There are no rollicking versions of “Way Maker” or thoughtful renditions of “O Come to the Altar” blasting over the sound systems of most churches these days. Health officials have banned corporate singing in many areas for how it can spread COVID-19, as it did at a single choir practice of 61 people in Washington, which resulted in 53 coronavirus cases and two deaths. Not being allowed to sing in church makes many Christians angry, with some believers claiming that the ban is a ploy of Satan or an infringement of their religious rights. Some groups are flauntingly disobeying these orders. In California, one religious law firm threatened to sue the government over this prohibition of their “God-given right to raise their voice in worship and praise.”
But these extreme responses stem from the undue importance we place on singing in church. Hymns and praise songs are important, but too often people equate worship with singing. Our music pastors are referred to as worship pastors, with job descriptions that center around the music played on a Sunday morning. But not being allowed to sing doesn’t mean that we can’t worship God.
It’s also important to note that modern worship music is designed to elicit an emotional response. We repeat choruses, raise our hands, and sing in an attempt to feel the presence of God. We have become consumers who judge the quality of church by how we feel, what we get out of it. There is no guarantee that anyone is truly worshipping God. How often, if we could press our ear to the door of heaven, would we hear God saying, “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Isa. 29:13)?
Rather than pursuing the emotional warm fuzzies we get from singing, what if we chased after a true connection with God instead? What if our gathered worship was more for God than for us? What if we learned more of what Jesus meant when he said, “those who worship him must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration” (John 4:24 MSG)?
This moment in history is an opportunity for the church to explore alternative ways of worshipping God. We can remove the idol we have made of theatrics and emotional manipulation with more contemplative, soulful practises, which could lead to more authentic, well-rounded worship. It’s clear, in Scripture, that God is more interested in our interior posture than the outer trappings of Christian culture. Worship must be a disposition of the heart before it is an act. But it must be both.
Worship begins with the acknowledgement of the magnificence and eminence of the one being worshipped. It takes in the whole story of God and his involvement in human lives. If God were only powerful but not also merciful and loving, our worship would look more like fear. According to Barbara Brown Taylor, “worship is how the people of God practise their reliance on their Lord” (The Preaching Life, 64). As we recognize who God is in relation to our own neediness, we cannot help but turn toward him in worship. There is no room for pride and self-reliance in our adoration of God.
What if we used this time to return to some of the ancient practises of the church? Instead of corporate singing, we could try responsive reading of scripture, kneeling in corporate lament, periods of silence, confession, thanksgiving, and communal intercession. Rather than a skeletal version of worship, we could have a more robust experience as we gather together.
Worship is an internal posture, expressed externally in practises within a body of believers, but it is also a way of life. In his letter the Roman church, Paul writes, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship.”
How we have limited our views of worship! In this verse and others like it, we see that worship encompasses all of our lives, every action, interaction, thought. A heart which worships honestly and humbly will also serve the ones in need and fight for justice; love for our neighbors, the lonely and the forgotten, is another form of worship that the world desperately needs. Our lives can be a continuous stream of praise to God as we seek to live each moment through his power and for his glory. As Paul encourages the Corinthians, “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
Our ability to worship God has not been restricted by the temporary ban on corporate singing. Rather it is the catalyst we need to worship God in all we do. Instead of being contained within the four walls of our church buildings, may our worship pour out over our streets, neighborhoods, cities and nations. May it be as Habakkuk prophesied: “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.”