My inbox is filling up with questions from worship leaders and pastors who are newly struggling to understand what worship is—now that we can’t sing. For so long, we have identified the pattern of worship with a chunk of singing. And singing has become such a ubiquitous part of worship, that we no longer even think about the purpose it might serve.
In the face of our new reality—churches looking to re-open, but needing to address a new way of meeting together, a way that does not include singing—I want to begin with a few practicalities and ideas, and then simply invite you to share your questions in the comments. I do have some additional blog posts I would like to write—but would appreciate hearing from you re: which would be most useful:
- I hope to offer a post re: the structure of worship (and how it can be fulfilled without music… in fact, working with the underlying structure without including congregational singing might enrich your use of music once we can return to sung-worship).
- I hope to offer a post on the purpose of singing in worship and how we can fulfill that purpose in different ways.
- I hope to offer a post on how to write participatory liturgy and prayer for use in your congregation.
But for now—perhaps you just need a few practical tips/thoughts and some ideas to get you thinking creatively. Because at this point, we are all exhausted from constant decision making, and creativity may not be easily accessible. So here goes…
Some initial thoughts:
- Keep your services shorter. Partially, this is because a shorter time span leaves less time for the virus to spread. But also, when we don’t have singing—our temptation will be to fill that space with more talking at people. Try to resist that tendency. At first, the easiest way to do this will be to keep services shorter. As you begin to find your way, you can be more creative and find other ways for the congregation to participate rather than just receive (which is part of what congregational singing does for us).
- Resist the temptation to simply do everything in the same way you always have. Without singing this will only work for a short time. Yes, keeping some level of familiarity is grounding for your congregation—patterns matter to us. But the reality is that we have already thrown normal out the window… and keeping the same exact pattern in your services actually robs the congregation of their primary participatory role (because congregational singing has always provided us that participatory response). The way in which things are not the same—is that the congregation doesn’t have that natural way into a service—so actually we need to push our creativity to make things more different in a way that helps our congregation to be worship participants rather than observers or consumers.
- Explore resources: on this blog, go to the left column and click on the file folder, as you scroll down, you will see categories including a category called “liturgies” and one called “prayers.” You are welcome to use these resources in your own community (citations are nice!)—no need to ask specifically for my permission. Also, books like “The Worship Sourcebook” “The Common Book of Prayer” “The Celtic Book of Prayer” can be rich resources for you regardless of whether you are within a denomination that would typically use those types of books. Just choose which prayers/readings you use carefully—according to your tradition. Feel free to add additional resources you have found helpful in the comments below.
- Your congregation needs your “professional polish” less than they ever have before. So expend less stress on producing a professional product (not that we want to be totally sloppy—it’s all about balance, people!). In fact, a few mistakes may make it feel more real… and real contact, real connection, un-mediated experience of each other is what many in your congregation are longing for right now. Don’t do a million takes of something to make sure it’s perfect. Get it close, and let a few mistakes stay in the mix so that they also know it’s real.
- Expend most of your creative energy on thinking about ways to have your congregation participate in the service rather than simply observe. This is what we are missing in most of our streamed and recorded services right now—and there are ways to drive participation even there. I’ll include just a few ideas below to get your creative brains moving.
Some Initial Participatory Ideas to Play With:
- Don’t just use the written prayers of others—allow space for others to fill them with their own prayers. I call this “populating a prayer” with words of your own, or with the words of your local church community. Most prayers—psalms included—can be broken into sections quite easily. All you need to do is find the transition points where the poet/pray-er is shifting from one type of thought to another. Between those two thoughts—add some space: perhaps a time of silence; perhaps a prompt to have people speak aloud sentence prayers; perhaps a prompt to have people share just a single word that expresses their response to the portion of the prayer just read. There are many ways to do this. An example of this type of prayer can be found here.
- Consider adding moments for discussion. I know this isn’t something we have often done in our churches, but now more than ever we need to hear from each other. We need opportunities to share struggles and vulnerabilities and triumphs—so maybe give those moments to the congregation. Yes, we need to be distanced—but I can talk to 2-3 people across 6 feet of space. Or use break-out rooms in zoom (or on other platforms) for this.
- Hum! Humming is less problematic for virus spreading than singing. I don’t mean just have people hum along to the band, and then continue to do everything the way you’ve always done it. Consider the strengths of humming and use them accordingly. This will work best with a well-known and beloved song. Especially if harmonies are also known. It will work best a cappella. Imagine coming out of a time of discussion, starting with one person humming “Amazing Grace”—others joining in until the sound, muted, still swells to fill the space.
- Consider what other voices/gifts in your congregation might need to be pulled forward at this point in time.
- I’m thinking of the poets among us. Words written by and for a particular community can be particularly powerful. We need metaphor and imagery and choice words to ignite our imaginations and keep pulling us forward toward the vision of the good life we are given in Scripture. Who are your poets? Call them out!
- I’m thinking of the actors and dramatists among us. We need not just words written, but words powerfully spoken. Story-tellers who don’t just speak words, but make them live. Who are your story-tellers? Call them out!
- I’m thinking of the painters and sculptors and artists among us. We need not just word but image to help us understand the biblical text, to help us understand our current moment. Image-makers help us see more clearly, and we need that desperately in our fogged and smogged world. Who are your artists? Call them out!
- Have a poem, written by a member of the congregation, read out with care-ful expression—then take time to discuss the poem in small groups. To unpack lines, and word choices. To pull out personal connections that someone else might not see.
- Instead of a simple Scripture reading, have a member of your congregation tell Scripture—it doesn’t need to be a big production, just some time taken to understand character, and think through tone so the text can be delivered straight out of the mouth of Paul. Or as a bystander at the foot of the golden calf. This will feel personal, so take time to pray in small groups in response to the story told. Talk through where you each saw yourself in that story.
- Have a painter paint the text for the week—and place that text on the screen, or a scanned photo in people’s hands. Tell them what to look for. Let them pour over it as the text is read out. Let the image be a conduit for prayer.
- Or have a potter bring their wheel and place it on the stage. Have them work, quietly, as you unpack one of the many biblical texts about the Potter, and the clay. Take time as a community to pray into what it means to be clay, unfired.
These are just a few ideas to get you started–and please feel free to share your own ideas below. Especially if you can tell a story of how it worked (or didn’t work–an even better way for us to learn together!) in practice.
Congregational singing is a wonderful gift—and there is a reason that we are not only instructed but commanded to sing in Scripture. But there are so many other ways and means of worship that we have forgotten. While I will miss singing with my sisters and brothers in Christ… I confess that I’m also a bit excited. What will we discover when the music we have made into an idol is stripped from us? What will we learn about ourselves? About God as the crutch is removed?
But it will not be easy. So please do feel free to place questions (or further ideas) in the comments. Or let me know which of the blog post ideas above would actually be helpful for you. Let’s share the load.
Great thoughts here, Stacey. I’m grateful for you.
I have always insisted that worship is about so many other things than music- art and poetry and lament and silence and dance. But the truth is that music is familiar and immediately rewarding. New ways of worshipping can be awkward for a congregation before they become meaningful. COVID has forced the space to incorporate those things creatively.
Yes, you are so right Ariel. This awkward time may help us learn new ways of worshipping. Although I think we will always go back to song. Maybe the next question is “how do we introduce new ways of worshipping well?”