What Does Singing During a Once-a-Century Pandemic Sound Like?
Covid-19 | by Pastor Adam Sinnett
Jesus is providentially ruling over all things (Eph. 1:20-21). Yes, even in 2020. His rule is not bland, indifferent, or ineffective; it is purposeful. He is purposefully weaving this year together for our ultimate good (Rom. 8:28) so that we would be further fashioned into His image, individually and corporately, and left longing for the incomparable glory to come. We can’t see it yet, but it is coming. So, I hope this finds you resting deeply in his purposeful providence.
On Sunday, November 15th, the Governor rolled-out a new round of four-week restrictions in order to reduce the spike in Covid cases across our state. These restrictions were modifications to existing prohibitions to social gatherings, restaurants, bars, weddings, funerals, fitness facilities, theaters, museums, zoos, aquariums, long-term care facilities, travel, sports, and churches. Everyone is impacted in one way or another. The adjusted modification for churches is as follows:
Religious Services: are limited to 25 percent of indoor occupancy limits, or no more than 200 people, whichever is fewer. Congregation members/attendees must wear facial coverings at all times and congregation singing is prohibited. No choir, band, or ensemble shall perform during the service. Vocal or instrumental soloists are permitted to perform, and vocal soloists may have a single accompanist.
We are already in alignment with the majority of health restrictions for churches, including gathering size, face masks, and distancing. Plus, we are meeting all CDC guidelines in terms of signage, no food or beverages, hand sanitizing stations, and temperature/wellness-checks for staff and volunteers. Further, if anyone has traveled who will be leading from the front, they must get a negative Covid test prior to Sunday.
We are grateful to be gathering because churches are able to meet at greater numbers indoors than anyone else, from sports teams to theaters, concerts to conferences. So, we are doing everything we can to keep everyone as safe as possible. To my knowledge no one with Covid has attended on a Sunday, nor have we had a breakout of any kind.
But, that said, our city is seeing a rise of Covid, higher than we’ve seen yet. Washington is now in the most dangerous Covid red zone. We broke records for new daily cases for the past two weeks. Unfortunately, the primary spreaders are indoor activities because (1) Covid is airborne, (2) risks are higher inside, (3) with people outside your household, (4) over longer stretches of time. In a word, in gatherings precisely like ours.
This is why churches are now being asked to not sing for four weeks. Last Sunday was the first.
However, we believe the spirit of the law is to lower the volume of our singing. After all, singing is basically loud talking. But, talking, laughing, or yelling are not outlawed. It’s the volume they are after. The more people you have belting it out, even with masks and distance, the greater the potential for spread. By God’s grace, we haven’t seen that as a church. The chances of spread in this way are small, but they are not non-existent, especially as cases climb. So, given the increase of Covid in our city, coupled with the privilege we have to gather, temporarily lowering the volume of singing doesn’t seem unreasonable.
Undesirable? Yes. Inconvenient? Yes. Against our preferences? Yes. A hindrance to full-bellied praise? Yes. But, think about it this way. Our city and state are asking, “Will you help us mitigate the spread of Covid in your city, and keep our hospitals from being over-run, by turning the volume down during the portion of your gathering that has the most risk of spread?” Given that it’s a once-a-century pandemic, with numbers going up, and the temporary nature of this restriction, this seems like a fair ask.
To be clear, while the government does have jurisdiction in matters of public safety and health, it doesn’t have jurisdiction over how we use our voices in praising Jesus. There's no question there. However, this is not merely a matter of jurisdiction, but loving our neighbor and being good witnesses of the immeasurable worth of Jesus. Therefore, we are inclined to love our city in this way, without completely forsaking singing, and to re-evaluate at the end of this time. While the elders have personal doubts about whether these restrictions will be limited to four weeks, we will see. But, in the scope of our lives, let alone eternity, it is a very minuscule amount of time.
So, rather than full-throttled singing, we encourage you to significantly lower your volume over the next few weeks. (Unless, of course, you’re at home. In that case, belt it out!) We will still have music and songs, but if you join us live — which we highly encourage — please engage the song lyrics with your normal speaking volume (or quieter). Or, use the songs to pray or reflect. The main issue is volume, so please participate at a much lower volume out of love for those around you. In a sense, very little changes. We’re bringing our singing down twenty decibels for four weeks out of love for our city.
As you have likely discerned, this is not a black and white issue but falls in the realm of prudence. We understand that not everyone will agree, but these are challenging times calling for challenging decisions. Godly Christians may come to different conclusions about whether singing is a risk or whether the government can even ask us to “not sing.” Shepherding a church with such vastly different opinions, and consciences, on these matters is not easy.
But, in the end, we all want the same thing, don’t we? We want to gather. We want to worship. We want to honor Jesus. We want to love others. We want to be safe. We don’t want to be a bridge for Covid to take someone’s life, especially if they have not yet heard the gospel. Therefore, the elders believe this is the best path forward, at least temporarily so. Let’s continue to pray. We’re in this together and we’ll keep you posted as the situation develops.
Christ is all,
Q: What do the elders believe about Covid?
There is a spectrum of beliefs in the public sphere regarding the dangers associated with Covid, and the appropriateness of varying responses. We, as elders, do not want to adjudicate or bind anyone’s consciences, with respect to these varying beliefs and personal choices. We, of course, have to make risk assessments when deciding if/when/how we will gather as a church. To do so, we are relying on what we perceive to be credible health authorities when assessing that risk. At the same time, we have to do our own risk analysis, since authorities, whether health or political, can see worship and fellowship as optional, while we see them as commanded by God for our spiritual well-being.
Q: How should we relate to one another amidst our differing Covid consciences?
Covid puts us in a Romans 14 situation where we must learn to lovingly bear with one another amidst different opinions. For some, this means not passing judgment on those who believe they have more freedom. For others, it means being willing to sacrifice some freedom in order to display love, care, and concern. No matter how deeply we hold our beliefs about Covid, we must remember that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1). We think it’s best to focus less on quarreling about Covid opinions (Rom. 14:1), and more on welcoming one another in love (Rom. 15:7). This applies to individuals and churches.
Q: To what extent should we submit to the government?
There are multiple passages in the New Testament that command us to submit to the governing authorities (e.g. Rom. 13:1-7, 1 Pet. 2:13-16). Such submission is not exhaustive but is bounded, as we must obey God rather than man when the two come into conflict (Acts 5:29). The general principle is that civil disobedience is permitted if the government mandates what God forbids or forbids what God mandates. As such, we believe the government does not have the authority to decide on the components of our corporate worship (e.g. singing).
But, the decision-making matrix doesn’t end there. When the government oversteps its authority, we have a strategic decision to make: (1) Are there good reasons to comply even though we have “the right” not to (e.g. a pandemic)? (2) Or, do we resist the government’s authority, whether actively or passively (e.g. by filing a lawsuit or simply ignoring)? (3) Or, is there a middle way (e.g. fulfilling the spirit of the law, while dismissing the letter)? Different scenarios call for different responses.
Q: But, doesn’t God command us to sing?
There is no doubt that singing is an important aspect in the worship of our God (Col. 3:16; Eph. 5:19). However, we don’t believe that restricting our volume puts us in a place of disobedience. After all, singing is singing, no matter the volume. Ultimately singing emerges from our hearts (Eph. 5:19). But, temporarily lowering our volume enable us to (1) continue singing, (2) while mitigating the potential spread of Covid, and (3) preserving our witness from being unnecessarily tarnished by others who might see us as being “uncaring” should we ignore the Governor’s directives. We believe showing such flexibility is a way to display our love and care towards those in our community (members, visitors, neighbors, etc) who are very concerned about Covid-19. Thus, this is a matter of being flexible where we can out of love and for the sake of our testimony, rather than merely exercising our rights.
Q: Did you speak with a lawyer in making this decision?
Yes, we spoke with our lawyer. We have considered taking legal action but, at this point, we have been advised against it on practical grounds. At this moment, the courts are not entertaining such arguments, especially for temporary orders. Further, we have to make strategic decisions given the resources that are available to us. While we think maintaining religious freedom, for example, is very important, we don’t have the bandwidth to fight this battle at this moment, nor do we think that it the most strategic battle given all of the uncertainties of Covid.
Q: Did you speak with any medical professionals in making this decision?
Yes, we recently surveyed over ten DCC members who are working in health-related fields, and their unanimous response was that the government’s assessment that “singing increases risk” is a reasonable one. That is not to say that (1) they agree with the Governor’s restriction(s) or (2) they think we should not sing, but that they think that the government is not acting in a completely arbitrary manner.
Q: Why is the government limiting band sizes?
Part of the government’s new order limits the size of our bands to a single vocalist and a single instrumentalist, which seems to be arbitrary and to have nothing to do with Covid risk. However, we decided to comply anyway for strategic reasons: the size of our band is ultimately a matter of indifference, and we don’t think it is worth picking a fight with the government amidst a pandemic, though we’d be within our rights to do so, especially when this order is temporary.
Q: How flexible are we willing to be?
Many of you are (rightly) asking: How far are we willing to go in following governmental guidance that seems to infringe on our corporate worship and shared life together? We are not willing to disobey God under any circumstances, so we will disobey the government if it comes to that. But, we haven’t drawn clear lines in the sand as to how flexible we are willing to be yet. For example, we haven’t yet determined how long we are willing to sing at a low volume. That decision will probably depend on whether Covid seems to be spiking or the curve has been flattened. We are actively working on answering this exact question.
But, to be clear, we would never consider showing this level of flexibility if it meant compromising on the gospel. Our history demonstrates that we do not shy away from topics that are abhorrent to many in the culture around us and even to many Christians (e.g. the sinfulness of humankind, the reality of judgment, abortion, homosexuality, the role of men and women, racism, predestination, etc). While we are ready to adjudicate on those, we are not ready to adjudicate on Covid-19 risk, nor do we think that choosing to lower our volume temporarily is a compromise of the gospel or God’s commands. We don’t mind if our city hates us for loving Jesus and taking him at his word (Mt. 10:22), but we don’t want our city to think we don’t care about their safety when, in fact, we do—temporarily and eternally so.