You could hear the pain in their question. For after being defeated by an enemy that overwhelmed them, then forcibly relocated along a Mesopotamian Trail of Tears, the Jews who found themselves by the rivers of Babylon were in no mood to celebrate anything. And so when their captors demanded that they sing something in their native tongue, their reply was understandable:
“How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137.4)
Ironically enough, however, we find ourselves asking the opposite question as we look towards the resumption of in-person worship alongside of continuing our livestream in the coming weeks. For though we may be “back home” in our sanctuary, if there is one thing that both health officials and musical experts agree upon it is that congregational singing is perhaps the most contagious activity that people in churches can do.
In the words of one German disease control official, in fact, “evidence shows that during singing the virus drops appear to fly particularly far.” In addition, virologists believe that those singing themselves absorb many more particles because of breathing deeper into their diaphragms while belting out a tune. Others disagree, of course. For it is the nature of our times that everything— including science–is now partisan and our addiction to outrage touches all of our common conversations. And so what’s a church like ours to do?
Well, in order to care for all, the answer is that we will refrain from refrains and sing only the rest notes for a season. For as integral as singing is to the praise of God, it’s not the only way believers can express themselves or their love for the Lord. Indeed, sometimes singing may even be an impediment to true faith.
Twenty years ago, for instance, an English pastor by the name of Mike Pilavachi began to realize that amidst all of the music and fervor which his growing church experienced each week there was something missing, a dynamic that the cutting-edge music seemed to actually mask: authenticity in worship. And so Pastor Pilavachi did something rather amazing: he got rid of the sound system and the band for a season, which left his “worship leader” with nothing to do.
And, in turn, that musician, Matt Redman, began to ask a rather critical question, too: “When you come through the doors on a Sunday, what are you bringing as your offering to God?” He then put that pondering into the lyrics of a song which now has become familiar all across the world:
“When the music fades, all is stripped away, and I simply come, longing just to bring something that’s of worth that will bless Your heart. I’ll bring you more than a song, for a song in itself is not what You have required. You search much deeper within, through the way things appear, You’re looking into my heart.”
Then in the chorus of that song, to a consumer culture fixated on feeling good, Redman made his point:
“I’m coming back to the heart of worship and it’s all about You, it’s all about You, Jesus. I’m sorry, Lord, for the thing I’ve made it when it’s all about You, it’s all about You, Jesus.”
Or to put it another way, what Redman wanted to know was simply, “Am I producing worship when I come to church, or consuming it?” And the changes occasioned by the current coronavirus have perhaps given us the opportunity to ponder that same question for ourselves.
To be sure, we’ll still have music in our services when we return to the sanctuary in a few weeks. But during this particular period, out of our concern to “watch over one another in love” (as John Wesley once expressed it), we will forego congregational singing at least as we’ve done it in the past for a while.
It won’t be forever. But as we “simply come,” my prayer is that we’ll rediscover the heart of worship as well. For whether we find ourselves by the Brazos, or by the rivers of Babylon or Great Britain, it really is all about Jesus.