If We Can’t Sing, the Story is Not Silenced: Thoughts on Music, Moisture, and Worship During Covid-19

I’ve been thinking about how much our church attendance has changed since the requirement to isolate came into place.  I’ve pondered about the many church services we can now attend.  Have you been “attending” your usual church or have you been looking around to see what other churches are doing?  And how have you been doing with the singing part of the online service?  What’s it like to sing in your living room, your kitchen or your home office? How different is it from when the church community is gathered together and singing in one location? 

I recall a cartoon I saw on Facebook.  The carton had two panels.  One panel showed what the online worship leader thought was going on at home when the singing was taking place in the online service – the picture showed an adult and child singing into pretend microphones.  The other panel showed what was actually happening at home: the same adult and child but instead of singing, they were both on their cell phones.

Have you’ve noticed the social distancing of the worship teams in the online church services?  I know a few local churches who have received comments from concerned parishioners that the worship team seems a bit too close to one another.

What is a Church without song?

When I think about the time when we are able to gather as a congregation, will we be allowed to sing?  Perhaps you’ve seen the headlines that describe limitations on singing in church congregations. Even though it’s been joked about (and rightly so), Prime Minister Trudeau’s comment about “speaking moistly” makes a good point and does capture some of the issue with singing.  I thought of this when cancelling rehearsals of the Community Choir we have here at Prairie College.  Back in March when limitations were first becoming evident, the decision to cancel choir rehearsals was disappointing.  But as I thought about how the choir members sat in close proximity to one another and the activity we were involved in – taking deep breaths and expressing that vocally – it seemed that singing during a time of an easily transmitted virus would not be prudent.  If we speak moistly, we most certainly sing moistly.  And I haven’t yet imaged what it would look like to see a socially-distant gathered congregation with face-masks singing together.  Will it be something I have to get used to?  Time will tell.

The greater issue I see is one that has nothing to do with the current circumstances.

Students who take worship-leading courses at Prairie College, where I teach, are accustomed to me correcting them when they describe the music parts of the church service as “worship.”  I probably correct them to the point of their exhaustion but it is a point that is worth emphasizing. 

Think of our present reality. 

When society opens back up and churches are permitted to meet again and if there is a restriction on the gatherings that no singing is permitted, what happens to worship?  You have probably heard a statement like this at the beginning of a church service: “Welcome and thank you for coming to church today. We are glad that you’re here.  Would you please stand and worship with us?”  What happens right after this statement is an instrumental introduction to  song and we are encouraged to sing.  Do you see the connection that is being made? 

We are welcomed and the statement is made we’re going to worship and the very next thing we do is sing.  This is common.  When you hear someone say, “The worship at church today was awesome!” you know they are not referring to the sermon, a prayer, a scripture reading, or anything else that took place.  They are most always referring to the music. 

We have equated music and worship to mean the same thing.  We use the two terms as synonyms.

So what’s the problem?  Here it is: if we can’t sing in our churches when we gather will we be able to worship? Since we have equated music and worship we have little wiggle room to be in a gathering where we worship God and there is no corporate singing. We find it hard to imagine a worship service with no singing.  Some would go so far to state that you can’t worship without music.  I think that’s overstated.

The Psalms, of course, are replete with calls and encouragements to sing praise to the Lord.  There is ample evidence in scripture informing us of the function, place, and use of music in the experiences and encounters with God. There is a long history demonstrating the connection of music with the people of God.

Music has a role to play and it’s an important one; however, to equate music with worship and to use it as the sole descriptor of worship inhibits our view of the entire church service.  Music serves a function in the worship service.  Music is not the worship service.

The worship service is an opportunity for the people of God to gather together before their God and to hear from him and to remind and reorient ourselves to the work of the Kingdom of God. Music helps us in that pursuit.

Music helps us tell the story of God.  Music assists us in our various “postures” of coming before God and helps us express our praise, our longings, our confessions, and our desires before God.  But if we need to do all of these things without music, is it possible? We must answer affirmatively. Will it be preferred?  Probably not.  Will it make our worship services seem less somehow? Most likely.  But there is opportunity here as well. It’s an opportunity for us to think about the ways music can function in our services. 

Consider the Theology of Music and Worship

When we don’t burden music with the sole responsibility to carry the weight of our worship experience, we begin to see the music function landscape open up in front us.  Instrumental music and presentational music can serve a function.  We begin to see music’s purpose in the overall service – helping us pray, helping us read scripture, assisting us in our gathering together and our being sent out into the places we live. 

Music can encourage us with God’s invitation to gather in his name. One way of thinking about worship is to consider the message that we are telling.  It’s the Gospel message of course.  We gather as God’s Church, made members of the Body of Christ and part of what we do is “re-member” ourselves to the God who has shown us his love through Jesus Christ. Each week some of us drift and some of us stray and we gather regularly to tell ourselves once again the story of God’s love and God’s tenacity in his grip on his people.

The experience we are having in not being together should be informing us of the vital importance of staying connected to the people God is gathering to himself.  One of the themes for the Music & Worship Arts program at Prairie College is “Tell God’s Story.”  This reminds us that God is active in our world and we find ourselves in what God is doing.  God comes to us.  In a recent Prairie College prayer time we were reminded of this truth: God doesn’t come down on us, God comes down to us.  And this is the story we have.  Music helps us tell the story. 

But if we can’t sing, the story is not silenced.

Music will always be an important part of our worship services.  Let’s use music creatively to tell the story of God and to give voice to our worship (praise, prayer, scripture, confession, and other acts and actions of worship). Be careful not to think that no singing means no worship. May God grant us the fortitude to walk faithfully during these days and to always have a song in our hearts! 

Stay safe. Wash your hands. Wear a mask. Don’t speak moistly to anyone.

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