When you imagine the summer attendance slump at church, you probably picture empty pews, not an empty stage.

But with around 20 percent lower turnout during the vacation months, the seasonal slump also affects the availability of the volunteer musicians that many churches rely on for worship each week.

In the midst of vacations, camps, conferences, and other activities, assembling a worship band—especially over a holiday weekend like Memorial Day, Independence Day, or Labor Day—is harder when more people head out of town.

In Owosso, Michigan, it’s not uncommon for folks to spend almost every weekend between May and September at cabins on the Great Lakes.

“Many of our volunteers either go up north, or just don’t want to commit,” said Glenn Rupert, pastor of worship and creative arts at GracePointe Church, a Wesleyan community of roughly 200. “If we don’t have significant depth on our team, certain times of year are hard. Sometimes it’s just me and a piano.”

Megachurches with multiple bands or large teams of musicians can usually make it through the summer without any noticeable interruptions, but small and mid-sized churches like Rupert’s can find themselves scrambling to put a band together or to find an alternative—maybe even skipping corporate singing altogether.

On Memorial Day weekend this year, when Rupert went out of town, GracePointe opted to skip live worship and play instrumental music (William Augusto’s album Soaking in His Presence) during a “Come and Go Communion” service.

Members could come and participate in a written guided meditation on Joshua 3–4 (the story of the Israelites crossing the Jordan River and building a stone memorial) and receive Communion from a church staff member.

For the church staff and volunteers, the week was a welcome respite from struggling to put together a Sunday service without enough help. The drop-in service took minimal planning, and there was no scrambling to practice with a skeleton crew running sound and leading worship.

In terms of the music, Rupert said, “It’s very easy. One person needs to be there to open the doors and turn things on and off.”

Some music ministers believe foregoing congregational singing should be a last resort, even if there are valuable and edifying practices that can replace it.

“There are so many resources churches can use to substitute for live musicians,” said Kenny Lamm, worship ministries strategist for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. “[Congregational singing] should be a tremendous priority. There are just so many other options we have now, there’s really no excuse to go without singing together.”

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At Global Outreach Church, a nondenominational congregation in Virginia Beach, Virginia, everyone knows that during the month of August, there won’t be any live musicians to lead worship.

“In August, we dial back everything,” said pastor Chris Cunningham, who has led the church for 13 years.

“We only have seven people on our worship team in all, and they are all volunteers who receive a small honorarium. We rotate leadership, and at least one person always gets the week off.”

The church of roughly 75 members has a long-standing commitment to worship in an array of languages. Each week, the church sings in at least one language other than English and prays for a different country by name—preceded by a short lesson about the country, its culture, and its people.

For volunteers, leading means practicing at least one song in a different language, in addition to the four other songs for the service, which could include anything from a Hillsong favorite to a reggae tune.

Recognizing this time-intensive commitment the volunteer musicians are making, Cunningham gives the whole worship team a week off every quarter and invites musicians from other churches to lead for the week. And because summer is already a challenging time for scheduling, they take the whole month of August off and rely on recordings and videos to lead the congregation in song.

“People love it,” said Cunningham. “The congregation gets to request songs, and it’s a break from the usual. Everyone knows it’s just for the month of August, so people look forward to it and plan which songs they want to request.”

What might sound like a last resort to some church musicians has become a much-anticipated part of church life during the summer.

“Someone will want to hear Andraé Crouch, so we’ll find a way to make it work,” said Cunningham. When possible, he tries to find quality videos of live performances with lyrics on the screen. But sometimes a lyric video is all that’s available.

“We do everything. Literally everything. Southern gospel, which we don’t do often. We do popular songs from Elevation and Bethel. One favorite is the Nigerian song ‘Imela.’ We don’t limit what people can request, because we’re always going to have to do the editing.”

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Singing along with a lyric video requires some adjustment for a church that is used to worshiping with live musicians, but the willingness to embrace something different so that the musicians can rest has been good for the health of the church.

Likewise, Rupert has found that flexibility and an open hand with the Sunday service at GracePointe has helped him and his congregation take rest more seriously.

“Even if we have people who could serve every week, we should still give them rest and space,” Rupert said. “Choosing to do things differently every once in a while says we value rest and we value the people here in our ministry.”

Even bigger churches, he suggests, would benefit from taking weeks off of doing everything— giving full bands and full tech teams regular breaks. It’s an opportunity to allow the congregation to notice just how many people it takes to make a Sunday morning worship service come together. It’s also a way to invite people into spiritual practices that don’t usually fit into a business-as-usual Sunday.

“Most of us don’t do a lot of quiet reflection and meditation, even on Sunday mornings. If rest and reflection really are values for us, we have to create space for them.”

In the case of Global Outreach Church, there is a commitment to weekly congregational singing, even if it means singing along to “canned” music. This puts some constraints on the service—it can’t be livestreamed because of music licensing, for example. Song selection is also limited by the lyric videos and recorded performances that are available. And taking congregational requests means having to sometimes (kindly) say no.

“We make sure that we don’t let any one person’s requests or preferences dominate,” said Cunningham. The relatively small congregation also makes it possible to wade through music requests without getting overwhelmed.

Sam Hargreaves of Engage Worship, also a lecturer at the London School of Theology, suggests that churches might consider alternatives to band-led congregational singing, or even music altogether, during seasons of intentional simplicity or restraint, like Lent.

“We have 2,000 years of Christian heritage to draw from here, where in many cases people have worshiped without music,” Hargreaves points out. He offers “15 ideas for worship without a band,” such as taking a prayerful walk, chanting, creating a collage, or sharing a communal meal.

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For Lamm, who trains and consults with worship leaders and churches of varying sizes and worship styles, there’s no substitute for corporate singing, and perhaps an unwillingness to embrace fully acoustic or a cappella worship is part of the problem churches are facing.

“I welcome those times when the band is gone,” said Lamm. “I can lead from the piano. You can sing a worship song a cappella. Those can be the sweetest times of worship, when the congregation can really hear their voices ring out.”

There are numerous Protestant traditions that have long embraced a cappella singing or very simple service music. Members of the Church of Christ have always sung without instruments. Many Mennonite churches chant without accompaniment as well. And unaccompanied psalm-singing is a staple of the Reformed tradition.

GracePointe Church’s “Come and Go Communion” lets go of corporate singing entirely, if only for a week. For some churches, that’s a nonstarter. But Rupert suggests that the trepidation at foregoing congregational music for a week may be rooted in too narrow a view of what it means to worship as the body of Christ.

“Worship is more than just music. And I’m a music guy, born and raised,” said Rupert. “But worship is not just about corporate singing or preaching. Those are critical components, but we can offer a different kind of service. And it still counts.”

Whether a congregation is willing to have an occasional service with no corporate singing comes down to the culture and commitments of that particular church. This is a conversation that many churches had to have during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the very act of community singing could be a health risk. That was an extreme case, though, said Lamm.

“The Bible strongly points out how important singing is, and we can’t ignore that. Singing is the best way of putting the Word of God in the hearts of our people. If we truly want to see lives transformed, singing our theology is our primary method to do that.”

The freedom to try new forms of congregational worship can be hindered by an overreliance on a particular setup or number of people on stage. Whether a church sings with a full band or a YouTube video, it’s still to the glory of God.

“God is good, God will be glorified,” Rupert said. “And he can work whether there is an electric guitar or not.”