How Can We Keep from Singing

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.

From Slavery to Deliverance: A Storytelling Service

Sometimes we think that music is absolutely necessary for a worship service. This Sunday, however, our musicians (all five of them) were going to be out of town. So I wrote a storytelling service. Because I ended up being here (after all), I did add some very simple a cappella singing – but otherwise this is primarily a spoken word service. Andrew is preaching on Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, and on our celebration of communion – as a part of his sermon series on Eating with Jesus. The service brackets his sermon with the telling of the story of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. The style of writing is designed for an oral presentation – so keep that in mind as you read. The service is designed for two primary voices (one voice reading the italicised text), but a third could be added to lead the congregational responses.
If you wish to use this service in your own church, please contact me first.


This story begins like countless other stories. A young mother. Frightened. Afraid for her child. Afraid for herself. What makes it different is not her circumstances. Countless mothers have given birth in slavery. Countless mothers have had the pains of childbirth amplified by the knowledge that their child was not their own. Was owned, even at birth. And that the child’s owner could do whatever he or she wanted with that baby – could have it dashed against the rocks. Could have it thrown into the Nile.

“A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”

No, what makes this story different is not her circumstances. Too many, throughout history, and still, have been in the same position. What makes this story different is the promise of God. “I am” he says. “I will.”

“I am the Lord; I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians, I will deliver you from slavery, I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, I will take you as my people and be your God.”

I am.

I will.

Beginning with this child, hidden by his mother. Beginning with this child, picked up out of the reeds by Pharoah’s daughter, raised as Pharoah’s grandson. A slave, raised as the grandson of the King of Egypt.

His sister, thinking quickly, asks Pharoah’s daughter if she needs a Hebrew woman to nurse the child she has found. She runs to get her mother. And so the child is raised as the grandson of Pharoah, but also as the child of his own mother, as an Israelite—stories and traditions whispered to him, as he nuzzles at his mother’s breast.

Straddling two identities, Moses grows up and begins to notice the plight of his people. He begins to notice what God had already seen. He begins to feel the concern that God is already acting on.

But Moses’s concern turns to anger inside him, building to a crescendo. He turns that anger upon those who raised him. When he sees an Egyptian foreman beating an Israelite slave his anger bursts. And he kills a man.  Maybe he expected to be lauded as a hero by his own people. Instead, they responded with fear.

“Who made you ruler and judge over us? Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian?”

News of the murder reaches the ears of Pharoah who, perhaps realizing that this act proclaimed Moses’s loyalty to the enslaved Israelites rather than the ruling house in which he was raised, tries to have Moses killed. Moses flees for his life—into the desert.

Congregational Response: Slavery

Leader: We are all enslaved, like the Israelites—although we may not know it.

People: Free us, Lord.

Leader: We are slaves to ourselves.

People: Free us, Lord.

Leader: We are slaves to sin.

People: Free us, Lord.

Leader: We are slaves to the desires of the world.

People: Free us, Lord.

Leader: We are slaves to our own selfish desires.

People: Free us, Lord.

Leader: We are slaves because we do not seek the freedom that is offered to us—but prefer to dwell in slavery, perceiving it as safety. Teach us to see our bondage and to cry out to you.

People: Free us, Lord! Lord, have mercy!

SING: Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy on us.


So Moses flees. But his mother must have taught him something. When he sees some shepherd girls being harassed as they try to water their sheep, he drives the thugs away, and helps the seven daughters of Midian to water their flock. Not only does this result in a safe haven for Moses in the desert—it results in a wife. Midian gives his oldest daughter, Ziporah, to Moses in marriage.

For a long time, Moses lives as a part of Midian’s family—taking to himself a third identity. A third nationality. Maybe, after a while, he begins to forget his people. He begins to forget their suffering. But God doesn’t forget. I am, he says. I will.

“I am the Lord; I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians, I will deliver you from slavery, I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, I will take you as my people and be your God.”

One day, while Moses tends his father-in-law’s flocks, he sees a wonder: a bush of fire. The flames shoot up from the ground, but do not consume the bush on which they feed. Moses draws closer. And God says:


“I’m here.” Moses answers.

“Do not come any closer, Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.”

Moses hides his face in fear. He has forgotten his family. Lost his identity. But God knows. God knows who Moses is. God knows who he belongs to. And God begins to speak. He speaks of hearing the cries of his people—of his concern for them. Of his desire to bring them to a good, rich, productive land where they can dwell in peace and plenty. And then God says something else.

“So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”

Moses thinks to himself: “No way is that going to work out.” He bows his head and, in mock humility he begins to plead with God: “Who am I, God, that you would send me to the Pharoah? That you would ask me to bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

“Who am I?” He thinks. “A murderer. A man without family. A man without strength or position. A man without words.”

I am, said God. I will.

“I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.”

Moses thinks harder. “But what if I go to the Israelites and tell them that the God of their fathers – of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—spoke to me, and they ask me your name?”

Are you my God,” he thinks?

I am, says God.

“Tell them,” says God, “that I have watched over Israel. I have seen what is done to them by Egypt, and I have promised to bring you up out of Egypt.”


“The elders will listen to you, Moses… here is the plan.” And God tells Moses that he will strike Egypt with his hand. That after God’s display of might, the Pharaoh will beg the Israelites to leave. That the Egyptians will send them away with gifts so that God’s anger will not continue to rain down on them.


“I see… but what if they don’t believe me?”

What if you are not I am. What if you will not. What if, what if, what if…

What is that in your hand?

My staff?

Throw it on the ground!

Moses shrugs and does as he is told—and then jumps back in fear as a snake suddenly writhes at his feet.

Pick it up by the tail.



Cautiously, pulling back his hand in alarm every time that serpentine head weaves closer to him, Moses reaches out and closes his hand around the snake’s tail. His staff is once more in his hand.

This is so that they will believe. Now. Put your hand into your cloak.

Moses hesitates. He doesn’t want a snake in his cloak. Slowly, he reaches his hand in and, when nothing happens, pulls it out again. He jumps and holds his hand away from himself. It’s white with leprosy. If he could run from himself he would.

Now put it back in your cloak.

Put his infected hand inside his cloak—next to his heart? Slowly, staring into the fire, Moses does as he is told. When he pulls his hand out again he sighs in relief. It’s clean.

If they don’t believe the first sign, they may believe the second. If they don’t believe the second, take some water from the Nile and pour it out in the dust. It will turn to blood on the ground.


“Sorry. Sorry, Lord… but I’ve never really talked much in front of people. No one has ever called me a leader. I… I’ve already made a lot of mistakes. I’ve always been slow of speech—and you haven’t changed that.”

Moses. Looking for a miracle for himself. If he was to be called by God, then surely God would make him fit for the task by changing him into the very image of eloquence so that he could talk the Israelites and the Egyptians around his little finger.

“Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.”

I am. I will. But through you. I will help you. I will teach you—but I will not change you.


“Sorry. Sorry, Lord… but couldn’t you send someone else?”

Congregational Response: Calling

Leader: Like Moses, we are called. Like Moses, we are hesitant.

People: Help us, Lord.

Leader: We are frozen by fear.

People: Help us, Lord.

Leader: We see only the difficulties ahead of us.

People: Help us, Lord.

Leader: We see only our faults.

People: Help us, Lord.

Leader: We do not want to go where you send us.

People: Help us, Lord.

Leader: We do not want to speak to those you wish us to speak to.

People: Help us, Lord.

Leader: We are called by you, but we feel unfit, unprepared, and unable to complete the tasks you have set before us. We forget that it is your strength by which we go. That you have promised to be with us. That you have created us. That you knew everything about us before you called.

People: Help us, Lord. Lord, have mercy on us.

SING: Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy on us.

A Hurried Meal

Moses goes. All his protests cannot dampen God’s call. He goes. But his brother Aaron performs the signs before the elders of Israel. And the elders fall on their faces and worship God when they hear that he is concerned about them and has heard their cries.

But when Aaron and Moses go to Pharaoh, Pharaoh gets angry. He makes the work of the Israelites harder. The Israelite overseers come to Moses and Aaron in anger, and Moses cries out to God: “Why, Lord, why have you brought trouble on this people? Is this why you sent me? Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has brought trouble on this people, and you have not rescued your people at all.”

“Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh: Because of my mighty hand he will let them go; because of my mighty hand he will drive them out of his country.”

I am, God says. I will.

“I am the Lord; I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians, I will deliver you from slavery, I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, I will take you as my people and be your God.” – Exodus 6:6-7

Moses reports this to the Israelites, but they turn away from him in discouragement. God tells Moses and Aaron to repeat his message to Pharaoh. And they go. And Aaron performs the signs. Pharaoh’s heart, however, is hard. He cannot humble himself. He cannot admit that anyone could have more power than himself. And so, the plagues begin. The river turns to blood, and the people have to dig drinking water out of the river bank. Frogs pour across the land: in kitchens, in beds, in ovens. They die in courtyards and houses and fields—but Pharaoh will not let the Israelites go.

Tell Aaron, ‘Stretch out your staff and strike the dust of the ground,’

And a great swarm of gnats flies up. But Pharaoh won’t listen. So instead of gnats there are flies. On everything. In the eyes of the animals, underfoot. In every house, including the palace. Every place in Egypt was covered, except where the Israelites lived—but still Pharaoh does not yield. And so, Egyptian livestock sicken, while those of the Israelites remain well. And every single Egyptian horse, donkey, camel, cow, sheep, and goat dies—but still Pharaoh resists.

“Take handfuls of soot from a furnace and have Moses toss it into the air in the presence of Pharaoh. It will become fine dust over the whole land of Egypt, and festering boils will break out on people and animals throughout the land.”

And then there is hail, so not only the livestock, but the crops are decimated. And there are locusts that eat every bit of green that remained standing. And Pharaoh’s officials plead with him to let the Israelites go. “Egypt is ruined!” They say. But still Pharaoh’s heart was hard. So God blocks out the sun. But it still isn’t enough.

And so the worst happened. Moses told Pharaoh:

“This is what the Lord says: ‘About midnight I will go throughout Egypt. Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn son of the female slave, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well. There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt—worse than there has ever been or ever will be again. But among the Israelites not a dog will bark at any person or animal.’ Then you will know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel. All these officials of yours will come to me, bowing down before me and saying, ‘Go, you and all the people who follow you!’ After that I will leave.”

Then Moses, hot with anger, leaves Pharaoh.

Surely this warning would be enough.

But no.

And so God begins to prepare a meal for his people. They are to take a lamb, one for each household, and roast it over a fire. Smaller households are to share with each other. After each lamb is slaughtered, some of the blood is used to mark the top and the sides of each doorframe in which a lamb is eaten. They are not to leave their houses during the night. They are to eat the roasted meat with bitter herbs and bread made without yeast. None of it is to be left till the morning.

This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s Passover.

So they huddle in their houses. Sandals on. Staff in hand. Cramming food into their mouths. Children do not need to be hushed. Adults try to stop themselves from peering around at the doorway in fear. They eat as much as they can fit in their bellies—preparing for a long hungry journey. And they wait.

The blood, God said, was a sign. And the Spirit of God passes by the houses of the Israelites and leaves them unharmed. And they are ready to go when the wailing begins.

It was a day, God said, that Israel would remember forever. It was a meal, God said, that was to be forever repeated. A lasting ordinance. A celebration of God’s great work of deliverance. And blood was the sign.

During the night Pharaoh summoned Moses.

Up! Leave my people, you and the Israelites! Go, worship the Lord as you have requested. Take your flocks and herds, as you have said, and go.”

So the meal did not last until morning after all. And the haste was warranted. The Israelites pack up their bread dough—there is no time to add yeast and let it rise—and they leave Egypt.

Congregational Response: A Hurried Meal

Leader: Like the Israelites, God has prepared a meal for us. Like the Israelites, we learn the meaning of the meal only as we eat it.

People: Feed us, Lord.

Leader: We know now that you have heard our cries.

People: Feed us, Lord.

Leader: We know now that you have been concerned for us.

People: Feed us, Lord.

Leader: We know now that your deliverance is at hand.

People: Feed us, Lord.

Leader: We know now that, although you have delivered us, our journey has just begun. Feed us, that we might have strength to complete our journey. Teach us to understand the meal that you have prepared.

People: Feed us, Lord. Lord, have mercy on us.

SING: Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy on us.


Luke 22:7­-20



And so the Israelites leave. Along with their livestock, their goods, and a considerable amount of gold and silver thrust on them by Egyptians eager to see them go. But even then, Pharaoh pursues them. Realizing they had lost their primary source of free labour, Pharaoh and his army set out after the Israelites. Trapping them against the Red Sea.

The Israelites are terrified. They cry out to Moses: “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!”

How many more times would they say this? God’s deliverance does not always work the way we think it should.

Then Moses gave perhaps his greatest and most eloquent speech—he had learned something at last:

“Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”


They had been delivered out of Pharaoh’s hand, but had very recently come to view God’s deliverance as a fragile thing. Slaves for generations, they are still learning to trust that God is with them. I am, God says. I will.

“I am the Lord; I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians, I will deliver you from slavery, I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, I will take you as my people and be your God.”

The angel of God and the pillar of fire and cloud, which had been guiding the Israelites into the desert, move between Israel and Pharaoh’s army—giving light to one, and only darkness to the other. And so they spend the night. And as the Israelites try to quiet restless animals, and lull their children to sleep, Moses stretches his hand out over the water, and all night long, God drives back the waters of the sea. And, in the morning, the Israelites coax their animals through the sea on dry ground: a wall of water on their left and on their right.

“The Lord is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation. He is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him.”

Pharaoh’s army is defeated in the sea, and Israel continues on her journey through the desert—toward the promised land. They do not go quietly. They complain the whole way. They do not live happily ever after.

But their story of deliverance echoes through time until, one Passover, a lamb is prepared. A lamb that will bring God’s final deliverance—to all his people. A lamb that is slain, to bring us life. To bring us freedom. Freedom from ourselves, freedom from sin, freedom from the desires of the world. True freedom to grow into people who are eager to answer his calling, and who will obey his voice, strengthened by the meal that God has prepared.

Congregational Benediction

People: Lord, you have freed us from our captivity. You have called us to follow you and to do your work. You have strengthened us with this meal. Teach us to live in the joy of your freedom. Amen.