry,” says Roy-Frode Løvland, lay pastor of Finnsnes Metodistkirke (Finnsnes United Methodist Church) in Finnsnes, Norway. His choir has traveled to the United Kingdome, Estonia, Denmark and throughout Norway.
“By singing the Gospel I think we enable ourselves to believe. And when we go on tour we share that. It might look small and simple, but I believe the friendship, the music, the meetings, the sharing, the work and the joy gives us both musical, personal and spiritual experience that the Holy Spirit can use in His work,” Løvland says.
“Every place we go as a group we have an opportunity to spread the Word by the way we act toward others and by the love and support we show each other,” says Polly Baldridge, minister of Music and Worship at Damascus United Methodist Church in Damascus, Maryland. Baldridge directs the church’s youth choir: the Charles Wesley Singers.
When "singing concerts and staying in host homes,” says Baldridge, “we interact with people in a way that reassures many that God is at work in each generation. Our youth are quick to invite store clerks and waiters to concerts in the towns where we are singing and engage them in conversation about what we are doing.”
These interactions create both teaching moments for the chaperones and lifelong memories for the choir members.
“Every night we ask, ‘Where did you see God today?’” says Zack Liston, Director of Youth Choral Ministries, including the Sonshine Choir, for Brentwood United Methodist Church in Brentwood, Tennessee. “It teaches the students to be on the lookout for God working the next day and to name it as what it is – not coincidence, but the Divine,” says Liston.
“We’re also able to take time to coach students on how to start a conversation with an elderly person they don’t know, interact safely and meaningfully with children, and what to expect with people with disabilities and how to meaningfully engage with them as well. This is the training portion that can’t be missed,” says Liston.
Another way the traveling youth choirs reach out to the communities is through their choice of singing venue. More and more choirs limit their performances in church buildings and instead perform in a variety of community locations.
During the Sonshine Choir’s recent tour to Boston, the choir sang in nine venues, but only one was a church. The others included low-income nursing homes, daycare programs for low-income youth, care facilities for people with disabilities, and a juvenile detention center.
“Our most powerful concert was for 45 residents of the Boston Department of Youth Services in the Juvenile Detention Center,” says Liston. “While there, six of our students had the opportunity to meet with four of the residents after the concert. Three of our adults were also present, including me. We had an incredible time of sharing, never asking nor caring what the residents had done to bring them to be in such a place. We heard their dreams, accomplishments, hopes, and redemption they had in Christ.
“After they left, we learned that they had committed violent crimes, including murder, attempted murder, and rape. While we were angry that their dreams would possibly always be dreams, we could not deny the redemption in Christ they displayed to us.
“We looked further back into their stories and learned more about the cycle of poverty and crime. Because of what we learned from our experience, three of our students from that room have been lit on fire to fight for justice by fighting poverty, fighting for the unrepresented, and for teaching people in poverty-stricken areas about their self-worth in Christ,” says Liston.
All the choir directors see real short-term and long-term benefits to singing in a traveling youth choir.
“Our choir members enjoy the feeling of belonging to a group and a sense of accomplishment as they sing some great choral literature,” says Baldridge. “For many, it is also a first taste of independence and managing their belongings and personal benefits.”
The tours give youth “leadership roles that help them experience their importance and contributions to the larger body of faith. It also helps them establish a pattern of service and mission,” says Baldrige.
According to Liston, the choir members know that for one week, they have three jobs:
- Work (sing in concerts and share the love of God)
- Play (take joy in God’s creation and the community around them), and
- Worship (put oneself in front of the living God through music and teaching each night to live new insights and understandings of God’s love for everyone)
“This refocuses students on the real Kingdom of God and away from college essays or the audition for a particular group,” says Liston.
And while all travel can be tiring and sometimes difficult, on balance the benefits of singing in a choir and traveling with friends outweigh any inconveniences.
Besides, choir members don’t have to care for horses like the circuit riders of long ago.
Do you have a memory and/or photos from your own youth choir tour? Send them to Christopher by e-mail. If we get enough responses, we will create an online resource to view the memories and photos.