Should people sing when gathering in person to worship, or should they avoid singing in church because of the risk of spreading COVID-19? As churches throughout the U.S. and the world navigate the answer to this question, some are finding creative, alternative ways to express their devotion to God.
“Singing together in congregations is a practice that we dearly love and are eager to promote,” Rev. John Witvliet told AP News, “but loving our neighbor is job one here and so the time for fasting from this wonderful practice may be longer than any of us would like.”
The information on the novel coronavirus is constantly developing, but researchers currently believe one of the primary ways people transmit COVID-19 is through respiratory droplets. These are more likely to spread when people are singing. In fact, medical professionals have identified “forceful exhalation” as one of the risk factors for transmitting the virus. Back in March, 53 people contracted COVID-19 and two died after attending a choir practice in Washington State.
This week, California Governor Gavin Newsom issued an order temporarily banning places of worship from singing, chanting, and group recitation. Not all government leaders are being so direct, however. Many church leaders must therefore consider the wisdom of whether or not to allow singing in church—and if they choose not to, how else to lead their members in corporate worship.
No Singing in Church? Really?
In one sense, it is understandable why many Americans are up in arms about not being able to sing in church. Singing is powerful and emotional. Some, in fact, see singing in church as being “as important as the sermon.” Rev. Leslie Callahan, who leads a predominantly black church in Philadelphia, described her struggle with understanding church worship apart from singing: “I’m really trying to figure out what it feels like to have church where people don’t sing. It goes against, really, the heart of my understanding of what it means for us to worship together.”
Kathleen Miller, worship pastor of OneHope church in South Toledo, Ohio, echoed this sentiment, saying that having a worship band is “a big part of our church.” Miller is nevertheless scaling back the size of her church’s worship band and cutting down on the amount of time musicians will be leading worship. In doing so, she is joining other leaders in her area who are finding ways to adapt their worship services in an effort to take safety precautions.
One of those is St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, which has been recording hymns ahead of time and then playing them during in-person services. Rosemary Cathedral, a Roman Catholic Church in the area, will have one cantor singing in the cathedral, instead of the choir that would normally be there. The Church of England has also recommended listening to a cantor as an alternative to singing.
Cornerstone the Church, a congregation in the town of Walton-on-Thames in England, is energetically embracing worship alternatives in the absence of singing along to music. “We can stand, we can clap, and there is nothing wrong with finding other ways to express yourself,” said Pastor Chris Demetriou. Another idea the church had was for members to film themselves singing at home. Church leaders then edited the recordings together and played the video at the beginning of their first in-person service since the church stopped meeting because of the pandemic.
For those who are discouraged about it, I would say there is still something about co-presence in a space that is special. Humans are kind of seekers of emotional energy, and we need that. That’s why we want co-presence with other human beings. That’s what we’re longing for in this quarantine season.
As alternatives to singing in church, Packiam suggests praying the Psalms together (something his church has done online during the pandemic), as well as guided contemplation while listening to instrumental music. “There really is an opportunity for the body of Christ to learn from each other,” says Packiam, “because we have a treasure chest of practices that we can mine from with creativity in this time.”