This spring and summer mark the return of a staple of worship culture: conferences. These large-scale events offer leaders and musicians training, teaching, new music, and the opportunity to participate in carefully planned and produced worship services led by nationally known figures.

In 2021, more than a year after COVID-19 quieted church services, the messaging for these conferences ranges from therapeutic to defiant.

“As we worship, the prophetic will come forth and marching orders for an arising army will be heard,” proclaims the conference home page for the Unveiled Worship Conference. “Reset. Restore. Reunite.” is the theme of Getty Music’s annual Sing! conference. The theme of this year’s National Worship Leader Conference (organized by Worship Leader magazine) is “rediscovering community.”

Conferences are temporary, but their influence extends across the worship music industry and to local churches themselves. The gatherings feature prominent artists—current lineups include Chris Tomlin, CeCe Winans, Bethel Music, Trip Lee, and Christy Nockels.

This year’s conferences take on particular significance in the wake of 2020. Throughout the pandemic, in-person worship services became politicized, with some vocal leaders advocating for physical gathering regardless of local restrictions and others advocating for caution and strict observance of ordinances and guidelines.

As churches resume prepandemic activities, the posture of our gatherings speaks to our communities. While there is no one correct posture or emotional tone for this moment, the organizers of such worship conferences are challenged to consider worship’s role in recovery. Are leaders shaping worship in a way that allows congregants to address God honestly, whether from a place of fear, celebration, mourning, or hope?

Battle, healing, and reunion

“We know the church needs this right now,” said Chris Clayton, a worship pastor at Gateway Church in Franklin, Tennessee, and one of the leaders for this year’s National Worship Leader Conference, scheduled to be held in Nashville in July. “I think the whole point of this conference is for it to be a place of healing.”

He added, “Everybody’s coming in with different viewpoints and battle wounds and scars.”

Battle metaphors seem to capture what some worshipers are feeling in this season: that the past year has been a constant fight, that the church is emerging and ready to “do battle,” or simply that God is fighting for us. Songs like “Battle Belongs” by Phil Wickham, “Surrounded (Fight My Battles)” by UPPERROOM, and Rend Collective’s “Marching On” were all written prepandemic but remain popular. Clayton notes that, at least among leaders and musicians he knows, this theme has been particularly powerful over the past year.

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The Unveiled Worship Conference, which took place in Colorado Springs in May, prominently featured musician and influencer Sean Feucht, who raised his national profile throughout the pandemic through a series of “Let Us Worship” events, sometimes held in open defiance of local public health regulations. Feucht has decried gathering restrictions as censorship, insisting that “freedom to worship God and obey His Word has come under unprecedented attack,” and that “it’s time for the Church to rise up.”

The Unveiled Worship Conference adopted some of Feucht’s rhetoric. The event homepage describes the conference as having been conceptualized as “a life-threatening virus was being blasted throughout the media as ‘unsafe’ for gatherings.” The site promotes the conference as a mobilizing event. “We are prophesying the breath of God from the four winds will breathe life into an army of worshipers in this hour!”

What does it mean when worshipers imagine themselves rushing into battle, limping away from a battle, or watching with confidence as God fights their battles? It certainly conveys a widespread sense of conflict and division, in the church and otherwise.

“There’s been so much saddening division in the last year,” Keith Getty said as he discussed the planning for this year’s Sing! conference. The cowriter of “In Christ Alone,” he is hopeful that the “unifying force” of beloved songs in a corporate setting will help heal some of the rifts that have formed or deepened.

Language of war and battle may lose some of its appeal as congregations gather again and discover that communities need to be cultivated anew and relationships need to be restored. After a year of uncertainty and restriction, many of us find ourselves with heightened sensitivity to perceived warfare. Perhaps we are emerging in a state of spiritual fight or flight. The return to in-person worship will not be a quick fix, but it may help calm our anxieties and diminish our impulse to identify enemies within the church and without.

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As local churches reunite and national events convene temporary congregations, the difficult work will be uniting in worship to respond to the Creator rather than mobilize or unify against a common threat, whether that’s perceptions of government overreach or of a deadly virus. We can unify in worship not to distract ourselves from division or paper over our conflicts but to restore and reestablish relationships, then embrace and affirm the diversity of experiences and emotions we bring as we return.

Praise in the shadow of death

“On any given Sunday, there’s someone in the room that’s having the worst time of their life,” said Tom Trenney, a music minister, professor, and instructor at this year’s conference for the Presbyterian Association of Musicians, which begins in late June at Montreat in North Carolina. The church, he added, “becomes the place that holds all of that and keeps the hope.”

Trenney was quick to point out that the tension we find ourselves in, between celebration and mourning, is not new. He has found himself drawn to hymns like “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” and “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” because “these hymns anchor us; they are hymns of joy and sorrow all at once.”

Reflecting on his own experience during the past year, Keith Getty said that he has found encouragement in a new hymn he cowrote and released in 2020, “Christ Our Hope in Life and Death.” The lyrics invite the singer or listener to reflect simultaneously on the temporal and eternal.

Getty also said that the hymn “How Can I Keep from Singing” will be featured in this year’s Sing! conference. The hymn’s refrain—“No storm can shake my inmost calm, / While to that rock I’m clinging. / Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth, / How can I keep from singing?”—speaks not only to the ability to persist in faith through trials but also to the need and impulse to worship in song in difficult circumstances.

The Rev. Anna Traynham, the liturgist for the Presbyterian Association of Musicians conference, has planned the worship services around observations of holy days that congregations missed during the pandemic. For All Saints Day, conference participants will be able to present names of individuals lost during the past year.

Traynham and the other conference organizers have intentionally made space for collective grief that couldn’t be shared in community, just as they are making space for celebration.

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Large-scale worship conferences inevitably will feel celebratory and energetic, even in the uncertainty of an ongoing pandemic. Leaders like Getty, Traynham, and Trenney are not leaning into a one-note approach to worship, even as thousands of people travel to sing together and enjoy community again. Rather, they see this as an opportunity to remind ourselves that worship should always reflect the many facets of the faith journey and experience.

Popular worship songs do not generally avoid the subject of trial or death; several high-performing songs on the CCLI Top 100, such as Phil Wickham’s “Living Hope” and Matt Redman’s “10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord)” address sin, death, and the vulnerability of humanity. But Getty argues that there is a dangerous lack of depth in much worship music. “The shallowness of what is being sung in churches is tragic,” he said, suggesting also that now is perhaps a time to “reset,” to reevaluate the content of our music.

Without wading into the ongoing debate about perceived shallowness and worship music, I can agree that now may be a good time to look with fresh eyes at our music and habits to see if they can bear the weight of our current circumstances. If they seem inadequate, trite, or hollow, perhaps they have needed to be deepened for a long time.

Recently, I had a conversation with my mom about her church’s return to in-person worship. A worship leader in a variety of official and unofficial capacities for as long as I can remember, she talked about one particular week in May when her church mourned the sudden loss of multiple congregants.

I thought immediately of Tom Trenney’s reminder: “Any given Sunday, there’s somebody in the room that’s having the worst time of their life, that has had the biggest loss of their life, or the biggest challenge with their faith.”

Local churches were making space for pain and joy of their congregations long before 2020. Perhaps one of the greatest services conferences and leaders with national profiles can provide is the modeling of practices and promotion of music that helps the church continue to make space for those in the valley and on the mountain as it learns to sing together again.

Kelsey Kramer McGinnis is a musicologist, educator, and writer. She holds a PhD from the University of Iowa and researches music in Christian communities.

[ This article is also available in Português. ]