One year ago, my husband and I were still learning how to get out the door on Sunday morning for church with a two-year-old and a five-month-old during the coldest weeks of the Iowa winter. Now, like so many others, we enjoy slower Sunday mornings “attending” church over Zoom, usually sitting on the couch or floor with our restless toddlers.

I sometimes enjoy the conveniences of our new Sunday morning routine, but there are pangs of sadness every week when my daughter hears music, turns to the screen, and almost immediately loses interest. I recall how engaged she was in the sounds, sights, and vibrations of congregational worship during the “before times.” I recall how much more engaged I was, too.

“Worship isn’t about you” is a cliché that sums up the idea that we sing as an act of worship and sacrifice for God alone. I’ve seen this sentiment newly animated over the past year as worship leaders seek to help their congregations learn to worship as part of a body that they can’t hear or see.

Brooke Ligertwood writes in a blog post for Hillsong, “Who is worship for? Spoiler alert: worship is not for people. It’s for the Lord.” Similarly, Justin Rizzo of International House of Prayer tells worship leaders, “God alone will be present at your worship times. You will have no choice but to actually minister before an audience of one . That one alone is worthy of your worship. Worship has always been about Him.”

It’s understandable that worship leaders would encourage us to focus on God over gathering at a time when we cannot be together. The emphasis on a personal form of worship—one on one with God—is in some ways beneficial for those who continue to attend remote services.

It is certainly not a new way of thinking about music for Christians. Augustine wrote about the personal faith-building and emotional experience of singing hymns and psalms. Luther praised the power of music to deepen theological understanding. There is a rich history in the church of using music to deepen individual faith.

Instructing a congregation to focus your personal devotion to your “audience of one” isn’t wrong . Doing so at this unique moment, though, can minimize the loss many of us are feeling. It’s now—when many churches have moved services online or cut back on in-person singing—that we can see how much worshiping together has meant for our shared faith.

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Worship is about us too

Yes, musical worship is first a spiritual practice. Christians believe that corporate worship matters to God and that raised voices should not glorify anyone but him. However, to say that musical worship is not for people, to my musicologist’s sensibilities, overlooks the reality that congregational worship does benefit people, and it should. Acknowledging this may help us understand why, at times like this, worship without the congregation feels empty, dry, or forced.

Many Christians understand corporate worship partly as an imperative, something we practice out of obedience to Scripture. But there are also practical, social benefits to being together as a community around music.

“I’ve learned so much about embodied worship,” said Hannah Busse, director of worship arts at Blackhawk Church in Madison, Wisconsin. Corporate singing “activates our brains differently than just speaking something or hearing something spoken to us … it has a unique function in our spiritual formation.”

Monique Ingalls, associate professor at Baylor University’s Center for Music Studies, notes that corporate worship is a central part of religious gathering in most Christian traditions “because participatory music-making powerfully imparts a sense of community” and helps foster social bonds.

Anyone who has led worship—and many of us who have experienced it and find ourselves longing for it during COVID times—know just what she’s talking about.

Socrates Perez, worship pastor at Saddleback Church, puts it this way: “When we’re singing these songs and these truths … it’s always an encouragement to me as a believer to hear my brother in Christ or my sister in Christ next to me declaring [those truths] at the top of their lungs.”

Congregational singing is immersive. Ethnomusicologist Nathan Myrick suggests that it represents a uniquely meaningful part of church gatherings because it engages three distinct realms of experience: the physical, the emotional, and the relational.

Corporate worship involves physical closeness and participation, whether through singing or some other movement. It often evokes emotion, whether in response to a lyric, series of sounds, memory, or association. It forms and reinforces relationships within the congregation and between leaders and the congregants. This relational dimension extends to our understanding of corporate singing as an act of communication with God.

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Permission to be dissatisfied

The struggling worshiper at home may feel like something is spiritually or emotionally wrong when their hearts aren’t stirred by Zoom singalongs. Leaders are right to point out that our worship is no less valuable to God when we can’t gather as a congregation, but they can also give congregants permission to accept dissatisfaction with musical worship over a screen.

“We don’t fault anyone for that longing … we affirm that longing,” said John Cassetto, global worship director at Saddleback. “Next weekend is our 52nd week online … there’s a grief in that.”

Why does it matter so much that we acknowledge what we’ve lost? It doesn’t just feel different, it is different. No one should feel pressure to re-create the emotional and spiritual experience of corporate worship through an internal focus on the “audience of one.”

Freeing ourselves of unrealistic expectations may lead us to new worship practices and experiences that are wholly separate, even therapeutic, and unique to this difficult moment. Cassetto refers to these as “new streams in the desert” for worshipers and leaders, creative new ways to use music to facilitate worship.

It’s likely that many have discovered a new appreciation for meditative listening. Singing with the TV screen feels awkward, so I would expect that many of us have found solace and connection with God through listening, praying, and reflecting. If you feel free to enjoy that kind of musical worship without the guilt that comes with wondering if you should be singing, that could be your stream in this desert.

Holy days without hymns

Truthfully, I haven’t found many musical streams in this desert. It has been a year since I sang in a room filled with people who share my faith. Throughout that year, even though I was free to listen or sing with fellow worshipers online, I felt that I missed out on the contemplative hymns of Good Friday, the celebratory anthems of Easter, and (most difficult for me) the carols of the Advent season.

It was almost as if these holy days didn’t happen. If I didn’t sing “Silent Night” holding a candle on Christmas Eve and share cookies and hot cocoa in the atrium afterward, did I really observe Christmas? Of course, the answer is yes. My family did celebrate the important markers of the liturgical calendar. I don’t believe that our observances were less “real” or spiritual or sincere. They were more difficult. The did require more faith. They did, at times, feel more like a sacrifice of time and effort.

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In the end, the losses we have experienced are our losses. Perhaps it’s worth reminding ourselves that this pandemic and its restrictions have not robbed God of the worship he is due. When we stop singing and making music together, we don’t lose the presence of God with us or our ability to worship in spirit and in truth. We lose the presence of each other.

I have never been more aware that my worship serves my community, and the worship of my community serves me. It’s one way that we strengthen our faith and move toward unity. In his sermon, “A Knock at Midnight,” Martin Luther King Jr. wrote of corporate worship, “Worship at its best is a social experience in which people from all levels of life come together to affirm their oneness and unity under God.”

For a year now, most of us have not been able to participate in worship “at its best.” We mourn that loss and look forward to hearing the voices of our neighbors around us 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 and music as propaganda.

[ This article is also available in español. ]