Singing together when we can’t sing together

Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. (Colossians 3:16, NIV)

Colossians 3:16 is a familiar verse to evangelical music ministry leaders. Our desire as we sing is that the message, the word of Christ, would be deeply embedded in our hearts. When we sing in church, it is at one and the same time directed toward God in thanksgiving, and toward one another as we build each other up through the Bible-soaked lyrics of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.

But what do we do when a pandemic cuts us off from one another?

How can we sing when one of these purposes – singing to one another – is taken away from us?

What is the place of singing in an online Christian community?

These are the questions that music leaders all around the world have wrestled with and continue to, as the COVID-19 pandemic persists. These are devastating times, and it is in these times that God’s gift of music to us is especially precious. Music is a powerful tool that helps us express the truth we know in our heads with the emotions we feel in our hearts.

So, in an emotional time, how much more should we be finding those songs of hope, joy, and grace, but also songs of lament, sorrow, and pain – to express our dependence and reverence for our loving God?

My name is Jordan Smith. I’m married to Millie and am in my fourth and final year at Moore Theological College in Sydney. Moore’s community has been a wonderful blessing to us over the past four years. The community experience is such a highlight of Moore’s unique ministry philosophy.

In our chapel services, it is such an extraordinary experience to have all the community, students, faculty, and staff singing together with one voice, declaring the truths of the Gospel. And this is what we wanted to recapture in the online services we have been running this year.

The result was the ‘virtual selfie choir’ videos you’ll find here (and check out Shoulder to Shoulder, written by Moore College students Jordan Smith and Jamie Seyfang, in the video above).

Nothing will replace the feeling of being surrounded by brothers and sisters in Christ singing together, but this was certainly a start.

There’s no one way to do this, and so many have worked tirelessly serving their churches with music videos and online content. I think we should be so thankful to all our musicians.

For my part, I was inspired by the work of others (such as Greg Bell at Figtree Anglican), who took a similar approach to the selfie choir videos.

There is nothing that will replace the feeling of being surrounded by brothers and sisters in Christ singing together, but this was certainly a start.

We could see and hear our friends – and even our lecturers – leading us in song. The feedback was that it made people feel more comfortable to sing at home by themselves when there was more than one voice leading them from a screen. One of my peers, Jamie Seyfang, reported that “in all the uncertainty, tech fatigue and isolation, seeing familiar faces singing the unchanging truths of the gospel really helped us persevere through another day.”

It was a labour-intensive task of around 7-8 hours work per song (plus others recording their parts individually), but it was worth it to know that the community felt encouraged and built up in their homes by our songs. It also meant people were easily able to contribute to the online music content using only their mobile phone.

Our congregational singing is not just about the music, or the lyrics – it’s about singing the songs to one another. Congregational singing is relational, it’s about community. I’m sure that I’m not the only one who is longing for the day of lifted restrictions, an end to this virus and its devastation. On that day, won’t the songs of the saved be so loud and filled with joy that the roofs of our buildings will be lifted, and hearts will be stirred!

But until then, we will continue to do what we can to love and serve one another with this great gift of music that God has given us.

Jordan Smith is a fourth year student at Moore Theological College, Sydney.

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