My eldest sons, aged 8 and 6, stayed up to watch England beat Denmark 2–1 in the Euro 2020 semifinal last week. It was very exciting and, caught up in the soccer spirit, they invented their own football song:
England, England, for you we sing
You’re gonna win the Euros thing
I’m not sure if they knew what the “Euros thing” actually was, or that England, which lays claim to the invention of soccer, hadn’t reached the final match of a major tournament in 55 years. But it turns out you can sing with excitement even if you don’t fully understand what you’re singing about. Joy makes people sing.
There is no group in the world for whom singing is more natural and appropriate than Christians. Here in England, we are eagerly anticipating singing together again. The UK government has announced that all COVID-19 restrictions will be lifted on July 19, including limitations on congregational singing in England. (Scotland and Wales have already lifted this ban.)
Groups, including religious groups, have not been allowed to sing indoors together since March 2020. For some of this time, only three designated people were permitted to sing to a socially distanced congregation, with many churches using a hybrid model of virtual and in-person services.
Now that churches in England can sing again, it’s important to reflect on why we sing, as well as reflect on the lessons from the pandemic. I work as a lecturer for a small Christian college, the Nexus Institute of Creative Arts (ICA). Back in March 2020, our principal shared with our school that he believed this season wasn’t a time to pause normal proceedings until we can go back to how things were, but a time to learn and grow—COVID-19 would be part of our pilgrimage toward spiritual maturity.
We must say, first of all, that the pandemic did not stop us from worshiping. I have led worship regularly during the COVID-19 lockdowns. That has been done either from home—hoping that Zoom’s gallery view function lets me feel connected in some way to my church family—or “leading” worship in a room full of people who are not allowed to join in with the song.
This is basically like inviting friends over for a meal, sitting to eat, and devouring the food you have prepared while they just watch.
Despite the frustrations, I have learned many important lessons. The church father Athanasius wrote that “he who sings well puts his soul in tune.” Christian singing has always been connected to Christian virtue. Singing stirs up in us godly affections and tunes our souls to the heart of God. Singing involves every part of the person—body, mind, memory, emotion, spirit—and this is a beautiful gift from our gracious God that we must use wisely.
There were moments in the pandemic when the need for deep and meaningful worship became really clear. I remember one Sunday during a Zoom service, we sang “In Christ Alone,” which includes the words “From life’s first cry to final breath / Jesus commands my destiny.”
In the congregation, that Sunday, some friends came with their two-day old daughter. Because of the way that distance was collapsed by Zoom, the service was also attended by my father-in-law. It turned out to be his last Sunday before aggressive pancreatic cancer took him home to be with the Lord.
We need songs that are beautiful and painfully true. We need songs that have enough strength to bear the weight of our sorrows, and that connect the valleys of this life to the glories of heaven above. Are we singing of a God who is bigger than pandemics? Are we singing of a God who gives hope at the graveside?
Worship culture can become a placebo of entertainment. But the gospel is the good news of a God who has suffered and died, but whose resurrection brings life.
Worship is not just personal. It’s congregational. This season has also shown me the importance of the body of Christ. As we’ve responded to the restrictions in various ways, we expressed our commitment to one another. And I was reminded that though individuals might not sing, the church is singing.
Physical proximity is good, but spiritual unity is better. And if our worship really is a meaningful expression of the gathered body of Christ, then I’ve learned in this time that my role as a worship leader is to facilitate participation, not to deliver a performance.
Hannah Hodges, one of my Nexus ICA colleagues, writes that “playing songs back to back is actually an unbelievably limited expression of what corporate worship has the potential to be.” She encourages worship leaders to “embrace the mess and step outside your comfort zone. I’ve found in doing that, it teaches me time and time again not to rely on my own strength and ability to lead worship, but to be wholly dependent on the Holy Spirit.”
The pandemic has given us the opportunity to relearn what it means to worship in the presence of God.
In his book Worship and the World to Come, pastor and theologian Glenn Packiam suggests that there are three paradigms to corporate worship: encounter, formation, and mission. The central text for our understanding of what it means to encounter God in worship, as historian Lester Ruth has pointed out, is taken from the King James Version of Psalm 22:3, which says that God inhabits the praises of his people.
But in COVID-19, these experiences are more like the apostle John’s in Revelation 1, where we meet Christ in our isolation. And like Psalm 23, where we know that God is with us even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. I’ve learned that if I am with Jesus, I cannot be in the wrong place, because he cannot be in the wrong place.
Our production standards, our professional musicians, our stadium-filling ballads are all fine and good, but they cannot replace the gentle touch of Christ to a broken soul. The God who walked with Adam in the evening in Eden, whose glory filled the tabernacle, who came to dwell among us, and whose Spirit makes us his temple on earth will meet us as we worship.
A pandemic will not thwart his heart to be with his redeemed people. Whether we sing together or apart or not at all, that’s the important thing.
As I’ve tried to lead worship in the pandemic, I’ve learned how important singing is. But also how important singing isn’t.
Singing is downstream from the Great Commandments. We are called, as Christians, to take up our mask and follow Jesus. We are called to love God and our neighbor in times of singing and times of silence.
I don’t think it is a coincidence that we could not gather to sing at a time when God is calling us back to lives of righteousness, justice, and mercy. Isaac Watts, no stranger to the importance of singing, once wrote, “The Great God values not the service of men if the heart be not in it: The Lord sees and judges the heart; He has no regard for outward forms of worship, if there be no inward adoration, if no devout affection be employed therein. It is therefore a matter of infinite importance, to have the whole heart engaged steadfastly for God.”
So yes, let’s eagerly celebrate the return of singing to our churches. But as we do so, may our songs be richer and sweeter for the journey we have been on in these times—because if not, we’re just like my boys cheering on England, enthusiastically singing about things we don’t fully understand.