I expect that the current season will be bittersweet for many of us.
While we are missing the gathered worship experiences that are so special and formational for our communities, we are learning that discipleship can flourish in new ways. Yet now as we have permission to gather together but not permission to sing, how should we think through what our gatherings - that in some ways previously revolved around singing – could look like now?
Maybe before anything, it would be worth revisiting your theology of worship. Everyone speaks and thinks about worship differently: yet how does your own church understand worship? My favourite definition is by Eugene Peterson: "Worship is the strategy by which we interrupt our pre-occupation with ourselves and attend to the presence of God”. Into this definition sits singing as one way we can do this - the combination of melody, harmony, rhythm and poetry is powerful and a real gift. But having a theology of worship that is not, at its core, about singing, opens up all sorts of other possibilities.
The government guidelines are comprehensive and should be followed. You may, quite reasonably, decide that you still don’t want to meet in this way. If you do, I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but offer these in case they help in some way as you prepare.
1. Acknowledge God’s presence
Maybe we should start our gatherings by acknowledging his presence with us. For our community to know that the absence of singing doesn’t mean the absence of the presence of God will be important. The presence of God does not revolve around our worship: our worship revolves around his presence. He is here already.
As the Anglican Liturgy puts it: "The Lord is here. His Spirit is with us. Lift up your hearts. We lift them to the Lord. Let us give thanks to the Lord our God. It is right to give him thanks and praise." Where our united, vocal responses are limited, we could encourage united participation by simple hand raising or kneeling.
2. Use liturgy
I love the fact that in recent times many of us are rediscovering the value of liturgy: words and phrases, poems and declarations that have been carefully crafted with theological depth and pastoral care. Maybe the absence of the emotive power of music, rhythm and harmony contained in our songs is a gift to the church that allows us - maybe even forces us - to focus more on lyrical content for a season. Maybe we should also reach out to the poets and writers in our own community to come up with new bespoke liturgy.
3. Allow lament
We are probably becoming increasingly aware how many people are carrying grief because of the current pandemic. As we gather once again, the sense of loss will have accumulated and will be acute. Empty chairs in our buildings will be stark reminders of empty spaces in our lives: loved ones who have died; jobs that have been lost; dreams that have been broken. So, let us be very careful with words of victory and power, and avoid offering easy answers.
Maybe read the Psalms and take plenty of time. We can’t force lament, but we can create the environment for it to be expressed. Maybe we could take the opportunity to rediscover some of the instruments that have tended to get lost in the musical intensity of the current contemporary worship culture - such as violins and cellos - instruments that are arguably the most suited to facilitate lament anyway.
4. Seek different prophetic voices
This feels like a time when big issues of injustice are being exposed on a global scale. For many, this has made our hearts softer and represents a moment in time to deal with them as church. Worship and justice are inextricably linked and the one thing we can’t do at the moment is ignore these big, often painful and confusing issues.
There are some people writing worship songs that address this in a powerful and pastoral way that could be considered. Personally, I’ve found the songs of Common Hymnal particularly important and there are some very powerful videos they have produced of their songs that could easily be played in our gatherings. (The guidance allows churches to play recorded music). It may also be a time to seek out artists, illustrators, photographers and film makers within our own communities.
5. Embrace the changes
It’s OK that this is not business as usual.
If you are ever tempted to judge success by numbers, this is not the time to do it.
If there was ever an opportunity to engage with your worship pastors, leaders, intercessors and creatives in a fresh bold way, this is it.
If you are hoping this moment will enable leaders to get back control and protect income streams, this is probably the time to be brave and resist it.
The old ‘usual’ may never return. So, as we gather together and don’t sing, maybe one of the things we should be doing is collectively listen to the Spirit-whispers that start to paint a different picture of the future.
Neil Bennetts is an author, theologian, worship leader and songwriter, and is currently the CEO of The Worship Foundation, a charity that works with churches and organisations in the education, coaching and training of worship leaders, worship pastors and their teams.