Is Congregational Singing Worth the Risk?

In a word: “Yes.”

At least, I think so.

(I am going to put a caveat here: This is 100% my opinion. Maybe you agree, and maybe you don’t. Please remember that difference of opinion is not automatically because of ignorance. Many articles have been written about Covid-19, and not all the ones disagreeing with certain safe practices are conspiracy theories or quack jobs. People on all sides of this have reached different conclusions, and that is okay.)

I love singing. I sing daily with my kids. I host hymn sings monthly in my home. I love singing with believers.

And because of Covid-19, those last two things aren’t happening.

And I miss it. I miss singing with God’s people. I miss singing with our church family. I miss hearing voices united in the praise and worship of God.

When we think of worship, there are two primary conduits…prayer and singing. Talking to God and singing to God.

While we certainly pray in united worship of God, congregational singing is the most uncomplicated picture and practice of unity in worship. Unity is tangibly experienced in congregational singing as many sing the same words at the same time with the same melody.

Hearts and voices are uplifted jointly in the worship of God.

The miserable

Do you hear the people sing? Singing the song of angry men?
It is the music of the people who will not be slaves again!
When the beating of your heart echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start when tomorrow comes….

Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer

This is one of the most recognizable refrains from the musical, Les Miserables. It is the rousing finale of both the stage production and film.

The condemned

Moving on to the opening scene of Pirates of the Caribbean 3:

A whole line of ragged prisoners chained and awaiting their deaths on the gallows. They’ve all either aided and abetted pirates, or are accused of piracy themselves. The scene is grey, depressing and very solemn. A child lines up in his place on the gallows, too short to even reach the noose. Then one of the condemned begins to sing the pirate song, “Hoist the Colors,” and the whole line joins in.

Chills.

The soldier in charge of carrying out the execution panics and runs to his superior. “Lord Beckett, sir! The people are singing.” The reply? “Finally.”

The singing demonstrated oneness despite (or maybe because of) the desperation of their circumstances.

Since we certainly don’t take our cue from catchy tunes or memorable movie scenes, why would I site these two pop culture references in an AssemblyHUB article?

They both illustrate the power of singing.

Singing conveys emotion, unifies and propels to action.

The reformers

But for a more godly reference, I give you Martin Luther.

PreReformation there was little to no congregational singing. Generally performers sang the Psalms to the congregation during church services.

The Reformation, which took place in the 1500s, changed this practice. The prominent doctrine of salvation by grace through faith bore fruit in congregational singing. Both John Calvin and Martin Luther compiled or wrote versifications of the Psalms for singing by believing congregations.

The jubilant faith of Luther, his joyful experience of God, his teaching of salvation by grace, caused him to break out in exultation before his God, and his feelings could find expression only in music. 

Paul Nettl, Luther and Music

Martin Luther believed that music was and is a natural outpouring of our praise to God. To know Christ’s salvation should make us joyful which should in turn cause us to sing about it.

Martin Luther and John Calvin sparked a 500 year heritage of congregational hymn-singing.

And it only took one global pandemic to jeopardize this rich heritage.

Pandemic singing

Most assemblies have used Zoom or a similar platform since the start of stay-at-home orders. During the virtual meetings singing has tended to go one of three ways:

  1. Unmitigated disaster. Instruments, song leader, participants’ voices, feedback, noise cancellation technology, time-delay. All added up to an annoying and futile exercise with no one having any idea where anyone else was at in the song. Sigh. Most of us just gave up.
  2. Nonexistent. Instead of singing, a brother just reads the lyrics of the hymn he is contemplating.
  3. Done well, but not. The best “congregational” singing experience I’ve had since this all started was when the song leader had a great mic, and muted everyone else, so we all could sing with him. Though we could not hear each other. Just ourselves in our physical location.

I cannot state enough how much I really miss singing in church. But, so what? Just get over myself, right?!

The call

Why do believers sing? Why do we sing together?

The ESV uses the word “sing” 105 times. These 105 times tell us who sings, and why, and what about.

Individuals. Nations. Nature. Priestly choirs. Widows. Those needing and finding a refuge in the Lord. The saints.

We sing to praise the Lord. We sing for joy. We sing to celebrate. We sing a new song. We sing to remember and to be remembered. We sing aloud. We sing as we bring offerings. We sing to God’s name.

We sing because we enjoy singing. Even more than that, we sing because we are repeatedly commanded to sing.

The risk

Last week I read two articles (Christianity Today and The Atlantic) about safe practices as we begin to emerge from our stay at home orders to resume life.

Both articles highlighted the risks of gathering in crowds (including church services), and ways to mitigate those risks. Both articles mentioned singing at church as a particularly high (infection) risk. Both recommended suspending congregational singing, at least until we are in the final phases of this pandemic (almost no active cases).

At war

I would argue that we are at war. It’s not a war against flesh and blood. It’s not even a war against the coronavirus.

Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.  For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

Ephesians 6:12, 13 (ESV)

This war touches every aspect of our lives. Make no mistake about that. The schemes and machinations of the devil are interwoven into the fabric of our day to day lives.

We are being told that soon we can gather again, but only in smaller groups. Plus we must social distance, wear masks, and not sing. It’s kind of depressing, and it makes me wonder why? Is there actually more to it than fighting germs?

For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.

1 Timothy 1:7

Is fear propelling our actions, or faith? Fear, or love? Fear, or a sound mind?

Acting from a sound mind would one hundred percent be supportive of thorough hand washing, staying home when you are sick, not touching your face, and covering your mouth when you cough and sneeze. This is just basic hygiene and polite behavior.

But, must acting from a sound mind also include not singing?

Singing is not the only thing under scrutiny. So is “communion.” But, I don’t think the assemblies will just concede that one. There might be possible modifications, but not even a temporary suspension once we meet in person again. After all, most assemblies are still doing a weekly Lord’s Supper, via Zoom, even if they aren’t singing.

Are we asking the right question?

So, if we wouldn’t suspend communion, why would we suspend congregational singing? Singing is certainly no more risky than passing a tray of cups from (germy) hand to (germs) hand, or ripping off a chunk of bread from a communal loaf.

Should the question we are asking even be how to keep safe? God does not command us to be safe (we are commanded to sing). God doesn’t even guarantee our safety. Rather, 365 times in the Bible the phrase or idea of “fear not” is used, implying that there is something to fear.

This topic is something each person, and each assembly, needs to weigh in their own hearts before the Lord.

But eventually it will come to this pass…What’s it going to take? When will we weigh the risk (possibly getting sick, possible death) vs. benefits (fellowship, unity, encouragement, worship), and choose to sing again? Even if the CDC is still against it. When will we deem the risk worth it?

Will the scene in heaven look something like this?

“Lord! The people are singing!”

The reply? “Finally.”

Maybe.

Bernadette Veenstra

    15 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Good article but here’s my pushback. 🙂

    For me there are many factors. One of my strongest convictions is about the community around my assembly and how it would be perceived. We are very close to the community and I wouldn’t want anything to ruin the good witness we have built up.

    Another factor as elders we are responsible to keep our elderly safe. So I am not willing to risk it for them.

    Reply

    • Bernadette Veenstra

      Bernadette Veenstra

      Crawford, you know that I respect you, and I thank you for sharing your pushback. I agree that each person and assembly has to evaluate the risk. And for some (and maybe even most or all) the risk might be too high. I respect that.

      Reply

    • Avatar

      Good comment, Crawford! I LOVE TO SING!! But, I don’t know who has Covid19 some have it and don’t know it, they are merely carriers. I can wait to sing with the saints or sing in my car, or at home. When you speak you expel droplets a few feet but when you sing those droplets go a lot further. We can sing, but……Rom 14:21  It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything (sing?) by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak. (or dies??)

      Reply

  2. Avatar

    Bernadette, while I appreciate your zeal for communal singing, which I more than share, your statement “I am not a scientist” qualifies your very argument which is dangerous in extreme. A “God will protect us if we stand in the middle of a busy freeway because he is God and we are saved” argument leaves the Gospel open to ridicule amongst unbelievers. If you care to do a little research, you will see that singing in a group is an extremely high-risk activity, far more so than passing the emblems from believer to believer. What you write here in public may easily be followed by others and the consequences of those actions would sit with your unqualified though heartfelt article and yourself as the author. That is why this article is so dangerous and I would ask you to withdraw or edit it. On an associated note, remember God’s people in exile in Babylon. They sat down by the rivers of Babylon, desiring to sing songs of praise to the Lord, but could not. The reasons for that are different to those we have here, but it is interesting to note that they desired this fervently and it was one of the things the Lord used to teach them to finally abandon idols. Perhaps the Lord is doing the same with us now, using this pandemic to teach us to abandon our idols and decades of lukewarm half-heartedness, to return fully to Him.

    Reply

  3. Avatar

    I feel like you do about singing. However, the problem is it’s not your life your risking, it’s the lives of the elderly and immunity compromised.
    This reminds me of the meme of the line from Shrek where Lord Farquaad says: “‘Some of you may die but it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.'”
    This is not an easy call for anyone in leadership, someone who will be held accountable, to make.

    Reply

    • Bernadette Veenstra

      Bernadette Veenstra

      I agree. I don’t think it’s any easy decision at all. I would never imply that. I also would never imply that if you reach a different conclusion you’ve made the wrong decision.

      Reply

  4. Avatar

    I appreciate the passion with which you write, Bernadette, and I certainly miss congregational singing very much, but I am not comfortable with the conclusion you have reached.

    Some of my concerns have already been mentioned in previous comments, so I won’t repeat these. I would like to present a few additional thoughts for you to consider:

    1. In an interesting coincidence, on the same day that your post appeared, the Wall Street Journal had a front-page article regarding spread of COVID-19. The article states: “A study published by the National Academy of Sciences in the U.S. last week found that one minute of loud speech was enough to produce thousands of droplets that remain airborne for about 12 minutes, potentially able to infect anyone in the area.” If one minute of loud speech by one person produces this effect, what is the impact of a room full of people singing exuberantly? The article goes on to state: “Similar studies have shown that virus-laden aerosols, particles smaller than droplets, can levitate for hours after being released in indoors spaces.” The article also states: “Some of the lessons from the research are already being applied. In Germany, choral singing has been banned from religious services…” These statements would seem to call into question your assertion that “Singing is no more risky than passing a tray of cups from (germy) hand to (germs) hand,” especially in light of statements on CDC’s website indicating that the virus apparently does not spread easily from touching surfaces or objects, but rather primarily from “respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks” (one would assume singing as well…). Here are the links for your information:

    https://www.wsj.com/articles/superspreader-events-offer-clue-on-curbing-coronavirus-11589977873?mod=searchresults&page=1&pos=3

    https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/how-covid-spreads.html

    2. Hopefully people who are sick will stay home. But people can be infected and not know they are infected, and then come to our assemblies and via singing (which presumably is done without a mask) infect many people. A sister at my assembly was required to be tested because she had come into contact with a person who was found to be infected with COVID-19. This sister tested positive for COVID-19, yet had no symptoms and showed no symptoms during an extended quarantine.

    3. As mentioned by others, we have those in my assembly who are clearly vulnerable to being killed by COVID-19. But I highly suspect that we also have some who are vulnerable but do not know they are vulnerable, others who are vulnerable and living in denial, and yet others who are vulnerable yet will not excuse themselves from attending gatherings at our assembly. Our love for the Lord’s people should result in us seeking to minimize the possibility of putting these dear ones at risk.

    Ultimately each assembly will need to work through this (and many other) issues. Every assembly is unique and has unique issues, so “one size fits all” answers are probably not appropriate. Hopefully we will work through this with love and care for the Lord’s people, and with much prayer.

    Reply

    • Bernadette Veenstra

      Bernadette Veenstra

      I appreciate the links you shared also. I’ve read these too. To speak to my point about “no more risky” this is a change in the CDC’s stance. It contradicts what they said in March, and even in April, when they doubled down on how long the coronavirus could live on surfaces. Thus, touching dirty surfaces, makes your hands dirty, and passes the germs on to whatever you touch. Which is why hand washing and not touching your face are still the two top prevention measures. My point with this reply is that the CDC is hopefully learning from their data, and are making changes. And so should we. But, also implied in this is that they were mistaken before. And that does leave open the possibility that they could be mistaken now. So many reports and graphs and projections have changed since the beginning of this pandemic. It doesn’t hurt to bear that in mind as we prayerfully make decisions.

      Reply

  5. Avatar

    I think I agree with about 99% of what you’re saying and am quite ready to meet in groups. I think that we should look back to the early church and realize that they met together despite physical risks and going against the will of Caesar. Those who feared meeting simply stayed at home. I very much respect those who want to stay at home and those who are concerned about congregational singing, but I firmly believe that both singing and assembling together are scriptural mandates that cannot be lightly forsaken for an assortment of reasons.

    Reply

    • Bernadette Veenstra

      Bernadette Veenstra

      You got to the nutshell. I respect them too, and I don’t think these things should be forsaken lightly.

      Reply

  6. Avatar

    I agree with everyone. The articles and all the comments. So many things to keep in mind and everyone has to do what God has put on their conscience. I’d just like to add that I feel bad for Bernadette being so hammered on for this article. She has good points!

    Personally, I’m torn between the fact that my beloved wife is probably the kind of person who shouldn’t getthis virus and the fact that I just saw an old friend come to the Lord this morning and she (and her daughter) probably NEED a real, physical assembly to help. My wife and I ought to be amongst the first to welcome her. We’re probably going to HAVE to go back physically ASAP and just pray that God will protect us. A new believer needs the actual assembly experience for a long time, as far as I can tell.

    Good points, everyone! Haha!

    Reply

  7. Avatar

    Leonard VandenBerg

    Here in Prince Edward Island we’ve had 27 cases of Covid-19, no hospitalizations and no community spread. The last case was many weeks ago. Right now 15 people are allowed to gather. There’s talk here in the Maritimes that churches might not be able to meet for a year. How safe do we want to be? 0 % risk? That’s impossible.
    Every day we take risks. In the last few decades we have surrounded ourselves with a host of safety measures to hedge ourselves in against all sorts of danger. Some of these are good and some of them have made us too independent from God. Think of the rich fool in Luke 12. I believe that all of this is one of the contributors to the lukewarmness among Christians in the West referred to in one of the comments above. We don’t really “need” God anymore for our daily lives. It’s the secularization of the church.
    At this point we can learn from the persecuted Church. They ask themselves: “Should I risk getting arrested if I meet with other Christians? What’s going to happen to my family? My livelihood? How will my neighbours view me?” They know that following Christ is a risky business. We’ll see persecution some day unless the Lord comes before that.
    Am I saying we should be reckless about our physical safety? No, but when I read the Bible, I’m convinced that the Lord Jesus is more concerned about my spiritual sanctification than He is about my physical survival. This sanctification involves singing and meeting with God’s people.
    I’m concerned for the spiritual well-being of the saints in our assembly, if we’re not meeting for many months. Many will drift and that’s spiritually unsafe. Meeting in homes with smaller groups is an alternative. Somebody once said: “If you never take risks, you’ll just safely arrive at your grave.”

    Reply

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