Choir member Pete writes about running a gospel choir in his Anglican church, Notting Hill, London

Notting Hill Gospel Choir at St Peter's Anglican Church

Soul Sanctuary Gospel Choir member Pete Yarde Martin writes...

Church music, in one form or another, has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. I’ve progressed from bringing my ukelele along to church as a three-year-old to strum along with the music, to training as a chorister and organ scholar, leading worship in charismatic churches as a guitarist and pianist, and more recently singing and playing gospel music.

So when I found a church looking for a Musical Director who could work to creatively combine all these traditions together, in search of an inclusive, blended style of worship, I knew this was the place for me! Since joining St Peter’s Church, Notting Hill in 2010, we’ve built a repertoire that weaves together old hymns and chants, new songs and choruses, and that hopefully has something for everyone, and that enables our diverse congregation to worship God from a place of integrity and authenticity.

But one of the most fulfilling and effective parts of this journey has been starting up our own St Peter’s Gospel Choir (pictured). Early on, I realised that although we had relatively few trained instrumentalists, we had a large, untapped group of wonderful singers who weren’t being used. I set up the gospel choir to try and open up our music ministry to involve anyone who wanted to be a part of it.

Full of freedom, hope and joy...

One of the wonderful things about gospel music is, I think, its openness that mirrors what the church should be: bringing together people of all ages, experiences, and skills; full of freedom, hope and joy; and blending each individual expression into a harmonious whole that is somehow more than the sum of its parts.

We began with a series of gospel workshops aimed at entry-level singers. I taught simple songs by ear, singing each part to the choir and having them sing it back.

Over time, we were able to build up a repertoire of songs we knew well and felt comfortable singing in three-part harmony, and we began to introduce gospel music into our services.

One of the biggest differences this makes is to encourage our congregation to take part and engage with the sung worship in a deeper and more profound way – especially as they are being led by members of their own church, many of whom they had no idea could sing! The gospel choir give our services a massive lift, and have now become a central part of some of our biggest services at Christmas and Easter.

A new avenue for outreach into the local community

One of the exciting side-effects of having a gospel choir is that it’s given us a new avenue for outreach into our local community. We’ve met a lot of people in our area through singing at events for local businesses, community projects and music events. We’ve also attracted many members from outside our congregation through hearing us sing, or through the enthusiastic invitations of our singers. Some brave people have even come to rehearsals after googling ‘Notting Hill Gospel Choir’!

It’s been wonderful to see the choir develop a real sense of community, and meaning a lot to members from both inside and outside the church congregation. Many of our members haven’t sung since school, and joining has helped them enjoy singing for the first time. Others just enjoy the energy, joyfulness and freedom of the gospel music, and have found it has given them new ways of expressing and growing in their own faith.

I’ve also discovered that having gospel music in services has an impact on the extent to which the church engages not only with the gospel choir-led music, but the rest of the service as well. Anyone who came to our Easter service last weekend will have heard the not only great gusto and enthusiasm with which our gospel choir sang ‘He lives’ to start the service, but also the way it lifted the congregation as they responded in singing the organ-led hymn ‘Jesus Christ is risen today’ with equal energy! This was such a thrilling start to the morning, and absolutely enhanced the joy and celebration in the Easter message.

Breathing new life into familiar liturgy

This is something that Soul Sanctuary Gospel Choir do extremely well, and it’s been really inspiring and exciting to sing with them for the last few years. I joined just after starting our gospel choir at St. Peter’s – I’ve learnt a lot from it, and borrowed a fair number of songs and arrangements as well! Our wonderful choir directors do a great job of picking fantastic songs that match the liturgy and themes of each service, and that breath new life and meaning into familiar words.

Are you interested in exploring gospel music in your own church -  or maybe even starting a gospel choir? Soul Sanctuary has a 'toolkit' of resources to help you do this. Find out more...