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If We Can’t Sing

If We Can’t Sing
by David Manner

Most of us have seen the articles, blog posts and videos this last week indicating the potential for a higher level of asymptomatic spread and aerosolization of COVID-19 through choral and congregational singing. The emotional responses from music and worship leaders run the gamut of fear and grief to outright denial.

It is obviously still too early to be certain how these theories will play out and influence our musical worship in the future. What is certain, however, is that even if our congregations and choirs can’t sing together for a season, worship can and will still occur. It may look different but it most certainly won’t disappear.

An older member of one of my previous congregations was a fine vocalist and instrumentalist when he was younger. But because of laryngeal cancer surgery, he could no longer sing and even had to learn a new way to talk. One Sunday while leading congregational singing I observed this gentleman whistling the songs as other congregants sang. Just because he was physically unable to sing didn’t keep him from actively participating in worship. He just had to figure out a new way to do it.

Worship leaders, if our congregants and choirs aren’t able to worship through singing, then it will be our responsibility and calling, by the way, to help them figure out a new way to do it. Our methods might have to change but our calling to lead and their calling to respond certainly hasn’t changed.

This conversation is not that different than the conversations we had a couple of decades ago when worship styles and methods changed. As leaders, we often encouraged and even admonished our congregations that even though “we’ve never done it like this before” it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t or couldn’t. Some of us as worship leaders need to have that same conversation with ourselves as we lead through this uncertain future.

Oh, if we can’t worship through congregational and choral singing for a season we will definitely need to spend some time lamenting what we no longer have. But once we’ve had that opportunity to ask God why we have to walk through this desert, we’ll need to move pretty quickly from those complaints to “but I trust in You, O Lord.” Then we’ll need to figure out a new way to do it because our congregations will need it and our God will expect it.

This article was first published on David’s blog, WorshipEvaluation.com. Reprinted with permission.

About The Author

David Manner

Dr. David W. Manner serves as the Associate Executive Director for Kansas-Nebraska Convention of Southern Baptists with responsibilities in the areas of Worship, Leadership and Administration. Before joining the convention staff in 2000, David served for twenty years in music/worship ministry with congregations in Kansas, Arkansas, Texas, and Oklahoma. He holds a Bachelor of Music degree from Oklahoma Baptist University; a Master of Church Music degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; and a Doctor of Worship Studies from the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies.

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    Singing, whether it is congregational or choral, is only one way we worship. The kind of worship that God wants the most from us is a life of obedience. The General Thanksgiving in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (1662) puts it this way, “that we show forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives.”

    While we may not be able to collectively praise God in song, we can still praise him individually. Youtube has a number of videos of choirs, music ensembles, and congregations singing hymns and worship songs to which we can sing along in our own homes. Hymnary.com has the lyrics of a number of hymns from a number of hymnals. Click “all representative texts” or “compare texts.” Jubilate Hymns and Hope Publishing Company also have the lyrics of hymns and worship songs under copyright to them on their websites. The UMC’s Discipleship Ministries and SmallChurchMusic.Com has downloadable mp3s of hymn and worship song tunes.

    All Souls Langham Place and a number of other churches have been recording individual members of their choir and then combining their voices digitally. Other churches have done the same with the members of their music ensemble. They have been posting the videos online for replay.

    In the early years of Christianity the dessert fathers, monks who lived in the deserts of Egypt and Syria, had a particular way of singing the psalms each day as a part of their common devotional life. One monk would sing a psalm while the other monks mediated on the words of the psalm. After each psalm the monks prayed silently or aloud as the Holy Spirit led them. We can adopt a similar practice. Churches can record individual members of their choirs or music ensembles singing a hymn or worship song at home, combine their voices digitally, record the result, and then play the recording in the service while the congregation mediates on the words of the hymn or worship song. After the hymn or worship song the congregation can be invited to quietly or silently pray. Churches can also record soloists at home and then play the recording during the service.

    Another option is to hold outdoor, or lawn, services, the weather permitting. The best spot would be a breezy one. Research to date suggests that there is less likelihood of the transmission of the COVID-19 virus outdoors provide people are not crowded together in close proximity to each other, are wearing face masks, and the movement of air in the space that they are occupying is dispersing any concentration of droplets containing COVID-19 virus particles. For this reason it is recommended that congregations which gather indoors should gather in a large, open room with the doors and windows open to the outside and ventilated by electrical fans. While the acoustics outdoors would be less than ideal, it might permit some singing. The congregation should be seated by households at a six foot or more distance from each other and wear face masks. While these precautionary measures will not individually prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus by themselves, they will significantly reduce its spread when used in combination in accordance with the principle of layers of intervention, or protection.

    Rather than lamenting the temporary loss of singing from our services, we should be creative–encourage family singing at home, for instance, which would greatly enhance and enrich our congregational singing once we are able to sing together again.
    When I have led congregational singing, I have encouraged those who did not believe that they sung very well and were uncomfortable joining in the singing to hum the tune while the rest of the congregation sung. What matters to God is not how beautifully we sing or that we sing at all but whether our hearts are turned to him and our lives reflect that turning.

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