“How Can I Keep from Singing?” – The Ministry of Congregational Song in Online Worship
John Hardin Sawyer
The Reverend Dr. John Hardin Sawyer sings and serves as pastor and head of staff
of Bedford Presbyterian Church in Bedford, New Hampshire.
The presence of the Holy Spirit is the primary means by which this connection between life as it is and a hoped-for new reality is made.
While there may be some who are presently studying the impact of livestreaming worship on prayer or the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, I have been thinking about congregational singing in livestreamed worship. How do songs—sung at home through participation in online worship—make an impact on the faith lives of a congregation that is “present” at a distance? The pandemic has proven to be an interesting time to study this question because just about everyone who participated in worship was forced to be at a distance and not in-person at one point or another. My interest in exploring congregational song in online worship has taken me to my own congregation, Bedford Presbyterian Church, and become part of my research in my doctor of ministry studies at Columbia Theological Seminary. This article shares some of that research.
At Bedford Presbyterian Church (BPC) in Bedford, New Hampshire,1 congregational singing has been an essential part of worship for over two centuries. When the pandemic began, the question of what to do about music was very present in the minds of many. Not all congregations had live music, much less live singing, as part of the online worship service format during the pandemic. Some churches did not have the capability to offer music. Some churches, for reasons of safety, only offered prerecorded music or ensembles of singers stitched together through editing wizardry. Bedford Presbyterian Church decided to keep one or two singers, adequately spaced for safe singing of the hymns, in the sanctuary with piano, organ, or guitar accompaniment live during worship. As a pastor and lifelong musician, I am passionate about singing in worship, but I did wonder if singing into a camera, alone, week in, week out as I led worship, made a difference in the lives of people on the other end of the Internet connection.
Thankfully, even though the world looked and felt so different during the pandemic, at Bedford Presbyterian Church, the congregation—scattered across the miles, throughout southern New Hampshire and around the country and world—found that songs that were sung as part of online worship (1) provided comfort, (2) offered challenges, and (3) deepened connections that were communal, historical, and theological.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, BPC had never considered livestreaming their worship services. From a practical standpoint, the historic church sanctuary did not have the technological infrastructure for such a feat. And yet, the church—in coordination with a local community access television station—slowly made the investment in the needed technology to reach members of the community who were “locked down” at home. On the first two Sundays of the pandemic, prior to being able to livestream a video of the worship services, the pastor, music director, and an elder of the church were present in the sanctuary to record an audio podcast of the worship service. A decision was made to shorten the service but to keep the usual format and tone. This decision was a pastoral one, keeping in mind those who would need to hear something familiar in a new and unfamiliar time. The opening hymn on the first Sunday of online worship (March 22, 2020) was a setting of Psalm 23, “The King of Love My Shepherd Is.”<sup2< sup=””> The leadership hoped that those listening would hear one thing: God’s providential grace is present, even in the shadow of death.</sup2<>
Aside from the traditional Gloria Patri and Doxology, the only other singing that took place in those first online services was the closing song, “May the Peace of the Lord Christ Go with You,” from the Northumbria Community in northeastern England. The words of the song are as follows:
May the Peace of the Lord Christ go with you wherever he may send you.
May he guide you through the wilderness, protect you through the storm.
May he bring you home, rejoicing, at the wonders he has shown you.
May he bring you home, rejoicing, once again into our doors.3
By Peter Sutcliffe. Taken from Morning Prayer from the Northumbria Community’s Celtic Daily Prayer published by Collins, © 2015. Used with permission.
Throughout the rest of the pandemic, all of the other music used in worship at Bedford Presbyterian Church would change, but this closing song would remain at the end of the service until November of 2021. As part of my research exploring BPC’s music during the pandemic, I conducted a congregation-wide survey, in which many respondents expressed that singing the same song each week brought comfort. Some of these responses read:
- This hymn (“May the Peace of the Lord Christ Go with You”), although it can also make me cry, provides comfort.4
- Music at Bedford Presbyterian Church . . . was comforting during a stressful time and brings me peace when I hear it.5
- The familiarity of hearing and singing [“May the Peace of the Lord Christ Go with You”] each week brings a certain sense of peace and comfort.6
- Love singing the same song [“May the Peace of the Lord Christ Go with You”] repeatedly as a tradition. Very comforting.7
- Music in worship during the pandemic has been a source of great comfort and hope that all will be well.8
Another component of the survey asked about whether congregants sang during online worship. Eighty percent responded that they did sing to varying degrees at some time during online worship, wherever they happened to be. Andrea, a retiree who grew up at BPC, said,
I felt awkward at first because [my husband] Brian and I would be sitting in the living room watching [online worship] and I would sing softly because I don’t have, I don’t think, a very good voice. And I felt kind of awkward because it was just he and I. And then, as each week went by, I found comfort in the routine of the two songs, the “Glory
to God, Whose Goodness Shines on Me”9 and the closing hymn. I found the comfort
in that routine. And so that I would sing with gusto. . . .10
Even though the people participating in online worship felt a sense of comfort, they were also challenged in a variety of ways.
In an August of 2020 article in The Presbyterian Outlook called “Yearning to Sing, Yearning to Breathe,” Eric Wall wrote at the time that one of the challenges about at-home participation in online worship was the stark reality of hearing one’s own voice. Instead of one’s voice being bolstered by other voices, someone singing “solo” at home while watching another person leading the hymns “solo” on a screen can feel very plain and awkward. But, as Wall writes, “singing at home (alone) . . . may also invite us to re-claim some of the plainer beauties of music and our own voices.”11
While some people might be more willing to sing a familiar song on their own, online worship went on so long that newer and unfamiliar songs began to be chosen for worship to reflect the Scripture readings or theme of the worship service. Heather Josselyn-Cranson writes that in the hymn-singing tradition of many mainline Protestant churches, songs are used to complement/respond to “the many activities included in worship, including prayer, praise, collecting an offering, and celebrating the sacraments . . . [and] the reading of scripture.”12
During the pandemic—as in non-pandemic times—at BPC, the singing of newer or unfamiliar hymns has been embraced by some but seen as a challenge by others. Cliff, a former clerk of session at BPC, said in a focus group that he appreciates a good mixture of old and new:
I love the old hymns. They bring comfort and bring familiarity. You know, it’s a type of grounding or something that anchors your faith—these are the ones you grew up on. But I also enjoy the new ones. And with those is more of a particular message they bring and the melody they bring, you know, they’re not familiar yet. They will be but they’re not yet. But in a way, I think you focus more. At least, I focus more on the message . . . of the new [songs] because they’re not so familiar.13
Cliff’s thoughts about new hymns offering an opportunity to hear a new message leads me to consider an additional challenge when it comes to singing in online worship. Sometimes the hymn texts being sung are challenging to the mind, and heart, and spirit—especially those “new hymns” that may seek to spur the singer toward acts of discipleship, service, and sacrifice, toward a lived theology. When it comes to what someone hears, says, and sings in worship, online or in-person, the question often arises: will the words and music have an effect on the way a participant lives their life? Is the worship service integrated into the lives of those present—does what is heard, said, and sung contribute toward a certain way of life? It is hard to find an answer to this question in any measurable way, but there are instances when yes, I think a connection is made and it is possible for the words and music of worship to become integrated into everyday life.
Both in the survey and in focus groups at BPC, participants indicated that they made some practical and emotional connections through the act of singing in online worship. They connected with their own voices—learning to hear, accept, and appreciate their own singing. They connected with the church sanctuary shown on the screen and all the sanctuary represented to them. They connected with their church family leading in worship on screen. Over time, they also connected with familiar liturgy and songs that were repeated each week. Singers also made some historical connections, imagining previous generations of singers who have sung old and familiar hymns. And, finally, singers made theological connections between what was sung and how God was—and is—calling them to live.
Various parts of Christian spirituality reference the concept of a “breath prayer,” a prayer that is said with every breath. The scriptural and theological basis for a breath prayer comes from Paul’s letters, in which we read, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). One example of this comes from Eastern Orthodox Christianity and is known as the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”14 In The Way of a Pilgrim, an anonymous narrator tells the story of learning to pray the Jesus Prayer, repeating it so many times that
I felt that the prayer began to move of its own accord from my lips into my heart. That is to say, it seemed as if my heart, while beating naturally, somehow began to repeat within itself the words of the prayer in rhythm with its natural beating. . . . I stopped reciting the words of the prayer with my lips and began to listen attentively to the words of my heart. . . .15
There is something powerful that can occur when the words of a prayer—or a song—move from the lips to the heart. In “Yearning to Sing, Yearning to Breathe,” Eric Wall brings up a concept called “heart songs,” or songs that are known by heart—songs that, by the memories associated with them or the fact that the song is literally memorized, people know by heart. In an interview, Wall said that he is not convinced that everyone has a heart song, but believes that “we all have some [kind of heart song] to the degree that music means something to us. We carry something around . . . the memory of words or the sound of a tune. . . .”16
If there is one heart song that people from BPC will associate with the pandemic it is “May the Peace of the Lord Christ Go with You” from the Northumbria Community. As mentioned earlier, the routine of singing this song brought comfort to some. Others carried the song—in their hearts and on their lips—out into the world. As Don Saliers writes in Music and Theology, “once a hymn text is released into the bloodstream of a congregation’s repertoire, it plays a deeply formative role in the shared theology of the assembly.”17 In the case of “May the Peace of the Lord Christ Go with You,” this seems to be the case for BPC.
Andrea said that she would find herself going back to the archived worship services on BPC’s YouTube Channel18 and skipping ahead to places where she knew her two favorite songs would be:
I have to admit that [before we could return to the sanctuary for worship] during “only online” worship, I would find myself during the week saying, “Oh, I need a pick-me-up. I need something.” So, I would go on and [find] any worship service. It didn’t matter if it was the prior one or not. And I would listen to the “Glory to God” and sing with it. And then the ending, the closing song. And if we hadn’t had that, I wouldn’t [have sung]. I don’t know if I’m tone deaf or what, but I need to hear it and sing with it. And so, having the online recording of it, it’s just it did it for me. So, I would occasionally during the week, listen to it in that manner. . . . I wasn’t sure if I should admit this or not because one day [my husband] Brian says to me, “What are you doing?” And I said, “I’m singing.”19
John Bell writes, “What the church sings . . . is determinative of the faith which the singers hold,” and “What we sing shapes what we believe.”20 The sight of a familiar place that feels like home, a hug from a familiar person, or the sound of a familiar song can be very comforting. Faith deepens and expands the comfort of a familiar song sung during online worship. A simple song from Taizé, “The Lord Is My Light,” might be a song that is comforting in an emotional sense. But when faith enters the picture (or, rather, the song) and the singer sings, “The Lord is my light . . . and my salvation / In God I trust / In God I trust,”21 and the singer trusts these words to be true, emotional comfort is imbued with spiritual hope. As Don Saliers writes, “Music itself becomes a theologically relevant action.”22 The singer trusts and has hope in something beyond an emotion from within the human heart, mind, and spirit. Instead, the trust and hope that well up from within come from another place, another source, which helps to shape our present circumstances as we look for God’s future reality. As John Bell writes, “We sing to shape the future”23—both our own future and the future of the world, with God’s help.
The presence of the Holy Spirit is the primary means by which this connection between life as it is and a hoped-for new reality is made. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin writes that “faith is the principal work of the Holy Spirit . . . and has no other source than the Spirit.”24 In other words, human beings do not come to faith on their own. For Calvin, the work of faith is an interior work—a Spirit-filled working on the inside of a person to change and strengthen the mind and heart of an individual believer. It is the Spirit, as part of this interior life, that helps people, as Don Saliers writes, “to discern and appropriate what is present in the signs enacted, the stories told, and the commands to act in daily life.”25 To this brief list, one could add that the Holy Spirit, in the interior life, helps a singer to discern and appropriate what is present in the song being sung. This takes place through the physical act of singing and reflection on the meaning of the lyrics, to be sure, but also when the Spirit is at work instilling and inspiring the faith of the singer, inspiring the very act of praise and any act of faith-filled response.
Again, the song “May the Peace of the Lord Christ Go with You” held great meaning because it acknowledged the need for the peace of Christ in a year when very little was “at peace” in the midst of a pandemic, a divisive presidential election, and racial discord. And yet, the song is not simply a prayer for peace. The first line of the song is “May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you, wherever he may send you.” Just as the singers voice a longing for peace, in their singing they also acknowledge that Jesus sends them out into the world to bring the peace of Jesus Christ with them. Even those who were quarantining at home and singing this hymn knew that, at some point, they were going to be sent out to the grocery, or back to work, or back to school. What sort of peace would they be able to take with them and offer the world as they lived through a time of so much wilderness and so many storms? Would they be vessels of God’s peace? Would the peace they carried shape the present and the future?
One focus group participant, Lorraine, shared how singing songs from church made a tremendous difference during a medical procedure:
Back in the spring, I had to go through a couple of MRIs ahead of some surgery. . . . And being inside of an MRI tube, just about made me lose my mind. . . . And then I realized that I had something within me that would help me to survive these 30 minutes of torture in a chamber. It started with “Jesus Loves Me.” In the beginning, I was so panicked, that I couldn’t even think of the words “Jesus Loves Me.” . . . And then what got me calmed down actually was picturing [the] singing at church. . . . And finally, that calm that came over me, and every spiritual song I ever . . . sang in my life, finally came back to me . . . and they got to hear me sing at the top of my lungs.26
Lorraine’s experience in the MRI machine is the very definition of what a heart song can do—bring comfort and hope that all will be well during difficult times.
The stories of those who sang songs of faith during the pandemic hint at a hope borne of faith—Andrea needed a mid-week singing pick-me-up, and Lorraine sang the song in the MRI machine and as she underwent surgery. This is the spiritual place that makes the connection between what is sung and what is lived. The lyrics on their own might not have made the impression that they did when they were filled with weight and meaning by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit made an impression—one that has lasted. The action of singing the lyrics makes them easier to remember and, in the end, to live.
It is hard to say whether or not, as a whole, the people of Bedford Presbyterian Church who sang their way through the COVID-19 pandemic sang to shape the future, but there are those who did make the connection between a faith that is sung and a faith that is lived. Music at both in-person and online worship services seeks comfort, hope, and a faithful way of life through song each week and continues to connect singing with everyday life. Even as many consider these times “post-pandemic,” participants continue to worship online. It is a medium that—just a short time ago—was new to almost all of them, yet they fully participate, reading, praying, listening, and singing their way in the world where God is active and alive and at work for good in the face of so much that is not good. We can catch a glimpse of God’s future in and through the words of songs, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Those who have sung their way through the difficulties of the past are working and living toward this future. Whether they are aware of it or not, they are singing to shape the future. God is at work throughout history—even in the midst of an event as historic as a global pandemic and all that has followed it—by the power of the Holy Spirit, bringing the promised future to fulfillment through those who live what they sing. The Spirit leads all who have hope in God’s future, both in this world and the world that is to come, in faithful song.
Bedford Presbyterian Church is a congregation of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), has about 450 members, and—pre-pandemic—regularly had between 125 and 150 in worship. The church was founded in 1749 in the town of Bedford, New Hampshire, which is about fifty miles north of Boston, Massachusetts.
Henry Williams Baker, “The King of Love My Shepherd Is,” Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), no. 802.
Peter Sutcliffe, “May the Peace of the Lord Christ Go with You,” Northumbria Community Trust © 1999 CN Publishing admin. by Copycare, P.O. Box 77, Hailsham, East Sussex BN27 3EF, UK.
M.B., survey response to author, October 7, 2021.
E.K., survey response to author, October 7, 2021.
L.W., survey response to author, October 6, 2021.
S.M., survey response to author, October 6, 2021.
F.B., survey response to author, October 6, 2021.
Paul M. Vasile, “Glory to God, Whose Goodness Shines on Me,” Glory to God, no. 582.
Focus group response from Andrea Martel, September 29, 2021.
Eric Wall, “Yearning to Sing, Yearning to Breathe,” The Presbyterian Outlook, August 24, 2020: 29.
Heather Josselyn-Cranson, The Reason Why We Sing: Function and Congregational Song in Different Musical Traditions (Ashland City, TN: OSL Publications, 2016), 60.
Focus group response by Cliff Creel, September 19, 2021.
Anonymous, The Way of a Pilgrim, trans. Olga Savin (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2001), 7.
Anonymous/Savin, The Way of a Pilgrim, 15.
Eric Wall, interview on June 30, 2021, at Montreat Conference Center, Montreat, NC.
Don Saliers, Music and Theology (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), 39–40.
Bedford Presbyterian Church NH YouTube page, accessed October 6, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCD502fdlrUf7mBlcqYb_B-A.
Focus group response from Andrea Martel, September 26, 2021.
John L. Bell, The Singing Thing: A Case for Congregational Song (Chicago: GIA Publications, 2000), 57, 65.
Jacques Berthier, “The Lord Is My Light,” Glory to God, no. 842.
Saliers, Music and Theology, 44.
Bell, The Singing Thing, 53.
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), III.i.4, p. 541.
Don Saliers, Worship and Spirituality (Ashland City, TN, OSL Publications, 2015), 32.
Focus group response from Lorraine Emerson, September 19, 2021.