An Anchor In Uncharted Waters: Worship Leadership In A Pandemic

We are in uncharted waters– that means there is no map. Or if there is, we’ve sailed right over its edge. 

Today millions of people have been diagnosed with a “novel coronavirus.” And tomorrow? We can’t know the number, which is projected to increase exponentially in the coming months. This is indeed an unprecedented moment. You and I have never been here before. 

Even as I sit at my writing desk staring out the window in our sunny harbor city Sydney, I can hear helicopters hovering over the river. It seems like every hour we’re updated with more information on the state of the world, which is in the grip of a pandemic. 

So it’s only human to feel a range of unexpected emotions. 

A Worshipful Response

A question some friends have asked is, how should worship leaders be speaking about world events on their live streams? 

Some of us are more focused on what is scriptural, others of us on what is faith-filled. Both of these things are important. I like to think about this not as a tension but as compatible commitments—remaining true to Christian history, and also leading the church into its preferred future. But I would like to encourage worship leaders to avoid certain language and framing as you plan your online worship moments and events. 

There’s a clear temptation to introduce magical thinking. We can unthinkingly reassure people, “If we worship God in THIS way, we will be safe.” These assurances are appealing because we want to help people with their anxieties and fears. We want to tell them they are going to be fine. 

But Christianity has never been a magical religion. Our actions can’t be used to control the outcome. We are promised many things, but we certainly aren’t promised safety. 

Reading the Bible, we can see various unexpected events in the stories of many of the biblical characters, e.g., Jonah, Ruth, Jeremiah, Daniel, and Paul. Their voices call out to us from the cloud of witnesses (Heb 12:1). They are a reminder of God’s presence in similar events, not always protection from them. We should certainly pray for ourselves and for our loved ones’ safety. But if our heroes of the faith found themselves in situations they would rather not experience, can we really promise our congregations safety? 

Pause and Consider

We need quiet moments before God, time to pray and center our thoughts before we press “play” on the live stream. 

When we stop and reflect, what are worship songs for? The references to music in the biblical text hold some insights. For example, Ephesians 5 reads, “Be filled with the Spirit, speaking 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, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Here we are commanded to sing and speak to each other using music, to remind ourselves of what we can and should give thanks for. We are offered an anchor even in troubled times. Similarly in Colossians it says, “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.”

This gives us a beautiful picture of a church that in all seasons, in all times and places, has the message of Christ in song in our hearts and on our lips. 

Blessed Assurance

So even in this time of COVID-19, some things remain the same. Jesus is the anchor of our faith. We can look to him as our model. When Jesus was faced with the agony of the cross, he selflessly sacrificed for others, knowing God was not punishing him, but had the larger story in mind and under control. 

We can sing of God as Emmanuel, present amongst us in our communities, no matter what we face. We can sing of eternal assurance, and of victory beyond the grave.

Coming from the Pacific, it’s interesting to me how many songs use the metaphor of ocean storms. This surely draws on the passages in which God commands the winds and waves (Mk 4:39). But God also directs whales (Jon 1:17) and boats (Acts 28:31) that carry the people of God. 

A song which has played a particularly meaningful role at Hillsong Church is “Still.” Sung by Tulele Faletolu, the lyrics sing, 

When the oceans rise and thunders roar 

I will soar with you above the storm 

Father you are King above the flood 

I will be still and know You are God

What is this soaring, then? It is holding an absolutely unshakeable conviction that God loves us and is present with us. This is the message of Christ’s suffering and resurrection. 

St Augustine of Hippo said, “Man’s maker was made man that He, Ruler of the stars, might nurse at His mother’s breast; that the Bread might hunger, the Fountain thirst, the Light sleep, the Way be tired on its journey; that Truth might be accused of false witnesses, the Teacher be beaten with whips, the Foundation be suspended on wood; that Strength might grow weak; that the Healer might be wounded; that Life might die.”

Sometimes we forget that this message must be proclaimed in its fullness. 

Remind the Church To Remember

Yes, there is the resurrection coming. Yes, there is room in our theology for God to work via the miraculous and through science. We should believe and pray for these things. Still, the role of our worship song is to remind us of Jesus as the anchor for our souls, and the author and finisher of our faith. 

Sometimes when we’re in uncharted waters, it’s easy to be buffeted by the storms. The winds and waves may take a while to die down, but even in death, we the Church will sing as the hymn writer Horatio Spafford proclaimed at the news of his four children’s passing:

It is well, it is well with my soul!

Worship songs are the way the people of God remember God’s action in the past, and remind each other of God’s presence and goodness today. This is how we will see the coming of God’s kingdom on earth, even as it is in heaven.  

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