Many of the church and Christian leaders who took our Changing Church: autumn survey last year said that being unable to sing during church services has been a major challenge. To find out how worshippers have been overcoming the challenges of restrictions on singing, and what God might be saying in this time of ‘unsung’ worship, I spoke with two worship leaders, Geraldine Latty, lecturer in music at London School of Theology, and Hannah Hodges, worship studies lecturer at Nexus Institute of Creative Arts.

Communal singing continues to be regarded as one of the most dangerous things you can do amid the coronavirus pandemic, and yet, as Geraldine explains, song and singing have always been dangerous weapons”. They shared what they’ve learned about creative worship since March last year, how they’ll hold onto those lessons when restrictions are removed, and the opportunities ahead for reaching out creatively to our communities through the power of Spirit-filled song.

Choosing to worship in a season of challenge and change

GL: Last year I wrote a song called Great Day of the Lord’ with my friends. We were writing into a project which was looking at issues of ecology and the struggles and tensions in God’s creation. The earth will be healed, but until then we have these paradoxes. We have death and birth, healing and a lack of healing, arrival and success along with hope deferred. We’ve also recently witnessed news about evangelical leaders which has left us spinning. We need to know a Creator that loves us, the Holy Spirit to grace us and empower us and a Saviour, to show us how to truly live. That’s why Jesus had to live, die and live again, because we are broken. Even if we weren’t seeing those headlines, we have plenty of examples in the Bible of that brokenness and tension. This is why Jesus came. He is love. We wanted to write a song to try to reflect the massive heart of God, and our hope in Christ as well as showing our propensity to fail, to reject, to darkness. It’s the bittersweet of the now and not yet’.

HH: We’ve tasted a whole new rainbow of flavours of what corporate worship can be. Sharing testimonies, praying, and encouraging everyone to participate has also been powerful. We’ve also been exploring how to lead and incorporate times of lament and grieving into our times of corporate worship, so we give space and time to walk through the difficulties of this past year together. Now is the time to experiment, to be messy and to re-evaluate the vision and values of your worship team. It’s time to ask God, what is He requiring of us and inviting us to build? He’s dismantling professionalism and perfectionism in our worship. He’s getting us to have different voices up to lead worship and to champion participation. It’s time to continually ask God, what do You want to build?

Finding creative expressions of worship

GL: When Carey (my husband) and I were singing worship together on Zoom with two other friends, we tried unmuting to sing, which as you know, you don’t do that on Zoom because of lag. Carey joined on a synth pad, with no beat, and we sang our own phrases of praise, of lament, of questions and waiting over the chords Carey played. Hearing our voices together, turned what would normally be annoying lag into call and response, and interweaving harmonies. Because we had to listen carefully to each other, copying or singing back different phrases, and because there was no beat or known song words it seemed as if the edges of Zoom were blurred and we were in one room. It was so moving. Genuinely amazing. I kept stopping to hear the others singing and couldn’t believe it. We had to weave in and out, listen to the others and fit in or wait as we preferred the other. We reflected afterwards and felt like the Zoom lag issues had bowed to Jesus in our gathered sung worship and in this epiphany moment by letting go of the beat and improvising our songs as prayers, we felt really gathered. We mentioned it to a friend who then tried it with his small congregation the following Sunday. He said it was so emotional not least because they were a congregation that wouldn’t normally try that sort of thing even in person, but he said there were tears” as he heard the people sing their worship in this way.

HH: My favourite new and creative way to worship without singing has been leading Lectio Divina (an ancient practice of quiet prayer and meditating on scripture). There’s a temptation to rush off after reading scriptures and apply it or sing it in a song, but with the Lectio Divina you chew on it. One thing I enjoyed doing with my students at Nexus was to read a psalm or some verses from scripture and then give everyone 45 minutes to create something off the back of the meditation. They could rewrite the psalm in their own words, create a spoken word piece, create songs, or make an instrumental cover, where they recreate what they think the psalm sounds like with different instruments.

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What God has taught us about worship

HH: I’ve been really challenged and confronted with this idol of what I had made singing to be, when sung worship was taken away. I felt really confronted by the box I had subconsciously put corporate worship into, and then felt utterly paralysed when I realised that I would have to lead a module centred around leading corporate worship, without being able to sing! We’ve been kickstarted into thinking creatively, digging into scripture and championing participation. It’s challenged our preconceived notions of worship. Now we’ve caught sight of the range of worship, I never want to go back to what we were used to.

GL: We’ve learned that every voice matters and how to fit in with others. I may not be a hand or a foot, as the Bible puts it, but I’m part of the body of Christ and what I bring is important and has the potential to be significant. We’ve learned that we need to remember and practice recollection in our song choices and our singing. This is a season where amongst other huge considerations, people have lost people – it’s grievous, so we need time for lamenting, and time to remember, to articulate within our communities and to rest in the faithfulness of God.

Why singing has always been dangerous

GL: Singing and the prohibition of singing has come into our view with sharp focus. But singing has always been a threat and a dangerous weapon, and no less the words, which have always contained the potential to be dangerous. Consider the spirituals and their links with the Civil Rights Movement, or rock music and its initial links with Amnesty International. Do They Know it’s Christmas has strong resonances for many to stir to action and giving, and We Shall Overcome carries a poignancy in its resolution. We read strange Bible stories like the story of Jehoshaphat, who put the musicians at the front of the battle, or the musicians surrounding Jericho, when they sounded the ram’s horn – they were formidable. Song and music and sound has always been dangerous. If singing has the potential to start revolutions, to speak when language stops, to paint pictures and change environments, perhaps now is the time to ask God and discern with others: how can we sing? What is God saying? How can we remember?

HH: Within this revelation we’ve been having, finding that there are all these creative expressions of worship, which we can celebrate, I’m also trying to remind my students and be honest with them that it’s okay to lament and grieve over what we’ve lost this year. Corporate singing is a great God-given gift for His church. It’s okay to lament the loss of that.

How to prepare for the opportunities ahead

GL: Write songs that your community can sing that will remind them that God is faithful. Prepare, dream and scheme. Think about what you could do for your town, what you could dream for your town, to bring hope. Think of the carers, those we call the heroes; how can we encourage them with singing? With song?

HH: As we look further ahead to a new season, our communities are desperate for live music. For now, my church is looking into making use of social media and really investing in livestreaming equipment for the long term, as more people are watching and attending.


Creative ministry: Explore the series

This article is part of a series on creative ministry for this season of challenge and change, featuring a range of Christian artists and musicians.

In this time of coronavirus, when we have the chance to rebuild, what can the church learn from the creative ways God uses to minister to us? In this time of pain, restlessness and change, can we use creative expressions to point to the source of comfort, peace and steadfastness? And how is God using the church and Christians in the arts to do this already?

You can click through to further articles in the series below, where Christians in creative ministries share their thoughts on these questions:

Creative ministry: Capturing God’s generous creation

Creative ministry: Capturing God’s generous creation

I had a conversation with landscape artist Peronel Barnes to find out how God is speaking through His creation and the creativity of Christians in lockdown.
Creative ministry: A gateway to the gospel

Creative ministry: A gateway to the gospel

Jonathan Rea, creative director of New Irish Arts, shares how creativity helps Christians to connect with culture and open a gateway to the gospel.