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.
Pastor, this message is inspired and inspiring. As one seeking understand and live the true heart of worship, I thank you.
Hmm, where do we sit? Where will the choir members be in the sanctuary?
If we had a balcony, I might choose to sit there. After all we are usually in the front and sometimes feel on display, especially now that there is a screen behind our heads. So, yes I think the balcony might be a fun place to help change our perspectives.
Chap, can we hum? Probably not, that still requires good breathe technique.
If our service begins and ends with a particular song, as our church definitely does, how will we know when we are ready to begin or that it is time to leave and serve others?
How can I stop singing? Perhaps some of us should use duct tape under our masks? We can still tap our feet.
Maybe if we try worshipping with the light’s down low, it will be easier to be more mindful, ready for prayer and be able to form a more
contemplative attitude for worship.
Of course, low lights might make the clergy uncomfortable during their sermons. Some parishioners actually have been known to snore rather loudly.
We also shouldn’t shake hands, hug or hold hands for our benediction. Right? Will we need straight jackets or more duct tape?
How will we pass the Peace? Namaste? Yes, that might work. After all it worked for Prince Charles for a brief time when all this began, didn’t it?
This is very complicated isn’t it? I don’t think that is how worship was meant to be for us Christians. It should be simple.
Ah, I’ve got it. If we worship in outdoor tents or under the trees, we will be busy fanning ourselves. Our hands will be occupied with the fan’s, our sopping handkerchief’s and mosquito slapping. That might just work. 🙏
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I’ve facilitated Bible Studies where most of the members sang in the choir, so I realize what courage it took for you to write this message. As one who has sat in many meetings that led to funding of a piano, new choir music, a highly paid musician, extra instruments for Easter, performance-led worship, a second organist… while “communications” initiatives such as web sites, improved sound, cameras, advertising, crisis communications plans, media training, etc. were deferred “til we have more money,” (yet all of them needed now), I’m experiencing some sense of prophetic justification. I can’t tell you how many pastors have said that “theology is transmitted in the music” when some denominations use no music and actually consider it somewhat sinful! Even though pipe organs allegedly were invented in the third century BC, “Methodist Episcopal” history from the area where I grew up in Pennsylvania, reflects that purchasing an organ proved most controversial even in the late 1800’s: “The human voice was to be used in praising God, but instruments of music ought to be debarred from God’s house” said these notes, published in 1933.
Yet, I also know that some of the most gifted musicians would have no livelihood if they were not using their gifts in service to the church. Indeed, I have learned that some folks feel closer to God hearing and singing the music than they do listening to the sermon or participating in a Bible study. We hear the words of 1 Corinthians 12 saying that all parts of the body are important as there are many gifts, but the same spirit behind them all. It is an amazing recognition of the early church that people learn and grow in different ways. Perhaps there was a need for the veil, a sort of mask, that puts the focus on worship, while letting the singing continue? But wait, that would hurt the hair salons…Thanks for your faithfulness to blogging during this time!
Returning to worship with organ and piano music will certainly bring one comfort as Sanctuary worship services with attendees once again begins. Your comments to day reminded us that we come to worship to praise the Lord and even more important focus our minds on his teachings As a choir member for many years it is good to think about our service as a learning period and not just a way to celebrate our love and belief in Christ through music. Sometimes one may get so engrossed in the music that it is possible that we just want to sing out the Lord’s praises and may not spend time thinking how the message relates to Christ’s teaching and our learning and action.
Working on my husband’s family history I came across a story about the burial of a 7-year-old child in eastern Pa. It seems it was illegal for singing or bells at a Mennonite funeral in the early 1700s, so the child in eastern PA was buried at a Lutheran cemetery instead. Imagine the pain of the parents in being told such a thing at a tragic time! Source was BURGERT, ANNETTE KUNSELMAN. Eighteenth Century Emigrants from German-Speaking Lands to North America. Publications of the Pennsylvania German Society, 16/19. Birdsboro, PA: The Pennsylvania German Society. Vol. 1: The Northern Kraichgau. 1983. 269)