A global pandemic was not penciled in on my calendar this year.
Months before, our church released our mission and vision statements, we cast vision for our year, and mapped out our church calendar. We were ready to launch into the new year with renewed vigor. Then, in March, COVID-19 hit the Northwest and we went into quarantine. Our attitude of vigor turned to uncertainty of what the year would bring.
Thankfully a collection of pastors, musicians, and production volunteers helped make Sunday happen online. Soon after, we established rhythms that would last for three months until it was deemed safe by our health team to gather together again. I can’t speak for other churches, but I’m willing bet that learning to online was like building a plane in the air for a lot of churches. Prior to the pandemic, the most that we did was publish our sermons to our sermon podcast. A question I found myself asking was how would our people sing?
There really is not a silver bullet to sustaining congregational singing in a global pandemic because there is not a book written on it and this article is by no means the silver bullet. If you were expecting that when you began reading this, sorry to disappoint. This article is to help readers understand how the Lord sustained our singing through the COVID-19 pandemic. He did this by providing humble, volunteers who learned new skills and served with joy.
Learning to lead through a global pandemic looked different from state to state. For Washington State, large gatherings were out of the question beginning on March 15. Face coverings had to be worn wherever we went and even gatherings in homes were discouraged. Sadly, corporate worship, especially singing together, wasn’t going to happen in the foreseeable future. Our musicians and tech volunteers had to begin thinking of how to lead through recording music.
To be clear, this was new for me. I had to learn it quickly and then turn around and teach it to someone else because, as I have grown to learn, that’s healthy. Ministry, whether it’s benevolence or running a live stream, cannot rest on one person it will lead to burnout. While yes, it took time for me to learn it so I felt confident in what I was teaching other volunteers to do, eventually, I was able to hand set up and execution of recordings over to volunteers.
My encouragement would be to start simple. Ask what the goal is and try to accomplish it simply, so it is easily trainable and reproducible. You may not have three camera angles, haze and recording set up for professional sound, but iPhones can do incredible things. I’m being absolutely serious. For us though, we had to get creative as well. We had to repurpose equipment and move our setup on the platform to our church lobby. We had to figure out how to even begin the recording process and our volunteers would tell you that they had not recorded before. They had to get comfortable being on camera and doing multiple takes for one song. One song sometimes took twenty minutes to an hour and sometimes exporting everything would take eight hours. Sometimes we would forget to hit record!
Here’s why I’m telling you all of this: God in his kindness provided servant-minded volunteers who were willing and teachable. Yes, we had to get proper equipment to record, edit and publish for live streaming, but that does not happen without people. Our volunteers wanted to help our people worship God through song. I encourage you, reader, if you are a leader at your local church, you have people who can learn to do this that are humble, willing, and teachable. Teach and equip them for the work of ministry with what you have and watch your church flourish. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery once said, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men and women to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
A significant factor that sustained singing within the homes of our people was familiarity of songs. The songs our pastors choose “teach and admonish” our people and is one way that the Word of Christ dwells in us richly1. Prior to the pandemic, our band would introduce about one to two new songs a month since our people would be able to sing it together.
However, when the pandemic hit, my pastors communicated that they wanted to focus on our current songbook because of familiarity. Many churches could no longer gather and take communion, sing, hear the Word preached, and fellowship. Loneliness swept our people. In a season of countless changes, our pastors sought to keep familiarity with our songs, specifically in key. I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about it but there is a certain range, how high and how low, people can sing in and a factor that helps determine that range is critical mass. If you’re gathered with thousands of people singing at a concert, chances are you won’t care what key the song is in and you’ll sing with everyone else.
Now, let’s go from an arena to your local Bible Study. How likely are you to sing a hymn as high as you can with twenty other people? Chances are, you will stand there singing lower and swaying uncomfortably. Let’s go now to your living room and answer me this: how loudly would you sing in your home in front of family members? While you may sing comfortably with them on Sundays, how confidently would you sing with five people or less if the song was too high or low? These are things that I and other leaders mulled over as we scheduled songs. This was not done without mistakes.
Sometimes we would practice on our own in one key and realize after rehearsing that we needed to lower it because our goal was to help our people worship Jesus in their homes. By doing this families and singles in our church were able to sing the truths of Scripture in their homes. Yes, it was awkward at times. Treacherous video buffering, misspelled words, and not so seamless transitions happened more than I wanted them to. Despite all of it though, volunteers stepped in and led with a confidence and humility that continued when we gathered back together.
In mid-June, we were back in our building. Picture it, you haven’t gathered with your church body for three months. You haven’t heard each other sing and have been told that singing is dangerous and could spread the virus. How do you think it would go? The three months before was like walking with a crutch and I’ve broken my feet four times, so I know from experience you do not take off into a full sprint coming off of a crutch. You walk slowly. We abided by measures given by our health team. Some people sang, some didn’t. The beautiful thing was that we were gathering together again. Volunteers never missed a beat and continued to lead with the ever-changing safety measures.
As I write this, we are planning, Lord-willing, to gather again indoors for two services but guidelines could change any day. We are coming out of a contentious presidential election and the world continues to labor to divert our gaze from God. This is spiritual warfare and I’m encourage weekly as I see people within our body singing with a confident conviction that nothing will satisfy our souls but Jesus.