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The risky business of singing

Churches face new worship challenge

By Erin Dunigan | Presbyterians Today

David Beale/Unsplash

Since the beginning of time, people have turned to song to express joy’s heights and grief’s lows. In Exodus 15, Moses’ sister, Miriam, sang after crossing the Red Sea. Her song of praise is considered to be one of the oldest pieces of biblical literature. Later, David composed songs of praise and lament that would fill the Psalms — a treasured hymnbook for thousands of years used by Jews and Christians alike. Centuries later, singing both in the home and in public worship became one of the defining marks of Reformation worship. According to the Rev. Dr. David Gambrell, associate for worship in the Office of Theology and Worship in Louisville, Reformers especially emphasized singing the Psalms because it was a way to sing God’s Word together. “If you think about a time before we had projection screens or copy machines, singing was a way for the whole people of God to participate,” he said.

Lifting voices together in song is an essential part of who God’s children are. And yet, as more is learned by the medical community as to how COVID-19 spreads, one thing has become increasingly clear: Communal singing poses potential health risks.

Recently, a number of singing groups, including the National Association of Teachers of Singing and the American Choral Directors Association, hosted an online panel, which included medical experts and epidemiologists, to discuss the science of singing. They came to the conclusion that there is currently no safe way to rehearse or sing together until there is a widely available COVID-19 vaccine and a 95% effective treatment.

“We are in uncharted territory,” Gambrell said of yet another challenge added to an already long list of challenges the worldwide pandemic has brought. Gambrell was hard pressed to think of another era in Church history that communal singing has been such a risk. “Singing, of course, is all about the breath, and we are dealing with a respiratory illness. The breath is how it attacks and spreads. So, what do we do now?” Gambrell asked.

Safely making music

Matthew Grauberger, the director of music ministry at South Highland Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was at the American Choral Directors Conference in Mobile the second week of March as the coronavirus was just starting to make headlines. It would be the last time he sang collectively with a group of people. With health concerns growing, he made the decision not to have the church choir sing the Sunday he returned from the conference. He soon canceled choir activities indefinitely.

“For someone who music and singing are two of the things that wake me up in the morning, it has been devastating,” said Grauberger. “We want to be able to do these things with the people that we love and not have to mourn the death of someone because we were not listening and acting accordingly.”

South Highland Presbyterian had just installed cameras to begin recording worship services around the time the pandemic began. The cameras weren’t functional yet, but with the onset of COVID-19 they quickly became so as the pastor and staff tried to figure out how to create an intimate but familiar worship experience in an online format. Grauberger was tasked with figuring out what could be done musically without a choir rehearsing in the same room.

He put together a rotating quartet of voices to sing the anthem and lead in hymn singing for online worship — all done at a safe distance.

“We made a pact between ourselves that we were going to take this very seriously, that we would be careful so that we could continue providing this ministry for the congregation,” said Grauberger. He also found that ringing handbells, in small numbers, was another way to creatively, with distance and safety, bring a musical element to worship.

Grauberger has been amazed at the willingness and the creativity of those who have come forward to help lead worship during this time. “There is so much that we have lost, that we are grieving; but also in the process, we have gained this new awareness that we are way more connected than we realized, not just technologically, but spiritually,” he said.

Changing the vision

Emily Floyd, director of music ministries at Shallowford Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, and a member of the Presbyterian Association of Musicians, realizes that church music solutions cannot be “one size fits all.” What was true before COVID-19 has become even more apparent. That is, the resources and technology that are available for one congregation might not be available for another.

For Floyd, part of a church’s struggle — and opportunity — is to find ways for the congregation’s current vision of music to play out within these challenging circumstances and be willing to ask how that vision might need to change in order to fit a new way of making a joyful noise.

One thing Floyd has attempted is the growing trend of the “virtual choir,” where singers record themselves individually and send it to a point person at the church to edit. The process was not as easy as it first seemed.

“I had seen articles that said to plan on the editing taking 100 hours per song,” said Floyd. She didn’t believe that could be true, until the church tried it and found out how time-consuming the process was. In addition to the editing, even though many singers had thought of themselves as tech-savvy, the process of recording the songs and sending the file came with challenges. But perhaps the biggest drawback was one that was not tech-related.

“This process of singing alone has not been very satisfying,” said Floyd. “The satisfying part of singing together is listening to your neighbor and finding the unity, the sense of spirit and the holiness that you can feel in those moments, that is not expressed in words, but that is felt.” Not to mention the community aspect that is lost when there is no rehearsal room to walk into and share the events of the previous week. “You talk about the text when you are in the same room together, and all the other things that come along with it,” she said.

While Floyd is glad that the church is finding ways to offer music as part of the worship experience, the “togetherness part is a loss.” And she questions, even when the congregation does begin gathering in person — in a modified way — what the worship experience will be like.

“The collective breath is one of those things that repairs our souls, and there is something very therapeutic and very poignant about that, especially for communities of faith,” she said. “If we can’t say the Lord’s Prayer together out loud, if we can’t sing a hymn together, is worship going to feel like what we want it to feel?”

Hope’s song still sings

The Rev. Adele Crawford was a professional singer for 15 years before she became a pastor. Her friends and colleagues include opera singers around the world, in addition to clergy and church musicians. “You can imagine the conversations that are happening right now,” she said, commenting on the realization that there may not be many options for safely singing together in the near future. “So, what is the future of church music?” she finds herself wondering. “I don’t think we know the answer to that right now, but I’m confident that we will find a way through because it is a foundational aspect not just to our faith, but to all kinds of faith.”

Singing together, suggests Crawford, is one of the fastest ways for a group of disparate people to feel a sense of community, lifting their voices together. Singing together also offers a broad range of emotional responses.

“When we sing ‘Amazing Grace’ at a funeral, or ‘We Shall Overcome’ at a protest, or ‘Christ the Lord is Risen Today’ on Easter morning, these songs all have very different emotional responses and offer a wide array of emotional engagement,” said Crawford.

Singing is also a way of learning, offering a different experience than simply learning with words. “It is different to sing a psalm than to read it; you have a feeling of it in your body; it is a kinetic experience,” she said.

Crawford adds that one of the things congregations lose without singing is that “engaging of the senses in a way that informs theology and helps us understand who we are as a community.”

In a time when we are not able to shake hands, pass the peace or hug, we will need to learn how to be community differently, suggests Crawford. This new way of being is going to require people experimenting, being inventive, trying to find new ways or different ways of being than we are accustomed to. It is going to take patience and understanding, and a healthy dose of flexibility.

“When the church was first coming into being, they didn’t build buildings that served their liturgy, they adopted liturgy that fit into different spaces around the table,” said Crawford. “We just have to remember that we have done it and will continue to do it.”

Trinity Presbyterian Church in Valdosta, Georgia, is adapting to worship’s new reality. As the congregation prepared to slowly phase back into in-person worship in late summer, the Rev. Anghaarad Teague Dees explored several ideas to fill the congregational singing void.

Among them were the obvious “go-to” solutions, such as inviting those in the congregation who played instruments to share their talents during worship.

The not so obvious was to invite worshipers to channel their inner Picassos, creating time during worship to listen to music and then draw what was being heard.

Still, even with new expressions of worship being offered, the grief that comes with the absence of congregational singing — along with other traditional trappings that have defined Sunday morning worship — needs to be acknowledged. Crawford remembers when the churches closed in Connecticut’s Presbytery of Southern New England, where she was recently a member, the thought was that it would be for two, maybe three weeks.

“Then we realized we wouldn’t be back for Easter but, oh boy, won’t we celebrate at Pentecost because of course it will be better by then,” said Crawford.

In midsummer, many church buildings remained closed, with tentative reopening celebrations being pushed back till September, some even later. It is a situation worthy of grief, Crawford said. Yet, the opera singer turned pastor is confident that the song of hope will continue being heard and that “the creative powers that God has given to God’s people and the resilience and adaptability that is in our history will see us through.”

Floyd agrees: “We need to use our songs to help us deal with what is happening in the world, to remind ourselves to keep praising God, to focus on gratitude, to remain hopeful in the midst of these challenging times.”

And while singing together is a profound way of connecting as the body of Christ, Gambrell says that connection has not weakened due to this moment in time without communal singing.

“Our faith and hope point us to the Holy Spirit — the ruah, the breath — and we trust that the Spirit is still breathing and praying in us and connecting us as the body of Christ even when we can’t sing together,” said Gambrell.

Erin Dunigan is a PC(USA)-ordained evangelist living in Baja California, Mexico, where she founded Not Church, a gathering of atheists, agnostics and believers who wish to deepen their spiritual journey.

Making music in the meantime

The Presbyterian Association of Musicians offers the following music ideas. For more ideas and the latest news on music in the church, visit

Provide hymnals for each household. Make use of the hymnals in online worship and encourage members to use them for personal study, devotion and prayer.

Recruit singers to sing to others. Have choir members call or video chat other members and sing a favorite hymn for them, or record in advance and send by email. This may serve as an entrée for pastoral care, outreach or fellowship.

Pray the words of the hymn. When congregational singing is not possible, worshipers may read the words of hymns in silence while listening to the melody played on the organ, piano or other instrument.

Create a “hymn for the week” challenge. Select a hymn or song for the week and invite the congregation to study, pray, sing, illustrate or even memorize the selected hymn.

Use hymn texts for lectio divina. Invite the congregation to pray on the phrases or stanzas from hymns.

Sing with others. Collaborate with neighboring congregations and ecumenical partners to encourage one another, learn from one another, and find creative (and safe) ways of teaching new songs, reflecting on hymns and making music together.

Do what you can with what you have. You don’t need to create a virtual choir or have a string quartet on hand for worship to be meaningful. Just glorify and enjoy God, worshiping and making music to the best of your ability at this time. Perhaps it was for times such as these that the psalmist exhorted us: “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth” (Psalm 100:1).

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