As churches across Australia scrambled to work out how to do singing online, did anyone stop to ask if we should?
For most churches, the first response to physical distancing seemed to be “do everything we normally do but put it online.” So we pressed the upload button on our preaching, reading of scripture, corporate prayers, small groups and bible studies.
But we also included our singing.
Why? Why did we assume that singing was a necessary element in our streamed services?
The place of music in church
The church service is one of the few places in our culture where people sing together. It is there for good reasons: singing is a mark of God’s people (Psalm 33:1); it shapes their gatherings (Psalm 149:1); it is good for growing in the wisdom of God (Ephesians 5:17–20) and for giving him praise (Psalm 150).
When Paul calls on the Ephesians to sing, he addresses them as a community: “[Speak] to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the spirit … sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything.” (Ephesians 5:19–20)
In Paul’s mind, singing is a one another activity. That is, an activity to be done together, to be done for mutual building-up, and—given the lack of telecommunications in the first century—to be done when God’s people are gathered.
But what if God’s people are not physically gathered? How does one another singing translate onto Zoom, Skype, FaceTime and Teams?
Unsurprisingly, it’s not quite the same.
Can we still praise God as a community? Yes. As we synchronise our individual voices across geographical separation, God is praised. Can we still build one another up? Maybe. This one is harder to say with confidence.
For most of us, it feels awkward singing in an empty room. And if we all turn our microphones on, our combined singing sounds glitchy and pitchy.
So, if taking our corporate singing online is less than ideal, what other options do we have?
The place of no music in the bible
In Psalm 137, the psalmist cries out, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” The people of God are held captive in Babylon, yet their captors demand them to sing. They are told to sing their normal songs. Songs that technically have all the right words: songs of “Zion”, songs of “the Lord.” But somehow it feels wrong in that context, and the people won’t sing.
It is not directly analogous with today. But it does raise the question: are there contexts in which not singing is appropriate?
When Australia went into isolation, one Sydney church decided not to ‘gather’ online. You could call it a season of lament. A season of longing. A season where they choose to sit in the sadness and discomfort of loss without applying quick-fixes to maintain business-as-usual.
What would not singing in our isolation do for our singing when we do gather physically again? How much more joy, and encouragement, and edification would there be?
This isn’t to suggest we should intentionally deprive ourselves of good things now in order to artificially make them seem better later. It is to suggest we find a way to let our approach to one another singing reflect the context we are in.
Just keep singing
As churches took their services online, the general consensus seemed to be that nobody wanted to lose singing. And so we looked for ways to translate it to a digital forum, to just keep singing, and I think it is working for some.
Some churches have pre-recorded using their own musicians, whereas others have livestreamed. Both come with copyright obligations that churches need to consider.
Some churches stream from a well-known artist, before, during or after their own service stream. Artists like Sovereign Grace (in their kindness) are allowing churches to stream their music and videos without copyright infringement (check their blog for information https://sovereigngracemusic.org/blog/).
Some churches actively ask people to sing along at home, while others simply invite people listen and enjoy.
Some churches are creating Spotify playlists for their people to play at home when they wake up in the morning, when they’re doing the washing, or when they’re exercising in the kitchen.
Whatever the pragmatics, just keep singing has been the principle.
What am I going to do?
I think I sit in the just keep singing camp. I can’t say our online services are not gatherings; they are a different kind of gathering. And when God’s people gather, they sing. And so when my church streams a song I will sing along with the church, knowing that brothers and sisters are gathered with me and making the same declarations, and knowing that those glitchy and pitchy declarations can still be good for building us up.
But I also know that when I stop and sit in the quietness of not singing, I am forced to look with greater hope toward the day when all heaven and earth, every tongue in every place, will proclaim Him to be Lord of all.
And at that time, we’ll sing it together. Really together.