California’s Department of Health’s reopening guidelines for houses of worship contain bitter news for those who love corporate worship.

“Strongly consider discontinuing singing, group recitation, and other practices and performances where there is increased likelihood for transmission from contaminated exhaled droplets,” the report warns.

In another section it notes, “ Activities such as singing and group recitation negate the risk-reduction achieved through six feet of physical distancing.”

Absorbing this is tough news for those who feel most connected to God and others through music.

“There is something about articulating our emotional state and using music, using song, as a means of expressing ourselves before the Lord. And that's deep in the Christian tradition, from singing and praying the Psalms to the early hymns in the New Testament like in Luke's gospel and peppered through Paul's letters,” said Glenn Packiam, associate senior pastor at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “There was also a reputation that early Christians get. In Pliny’s letter to the emperor, he says, “These strange Christians get together before sunrise and they sing these hymns to Christ as if to a God.”

“There's something about song that helps us express more than just what the words of the song are saying,” continued Packiam, who is also the author of the forthcoming book, Worship and the World to Come Exploring Christian Hope in Contemporary Worship.

Packiam joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen to discuss how his church has handled the pandemic from a worship perspective, what makes corporate singing special, and what it means that eschatology is missing from our worship music.

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Quick to Listen is produced by Morgan Lee and Matt Linder

The transcript is edited by Bunmi Ishola

Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #214

Can you tell us a little bit about how your church has handled worship during the pandemic?

Glenn Packiam: New Life Church is a worshiping church specifically in terms of singing and music. Our church has been through quite a bit of troubles and trials over the years. In late 2006, there was a public moral failure of the founding senior pastor, and then 13 months after that, there was a shooting and two teenagers lost their lives. And in both of those moments of crisis, what we did when we came back together was sing. We sang with tears, we sang with joy, we sang with solidarity. So we're a church that is well-practiced in worshiping through difficult times.

During this pandemic, I think the thing that's been the most challenging is that we can't all be in the same room. But one of the decisions we made early on was to let our worship team continue to lead with strength. Our church is made up of seven different congregations throughout the city—one in Spanish, one in Mandarin, and five in English—and there are no shared video elements between them. A hundred percent of every service at every congregation is live and contextualized to their people and their neighborhoods. But when the churches were not able to gather anymore, we said, “Let's do one shared service together. Let's make it a kind of a statement of solidarity.” And we had our worship teams kind of strengthen up there.

We're very aware that people are listening along on phones and computers and TV speakers. But we encourage people to sing along, to stand where possible, to lift their hands, to clap.

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What type of feedback have you heard from people who are watching the live streams about how they are participating in the worship?

Glenn Packiam: As the guidelines continued to change, and we continued to adapt, we surveyed to see how our members were doing, emotionally, financially, what they needed from the church, how many people were watching with them, and things like that. We also asked about all the things that the church had done to help people feel connected and cared for—there were phone calls to every household in our church, there's been some driveway, there's been grocery deliveries, there's been all kinds of things—and they said the thing that has been the greatest strength to them during this quarantine has been the ability to join in on weekend services.

Some of that is aided by Facebook watch parties, where you're chatting with people real-time as the services going on. We've also used Zoom as a digital lobby. So after the service, we all hop on Zoom, talk to each other and pray for one another. So we're trying to have

You mentioned that music was a huge place of refuge for your church as it endured some traumatic times in many ways. What exactly makes corporate singing so special in comparison to praying or a sermon?

Glenn Packiam: It is an interesting thing, isn't it—In the Christian tradition, just the role that music has—When else do large groups of people get together and sing? Maybe at a concert, if they know the words of the song, or maybe at the seventh-inning stretch at a baseball game. But singing together is something Christians have done from the very beginning.

There is something about articulating our emotional state and using music, using song, as a means of expressing ourselves before the Lord. And that's deep in Christian tradition, from singing and praying the Psalms to the early hymns in the New Testament like in Luke's gospel and peppered through Paul's letters. There was also a reputation that early Christians get. In Pliny’s letter to the emperor, he says, “These strange Christians get together before sunrise and they sing these hymns to Christ as if to a God.”

There's something about song that helps us express more than just what the words of the song are saying.

You’ve also have written about how the worship is not just expressive, it's also formative. Can you talk more about that?

Glenn Packiam: Everything we do when we gather together in worship—including the music, preaching, coming to the Lord’s table—everything we do is not just expressive, it's also formative. And I have often argued there's a third dimension to this: They're also missional.

So the church gathering is shaped by three paradigms: mission, formation, and encounter. And so if we think of those three paradigms—of mission, where we're conscious that our gathering together is for the sake of the world, and we're going to be sent back out into the world; of formation, that everything we say and sing and do together is disciplining us; and of encounter, the way that we experienced the presence of God's through the Holy Spirit when we gathered together—I think that's helpful in us thinking beyond categories of music, whether it's presentational or congregational.

From my experience, and a bit of my academic work, churches tend to favor one paradigm over the other. And there are definitely pitfalls in each of those three paradigms if we overemphasize one to the exclusion of the other. My proposal is for churches to think very deeply about holding all three of those paradigms in a generative tension so that all of our decisions about practices when we gather as a church help us be formed as followers of Jesus, help us encounter the risen Christ, and help us be ready to be sent back out in the world.

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You talked about discipleship being something that happens through worship. But worship music has become an industry. There are worship nights, and you’ve even written and recorded a pretty big worship hit yourself. How much did you think about worship music also being a recruitment tool or way to get people in the door?

Glenn Packiam: We never thought of the recordings or the albums or any of that as a way to grow the church or a way to attract people. There's been some great historical work done on this. And researchers have sort of said, with contemporary worship music, you have two root systems. One is more on the seeker side that is always using modern worship to recruit and attract, and one is more from the Latter Rain Movement, which would quote scriptures like Psalm 22:3, “God dwells enthroned in the praises of his people.”

We've always tended toward that paradigm where we've said that these songs are meant to facilitate an encounter with God. Yes, we want to open up the doors, we want others to experience this as well. But we want the songs to travel beyond these walls so that people can have these sorts of encounters or experiences with God.

I think songs, because they can travel beyond the specific moment, have the ability almost to remind us of key memories. There's a lot of science about music and memory and how songs transport us to moments. We'll think about that with a spiritual or pastoral dimension, where you have a particular moment with the Lord with a song. That song becomes like a milestone, a memorial stone, like the people of Israel created in the Book of Joshua.

What would you say to church leaders who do worry or have fears around people not returning or being engaged in church, if they aren't able to sing?

Glenn Packiam: It's so important to walk in unity with your local public health officials. Because you can't say you love your neighbor, and you can't say you love your community, and then disregard their guidelines when it comes to this stuff. And we're getting better about having a conversation that's nuanced to each region and location and infection rates.

For those who are discouraged about it, I would say there is still something about co-presence in a space that is special. Humans are kind of seekers of emotional energy, and we need that. That's why we want co-presence with other human beings. That's what we're longing for in this quarantine season.

In a season where we can't have a lot of physical touch, perhaps we can have a few moments of song. Researchers discovered that when people sing their oxytocin levels rise. Even if we can't do that in the same room with one another, even if we save the singing portion for a midweek online-only thing, there's still something there that is special.

How much some of that thinking goes into worship planning during this season of coronavirus? People are in a different emotional state and there is an aspect where we can use music to change their emotional state, but also being careful about not using the power of music to manipulating or control those emotions.

Glenn Packiam: Music has power and all power has to be stewarded carefully. I think the New Testament shows us that power looks like the crucified son of God, it looks like Jesus saying in John 13 that everything had been entrusted to him, yet he began to wash their feet. Any power has to be used in service, not in a coercive way. And that includes the power of music, the power of singing, the power of preaching, and the power to provoke emotions.

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So we do have to think carefully about that. Are we coercing people to feel a particular way or are we meeting them, giving them permission to be where they are, and yet also gently taking them by the hand and leading them to see a different horizon?

Because all of our roles when we minister in a worship service is to do both. It’s to meet people where they are and to show them that God is present even in the moment of their grief or sadness or confusion or their inarticulate stage lament, and to lift their eyes just a little bit higher and to say, there's something else beyond this. So there is a way that we can inspire hope without being manipulative.

My research on Christian hope and contemporary worship has come to mind so much during the season because I have realized that we don't have enough popular Christian worship songs that point us to a further horizon, that point is to the ultimate hope, so that we look toward the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

Where would you like to see music push toward? What type of songs do you hope come out of the coronavirus era?

Glenn Packiam: We have a lot of the “God with us” songs. One of the gifts of the charismatic, Pentecostal stream of Christianity is this conviction that God's actually here and God's actually at work even now. And that's a wonderful thing. But one of the dangers or the pitfalls of that stream has been that we don't have anything left of the kingdom that is yet to come. We sort of have these unrealistic expectations of God to bring it all here and now. And if we don't see healing, and if we're not spared from the virus, then it’s like where has God been?

So, from where I sit, I think we have a good stock of songs about God in the moment, what we need are more practices, more sermons, and more songs that help us envision new creation and resurrection, the life of the world to come. We need more of that.

And one of the hypotheses I very gently suggest in this new book is that maybe one of the reasons why so many of these songs don't deal with the future is because they're written by people who are enjoying a very comfortable present. I have to tread carefully because these are my friends whom I respect, and I am among the transgressors. I'm contributing to it too.

But I think for many of us, we're writing songs in the comfort of suburbia, and we're sitting down at a writer's retreats in beautiful mountain or beach locations, and we're writing these songs that are so beautiful and personal and devotional. And that's not to say the songwriters don't have personal hardships, but just for a moment, compare it with the slave spirituals. We cannot argue with the fact that these were people who had a very difficult present, that were, therefore, longing for a more secure future.

And so my hope is that out of this crisis, maybe we can all have a bit of a reality check and to learn to sing and pray and preach about our great and ultimate hope. I want our songs to be powerful because they're pointing to the hope of resurrection in the life of the world to come.

I'm hopeful for is that we will create art that is more full-bodied out of this. Lament sometimes has a bit of a stigma in many of our churches because we think of lament as wallowing in sadness and just venting all of our complaints or sorrow. But actually, in the Psalms, they're very different than that. Lament is always rooted in the character of God. It's always an appeal to God’s previous faithfulness. And most of the lament Psalms even end with a bit of anticipation of praise coming. And so there's always this lining of hope that comes with it.

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So I think we could have some songs like that. That express our sorrow, our grief, our feeling of isolation, and loneliness, and also have “yet will I praise” moments. I know that art like that already exists, but it's possible that this will begin to work its way into the mainstream of Christian worship stuff.

Scholars and theologians often discuss that worship is more than just music. Do you envision more interplay between musical worship and other church practices? Is there a way for congregants to learn to worship beyond singing?

Glenn Packiam: One of the practices that we began a few weeks into the pandemic was to pray the Psalms every weekday morning in a private Facebook group. I'm just reading aloud three or four Psalms, and praying them, and having people chime in on the comments with their agreements or with their paraphrasing of the, of the lines we've just read. And that has been so powerful. In fact, I've had people tell me that praying the Psalms has helped them feel more connected than they ever were before.

This season is forcing us to think more creatively and even beyond music. As powerful and as wonderful as music and singing are, how are there other ways without the danger of singing vigorously and the expulsion of germs? Are there other ways of doing this?

Instrumental music is another avenue to explore as well. Could we create these moments where you're almost guiding people in contemplation? Where you say, let's just sit for a moment and listen?

There really is an opportunity for the body of Christ to learn from each other, because we have a treasure chest of practices that we can mine from with creativity in this time.

Has there been any music that you have personally found particularly helpful during this COVID-19 period?

Glenn Packiam: A year ago or so, one of our worship leaders released an album called Unveil and there was a song on it called “Be Strong.” It is a more of a listening, receiving sort of song, and that's been one that has been a great source of strength.

Another one is a song called “Sovereign Over Us” that Aaron Keyes wrote with Jack Moring and Michael W Smith made famous several years ago. We sang it the other night for the live stream, and the few of us in the room were just on our knees and weren't even interested in singing it, but just in listening to it and hearing it.

And then “The Blessing.” The first time we watched the video of “The UK Blessing,” my kids and I went down to the piano and just started singing it. And I'll say, as a dad singing a song like that with your kids, you get to the line about “may the blessing of God be on your children and they're children.” Oh my goodness, it's emotional.

You know, songs that remind us not only of God's bigness but also of his nearest. Not only of the future hope but also of His providence that is bigger than this moment, that will go beyond our generation, that will go beyond this moment. That's the stuff that lifts us up. That's the stuff that gives us hope.