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Today in the Mission Yearbook

The risky business of singing


Churches face worship challenge

March 27, 2021

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 no safe way to rehearse or sing together until the COVID-19 vaccine is more widely available.

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.

Matthew Grauberger, the director of music ministry at South Highland Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was at the American Choral Directors Conference in Mobile as the coronavirus was just starting to make headlines in March 2020. 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.

 Erin Dunigan, 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

Today’s Focus:  Worship Challenges During Pandemic

Let us join in prayer for: 

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Magdy Girgis, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Tammy Gish, Presbyterian Foundation

Let us pray:

Lord of all peoples, you are continually gathering your people together in surprising and creative ways. We celebrate your call to find our unity through faith in your transformative power. Amen.