By Grant Norsworthy
Unique challenges often bring unique opportunities. For those of us who are involved in musical worship within the Christian Church, 2020 (with its COVID-19 restrictions) threw us some unique challenges. Our well-established “normal” was shattered. What seemed to work before—using systems that we had toiled so long and hard to develop—was no longer possible. Circumstances forced us to adapt, improvise, and find new ways of using music as an expression of worship. It’s been rough!
Maybe you’re now able to go back to how things were. Or perhaps you can hardly wait to resume your pre-COVID system of doing things. But that might be a mistake.
Do we really want to go back to how things were before the pandemic?
Now we’re into another year—2021. As our community of worshiping musicians gradually and hopefully moves past the unique challenges presented by COVID-19, I hope we don’t miss this unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to re-assess and re-discover. To reset.
Let’s grab this chance to scrutinize our “worship culture” and all we have been doing with music in the Church with both hands and with open hearts and minds. As we do so, maybe we’ll rediscover (or perhaps discover for the first time) the worship that God actually requires of us. Perhaps we’ll better understand the role that music can play within worship.
Let’s Be Real
What were we doing before that wasn’t really working?
What needs modification?
What do we need to stop doing— to get rid of entirely?
What needs to remain unchanged even though so much else has changed?
I think we’d all have to agree that with the restrictions necessitated by COVID-19, 2020 saw an all-time, two-millennia low in the level of congregational participation in sung worship from the Christian Church. Do we really think that our congregation members were singing along to our streamed services as they sat on their couch (possibly still in their pajamas) gathered around a phone? I think not. How well was your congregation singing if each individual, couple, or family group had to stand a prescribed distance apart outdoors or in a mainly empty room wearing face masks? Not great, right?
But how was the level of congregational participation in 2019 before the pandemic? Let’s be honest with ourselves. Let’s be real or, as they say in my home country of Australia, let’s be fair dinkum. The vocal participation from Jack and Jill congregant—even though they were in the room with us—was low back then, too. While there are exceptions I’m sure (and I know I’m sticking my neck out here), it has certainly been my experience that only in 2020 has the level of passion and volume from regular church congregations dipped lower than 2019. This has been a gradual and constant decline for years.
Will 2021 be any better? Or will the downward slide continue?
Where Did We Go Wrong?
At no point in Church history has there been such impressive infrastructure and so much support for those who lead musical worship. We’ve got an abundance of resources at our fingertips, like CCLI, Planning Centre, backing tracks, in-ear monitors, YouTube, Facebook groups, websites, incredible publications like Worship Leader Magazine, and songs. So many songs! So many great songs are being written and made so easily available to us by a multitude of incredible song writers, musicians, and artists whose main focus is to provide great songs for church congregations to sing.
But despite all this, in numerous regular Sunday services, I see way too many dreary faces, confused expressions, and lips that are sealed or hardly moving. Often, I can barely hear a polite, semi-musical murmuring from the congregation. The gathered believers produce an unenthusiastic sound that is easily overwhelmed by the singers and instrumentalists on the platform through the PA.
Many of the people in our congregations seem confused. “Are we supposed to sing? Or are we supposed to listen?” Often, they can’t tell. I believe many of us on the platform are confused, too. We send mixed messages. We may invite our congregation to stand and sing the words that are on the screens, but then (unintentionally I’m sure) we make musical and technical choices that send the opposite message, making it very difficult for Jack and Jill congregant to sing with us. We seem unsure about whether we are on the platform to guide the “voice” of our congregation or whether we are trying to produce the best sound we possibly can for their listening enjoyment.
Do we really want to go back to that? I think we need to hit the reset button.
But hey, my opinion that the Church is not singing well is (of course) just my opinion. I have no scientific research or solid evidence to back this up. But please know that my opinion has been formed through observations and experiences gathered while working professionally as a musician and as More Than Music Mentor within the Christian Church over a couple of decades across denominational boundaries, living for extended periods in three different countries, and travelling extensively to engage with numerous church communities around the USA and several other countries around the world. Plus, I’ve been alive for quite a while and have been musically involved in the church for my whole life. I guess I’m old enough, have cared enough, and have been watching and listening carefully enough to have noticed the gradual decline.
Generally speaking, Christian church congregations sang better—louder, more musically, and with more passion—30 years ago. 20 years ago. Even 10 years ago.
I know this isn’t the case everywhere. And I’m also aware that there are plenty of “live” videos from mega churches and “worship artists” on YouTube that would suggest that the opposite is true. I love watching those videos! Inspiring! They show us what’s possible in those particular contexts. But please don’t think me overly cynical if I point out that these are generally shot at special “concert-like” events, often with artists with well-deserved celebrity status in the eyes of the people they’re leading, possibly with prudently selected passionate worshipers in the most visible sections of the “congregation,” and carefully edited in post-production. Those videos don’t represent how it is for most of the weekend warriors who are reading this. Am I right? Just trying to be fair dinkum.
Choosing Wisely at the Big Crossroad
Right now I firmly believe that, with regard to musical worship at least, the Christian Church stands at a BIG crossroad. “And this BIG crossroad is actually made up of millions of smaller crossroads that each individual, pre-COVID churchgoer is navigating right now. After weeks, or even months, of only “attending” their church gathering online (if they did) Jack and Jill churchgoer are asking themselves, “Will I (physically) go back to the Sunday church gathering or not?”
Hopefully, they will realize how badly they have missed gathering in the same room with their own church family. Recall how important singing worshipfully with their local community is for their spiritual health and faith journey. Remember the value of adding their voice to the voices of others as a way to worship—or show the worth—of God. How encouraged they felt to be surrounded by the rousing sound of brothers and sisters to their left and right and behind them, declaring truth of Almighty God together. How doing so seemed somehow to thin the membrane between humanity and divinity. How we could sense His presence in the room as we all sang. We want them to answer with an emphatic, “Yes! I’ll be there!” But will they? Are they?
Alternatively, they might take the other fork in the road. They might come to realize that they don’t really miss “going to church” that much. Never felt that their vocal participation was clearly invited, expected, or required during the Christian-ese cover band set that was part of every service. They might decide just to continue watching the online stream, or since they can, find a better streamed service to watch—one they enjoy more. One with a pro band, higher quality production, better songs, and a snappier sermon. Or they might decide to become one of the growing number of former churchgoers.
Recently I was speaking with a local pastor about the size of his congregation. “We were about 300 to 350 before COVID. Now that all the restrictions have been lifted, we’re back up to about 60 in the room, but with a hundred or so streaming the service.” Just a little anecdotal evidence.
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Hebrews 10:24-25 (NIV)
So, what could this reset look like? Part of it might be this: We could make a clear and intentional distinction between musical performance and leading congregational singing. Both are great! There is a place for both, sure. But if our role is to lead a church congregation to worship God through songs, we must lean hard towards the latter rather than the former. The voice of the congregation is not a nice optional extra if you can get it. Their voice is the imperative. The congregation’s voice is more important than ours!
Speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit.
Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord.
Ephesians 5:19 (NIV)
We ought to take a good hard look at the musical and technical choices we make (key choices, volume levels, audio mixes, instrumental density, vocal embellishment, etc.) and ask ourselves, “Does this choice make it easier for Jack and Jill to sing, or harder?” We might be surprised to find that we have unintentionally made way more “performance” choices and fewer “congregational” choices than we realize.
Let’s reset by dedicating ourselves with more intentionality to use music as a tool to warmly and clearly invite our congregation to find their voice to sing as an expression of worship to God. Let’s re-affirm that our main, musical goal is not to entertain an audience but to help our congregation recognize that God is our “audience” as we all sing prayers, praises, and declarations of truth TOGETHER.