I admit that I am often baffled at the reactions I see online to things we have been asked to do to help prevent the spread of covid. I am baffled by the outrage at wearing masks. I am baffled at the anger people express over being asked to keep a safe distance from people. And I am especially baffled by some of the reactions I have seen Christians express to being asked to avoid singing in worship gatherings.
Singing, as it sends those pesky droplets flying out in the air, is considered a “high risk” activity for the spread of covid. We have a number of examples of “super spreading” events sparked by people singing with others. To that end, when churches were told they could start gathering again earlier this summer, they were also told to avoid singing as a group.
And that was a real bummer.
I LOVE singing, and I love singing loudly. I love our worship team. I love learning new songs. I loved the lengthy time we spent singing as a congregation every Sunday. Worshipping without singing would be an adjustment, to say the least.
But does that mean we would cease to worship?
Does that mean there would be no value in gathering?
Should we just not bother if we can’t sing?
I have been completely stunned to discover so many people answer “yes” to those questions. “We cannot worship unless we sing,” I’ve heard. “There’s no point in gathering if we can’t sing,” I’ve read.
It …confuses me.
After all, do we not believe that prayer is worship – which does not require singing?
Do we not believe that learning together is worship – though it does not involve singing?
Do we not believe that reading Scripture, sharing stories, lifting our hands in praise, giving testimonies, saying creeds, giving, silence before God, is worship?
Furthermore, do we believe that people who cannot sing (such as someone who cannot speak) or who does not sing (such as someone who doesn’t like to sing) cannot worship?
To be sad about not being able to sing does not baffle me.
To say we cannot or should not worship without singing DOES baffle me.
I do get how hard it is. When I was 24, I was diagnosed with vocal nodules. These are dangerous growths on your vocal chords caused by overuse, common among professional singers. (This is where some of you might think “Wow, Leanne, I didn’t know you were a singer!” I’m not. Just talked too much and damaged my vocal chords). ANYWAY, for six months I was on full singing vocal rest. For those six months I would stand in church and not be able to sing. I could hum. I could listen. I could hold out my hands. But I could not sing.
And it was hard.
And I learned some things.
I learned that we can come before God in a lot of ways. I learned to listen. I learned to make space for new ways to experience God. I learned that I could still worship.
I lament the lack of singing in our gatherings, deeply, and I hope we can find a way for it to be possible to sing safely again soon. But until then, I believe those of us who lead in the church have an opportunity to teach the full breadth of the ways we come before God. And those of us who attend churches have the chance to experience those. And I believe this can be a gift, not a burden. It’s a gift I hope we accept.
I also acknowledge that while we may agree that we CAN worship without singing that some of us who plan worship gatherings aren’t sure HOW to worship without singing. Fair enough. We have filled a lot of our worship space with singing for a long time. For that reason, I now share some ideas for ways to worship that don’t involve congregational singing. Some will fit in certain congregations better than others. You may try some that are a total bust. You may try something and discover it was more meaningful than you imagined. You may try them all and still say “I like singing best.” That’s fine. But we won’t know until we’ve tried, n’est pas?
Here are some things we have tried or might try at our church:
- Sign Language
One person leading singing is allowed. We have had someone lead and I have taught simple sign language for a chorus (thank you YouTube!). We do sign together as we worship, and it has been beautiful.
We have paused at the end of a song to simply all hum together. Truly, one of the most beautiful worship experiences I have had in my life.
- Dancing or Actions
We can learn a simple dance or action step to do to music as a way to be part of it.
- Drumming and Clapping
Do claps or drum beats together along with music or with a reading or spoken word.
A song can be played (live or video) as people listen. Give people a word to reflect on. Invite them to open their hands as they listen and take in the lyrics. Insert a reading from Scripture for people to hear in between verses. We used to call this “special music.” “Special music” has a great place during covid.
I do suggest that you have LESS music than you might have had before. We used to do five or six songs in a service; now we do one or two. That means we also need ways to worship that are not singing, and this is a chance to really get creative, using practices old and new.
- Guided Scripture Readings
With or without music in the background, reflectively read a passage of Scripture with pauses for different prayers as you go along. There are many great resources online for these, and I can pass along some I have written.
Use prayers that engage the body. One of our favourites is “palms down/palms up.” People begin by placing their hands facing down; during this time they tell God things they need to leave with God. Then, they turn their palms facing up – at that time they pause to RECEIVE from God. There are a number of types of embodied prayers that allow us to use our body so people can join with you.
You can also have prayers in which people participate. One of my favourite types of group prayers is the “alphabet prayer.” For each letter of the alphabet you name an attribute of God, working through the alphabet together. Example. “God you are Awesome,” followed by “God, you are Beautiful.”
- “Lectio Divina”
This is an ancient practice that involves reading Scripture prayerfully.
There are great videos of guided worship online. You can record your own of people praying, sharing a story or doing special music.
- Story Telling/Testimonies
Have someone share how God is working in their life or a story of a time that God has worked in the past.
- Responsive Readings
People can engage in songs or Scripture through speaking. These can be responsive readings or something people read all together.
This may sound a bit silly for worship, but it’s a way to help people engage. Before our sermons this summer I would do something interactive so people had a way to take part. I would do a “have you ever” based on the sermon and people would stand or sit based on whether or not they had done certain things. For example, one week was “Have you ever taken this test?” (hearing, driving, etc.). It let people move and got them thinking of the sermon topic (about examining ourselves and our faith) before the sermon began.
Do not negate the power of simply sitting in silence before God. This is how the Quakers have worshipped for centuries – no planned music, simply sitting and listening and seeing if God has something to say to anyone. In a loud and busy world, silence can be one of the most powerful ways we come to God.
Use the space for worship. Hang pieces that invite people to come before God. Do a slideshow with different pieces that allow people to pause and reflect as they worship. This can also be done playing different sounds. One Sunday we read a verse that referred to birds. After I played a tract of birds tweeting for a minute as we paused and listened to the sounds of God’s creation.
We Can Do This!…
Please note what this post isn’t. This isn’t a post saying that people can ONLY worship in person. I think online worship is and will continue to be important. This isn’t a post pressuring churches to re-open or people to come to an in person service who do not feel ready to do so. This is a post for those of you who may be trying to figure out if you can gather without singing to say: Yes! We can do this!
Scripture reminds us that we should not “give up meeting together.” It also tells us that “where two or three are gathered” that God is with them. It is 100% fine to miss and long for singing. It’s okay to be sad about it. But let us remember all the ways God can be worshipped, all the ways that we can seek to experience God’s presence and all the ways God can speak to us. And let us remember that God will be with us – whether we sing, dance, hum, or say nothing at all.
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I believe singing is very much a part of worship that we cannot do without. Would you leave out prayer if your government asked you too? Hymns are very important to our soul, the very act of si gong the words together is heavenly.
No, I would not leave out prayer if our government asked us to leave it out. (To be clear, our government has not asked us not to sing. Public health has stated that singing increases risk of covid transmission). But if we knew that praying out loud increased the danger of people in our community getting sick, I would happily invite people to pray quietly. I agree singing together is wonderful. But in this season we lovingly choose to enjoy music and worship in other ways to show love to our whole community. Thanks be to God for all the ways we can worship and all the ways His name can be praised.
This is a great article Leanne! We started meeting back in person July 5th with limited singing. I’ve been challenging myself and our people to think more broadly about worship and to think beyond music and singing. Not everyone is buying in, but overall it has gone well. We’ve tried some of the things you mentioned, including Lectio Divina, Testimonies, responsive readings and sign language. One Sunday we decided to take Psalm 150 literally. We gave out kindergarten percussion instruments as people came in and had them bang on them at the appropriate times as we read through the psalm. We meet in a very old building with stained glass windows that depict different stories from Jesus life. One Sunday we used those as the focus of worship, something more visual. Your article gave me some other ideas that I’m looking forward to trying out. Thanks for your input and for your affirming words as we challenge people to think broadly about worship.
These are all great ideas! It is definitely challenging but the challenge gives us great chances to learn as well. I love the percussion instrument idea – googling “egg shakers” as soon as I’m done typing this! Bless you and your ministry.
Thank you for your ideas. I try to participate on line TMH Church Message Sunday morning, long distance Church. I love your alternative solutions and as I always say, the People are our Church,not the bricks and mortar. Peace be with You.