It ain’t over ’til the congregation sings

This past Sunday our church had live singers singing in front of a congregation for the first time in over 5 months. A good number of churches in the UK are now able to meet for in-person services. Some are preparing to do so soon, and others are having to show great patience as they await suitable meeting places to become available to them. 

Congregational singing has been hit hard by Covid. It may be a little while before it returns fully despite recent encouraging studies that have hit the headlines. In the meantime, how can we go about harnessing music for God’s glory and the good of our congregations? 

Several practical things can be encouraged, and we’d love to hear how you are seeking to implement the current guidance creatively as regards singing and music. Do share anything you have found particularly helpful or indeed challenging. As I reflect on the past 5 months as someone who oversees music in our church, here are 5 things I have been seeking to do on an ongoing basis, with some practical tips along the way:

1. Study the Guidance

I’m sure you all have the relevant pages bookmarked, such as the guidance for the safe use of places of worship. These have undergone a few revisions in recent weeks so do check them regularly. Changes aren’t always announced with a fanfare. Regarding singing and music – it is clear that the guidance for churches is being developed alongside the general Performing Arts guidance. 

As we continue to check the guidance, we need to be patient. It often takes a few days for church guidance to be updated in line with other Performing Arts guidance. Meanwhile we can be grateful for those who are working hard to deliver key research in this area, and for those who are lobbying the government on behalf of churches. This is an opportunity to build relationships with such people, to help them understand the reasons we value congregational singing so much, and to support and pray for those performers we know who are struggling at this time.

The recent PERFORM research project (awaiting peer review) is an encouraging read but there remains a long way to go before we discover whether such findings (once published) will make congregational singing possible. For example, key elements of distancing and volume will need to be managed, which is easier said than done. 

From 15 August, it has been possible for live singers to sing in front of a congregation in a church service. We tried this for the first time on Sunday 23 August. The practical steps we took included: 

  • One microphone per person per day (both singing and speaking) with at least a 48 hour gap before that microphone is used by another person.
  • Stands, cables and shared instruments cleaned after each service.
  • Where possible, one person per day on a shared instrument (e.g. piano / drum kit).
  • Using a smaller band than normal to maximise space in the building, both for musicians to distance and to fit in as many other congregation members as possible. 
  • Singing fewer songs than normal, minimising rehearsal time in the building.
  • All other tech teams (sound / video / projection) operating on one person serving per day where possible. Where more than one person needs to touch the same piece of kit in a service, they wear disposable gloves.
2. Shepherd Your Music Team

Serving on our music team looks a lot different to 6 months ago. Some members of the team are shielding and some are needed to serve in other important areas. I’m having to rethink how we use our team effectively. We have tried to stay in touch over Zoom and share out responsibilities where possible.

While we were still doing online-only meetings, we made the effort to record one song with as many of us as possible taking part and singing / playing along at home. This wasn’t done just because it’s the trendy lockdown thing to do but to demonstrate that we still value our musicians and singers, and that they still have a role to play in encouraging the congregation. 

3. Shepherd Your Congregation

Encouraging people to meet again (if you are doing that) is not straightforward. For all sorts of reasons we have seen a range of responses to meeting together again from the very keen to the very cautious. As church leaders, we have sought to get in touch with everyone in the church personally to understand their circumstances and to reassure them as we encourage them back to meeting together (should they not have a good reason for staying away).

Regarding singing, it will be really hard for some congregation members to not sing – especially while others up the front are singing. We’re glad it’s really hard for them. Their instincts to sing as a congregation are good and biblical. However, in line with current guidance, we need to encourage them to not sing, but to use the time to reflect on the words and make melody to the Lord in their hearts (Eph 5:19). If it helps, and people can restrain themselves from singing, some have benefitted from mouthing the words along with the singers. I have heard of other congregations increasing their use of sign language, makaton and other actions in order to encourage participation in the songs that are being sung. 

As music leaders, I hope we are known in our churches for valuing the sung word highly. As we model submission to the governing authorities in this area, this should really help our congregations to do that too. So – make sure you’re not up the front every week singing – take your turn to experience what everyone else has to.

4. Scrutinise Your Practices

We have an opportunity during this season to pause and evaluate certain elements of church life, including our singing. It would be arrogant to think that we had everything nailed before lockdown. Plus there may well be events involving music that we previously had in the calendar. These will need to either be cut or at least radically re-thought. 

I don’t want to be the prophet of doom, but we cannot even be sure of further substantial changes to guidance before Christmas. We will be delighted if we can proceed as normal with carol services etc, but if some restrictions remain – what will our plans be? And why?

5. Study Congregational Singing

The fact that our congregations are not currently able to sing together doesn’t mean we cannot grow in our understanding of biblical singing. I would encourage you as a music leader to use this time to grow your own knowledge and reflections on these things. Do browse the rest of our site here for some useful resources and the Dwell Richly course. Covid is forcing us to address questions about the place of singing in the life of the church. Is it an essential mark of the gathered church? What is its purpose? Does it matter if only people up the front sing? Does church history have anything to teach us here?

Our congregations can also be encouraged, even now, to grow in their understanding of why and how we are to sing. It will be a challenge to re-capture the commitment to congregational singing that many of our churches had before lockdown. How could you prepare your congregation for that even now? Ideas we have been considering include taking a slot in our services each week to give a bitesize bit of teaching on why we sing. Or perhaps taking a hymn or song we sing regularly and explain the words and purpose of the song to the congregation, so that when we come to sing it again together our hearts and minds are even more engaged. 

One thing is sure. Congregational singing will return. We have no guarantees that it will return any time soon. However, as we read Revelation we see the complete people of God singing a new song of praise around the Lamb, having been redeemed from this broken world and knowing victory over the devil (Rev 14-15). 

However long the wilderness lasts – it ain’t over ’til the congregation sings.

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