Many of us have had the joy of gathering together as church for the first time in months. It is so good to be together, as it's supposed to be! Well... almost as it's meant to be. As I write, congregational singing is still banned, with no end yet in sight. It certainly feels as if one of the most edifying elements in our gatherings - one of the richest foretastes of heaven - has vanished.
It also begs the question: what do we do about the musical elements of our services? Some say we should minimise singing, claiming it's not essential, fearful that music can pull us away from God's word. Actually, the opposite should be true! Skillfully combining God's word with music allows it to dwell deeply in us, stirring hearts and minds to faith and obedience (Col. 3:16). Minimising that means we miss out on something crucial to our Christian experience.
We now have a precious opportunity to re-evaluate the way in which we participate in times of singing. Let's ask: how can I best engage my heart and mind with these songs to build others up and be edified myself? Aside from humming loudly behind our masks, here are a few suggestions of things we've tried and been encouraged by…
Most importantly, we can seize this opportunity to rediscover what it means to "make melody in our hearts to the Lord" when we can't with our lips. It can be easy to focus on tuning our voices in times of singing that we forget to tune our hearts. Perhaps now more than ever we can focus on responding to the sung word in an authentic, heartfelt way. What if we emerged from this hard season better equipped to engage on a heart-level in our times of singing? That really would restore what the locusts have eaten.
Secondly, someone in our congregation has been learning British Sign Language to participate in the singing. It's been building up those around her as she engages with the gospel with her mind, soul and body - and it's helped her to focus on the words more as we sing.
In fact, that's a great example of responding to God's word with our bodies as is repeatedly commanded in Scripture. We're urged: "lift up your hands" (Ps.134:2, Lam. 3:41 - note: this isn't always a happy thing), "bow down" (Ps. 95:6), "clap your hands" (Ps. 47:1 - although best leave the shouting for now!) Is there one of these you've never done in response to who God is and what He has done? If so, why not try it while we can't sing?
Maybe this makes you nervous. "It would feel fake", someone might say. Sometimes, the act of responding in this way can kindle the affection in our hearts. The body adopts a posture - the heart follows. Sometimes these expressions are an overflow of what we currently feel; other times it expresses a longing for where we'd like to be. Both are Biblical expressions of worship, and both do much good to you and to those around you.
"I'm afraid people will judge me, or that I'd be a distraction", another says. The truth is, watching another brother or sister responding to the truth of the gospel in this way is a great encouragement! Done humbly, and not to attract attention to ourselves, it's a way to serve our church family and lift their eyes to the hope of the gospel. We mustn't be afraid to respond to the glorious truths of the gospel because of what someone else might think! (We need to do more to give people permission to respond in this way in our church gatherings, but that's a topic for another day.)
"I'm British", says a third; "it would be completely out of character for me." I know many godly believers who are reserved in temperament. Each of us has a unique emotional spectrum. On a scale from 1 to 10, God has made some of us to live, move and have our being between 1 and 3; others of us, God designed to live in the 6-11 range (including many Brits!) The crucial question is: within your own temperament, what gets you to your highest number? We know it should be Jesus; but, truthfully, are we more likely to burst out with joy when our team scores, we close the deal, or our kids make the grade?
Are we more constrained by our culture than we are moved by the gospel?
This season offers us the chance to re-evaluate that. What if, during this strange time, we used the songs and hymns in our gatherings to focus more intently on gospel truths, to seek to respond to the gospel in fresh ways and to serve those around us by fostering joy in our Saviour that outweighs all other pleasures?
A final word to those leading the sung worship: we have greater freedom to use songs and hymns less well-known by the congregation to help them engage freshly with the gospel and fit even more closely with the preached word. I know it's hard at the moment, but the Holy Spirit can still do eternal good, transforming us into the likeness of Jesus when we sing. That remains true, even if you feel like you're on your own against a sea of face masks. Out of love for your congregation, keep serving through the weakness and trust in that promise.
This article was originally published in Evangelicals Now in November 2020.