Truth time: I have a real love/hate relationship with the CDC. I was thrilled beyond words when the latest update showed that as a fully vaccinated adult, I can safely attend worship and SING in a choir with other vaccinated people. Then I looked to the other side of the chart. Ugh. For those who are unvaccinated, singing – even masked – is still considered to be among the most risky of activities. For homogeneous groups, the CDC is extremely helpful. For heterogeneous populations (such as an intergenerational congregation) … not so much. This begs the question that has been on a constant loop in my brain since the update: What does this mean for us at FPC Greenville?
Fortunately for us, the CDC is not our only resource for the latest in research and best practices. Through my work with Presbyterian Association of Musicians, I have had the privilege of making connections with The Center for Congregational Song, The Hymn Society of the United States and Canada, and with leaders from churches all over the United States. Last September, the University of Maryland and the University of Colorado began intensive studies regarding singing and wind instruments, and they have released findings every three to four months. Initially, the consensus was that the threshold for group singing was the overall vaccination percentage. Once 60%-70% of the population was vaccinated, they told us, we could feel confident in a return to choir and congregational singing. More recent findings tell us that while those big-picture numbers are still extremely important, we have to put a magnifying glass on our specific situation (choir, congregation, etc.) to determine the timing of our next steps.
Over the last two weeks, I have reached out to approximately fifteen PC(USA) colleagues in the Southeastern United States and asked the same questions: What has your church been doing? How do the latest findings change those practices? More than half of the churches represented held in-person worship on Pentecost for the first time since March 2020. While it’s useful for us to know that as a point of reference, our church’s journey is not comparable. Thankfully, there were several congregations in NC, SC, and GA whose processes and attendance were very similar to our own. They have the same questions and concerns that we have. Beyond that surface commonality, every single congregation is passionate about music and its role in worship. While the specific circumstances in each congregation may differ, on the major points there was consensus:
We want to sing again as soon as we are able to do so.
There must be options available for those who are not yet eligible for the vaccine to participate in worship.
Each congregation had a different approach to the second point, but in an intergenerational setting, it is a crucial step in our journey back to the familiar. The solutions that work for others are not great choices for us (if you’re curious what others are doing, email me and I’ll fill you in). At FPC, we are taking the next few weeks to develop a worship class for those who are not yet eligible to receive the vaccine so there is a safe, in-person worship opportunity for all. As it happens, many of our 12-15 year-olds are scheduled for vaccines in the coming weeks, which also benefits the whole congregation as we look at our specific situation through that magnifying glass. Worship Ministry had already scheduled the July 4 Worship and Picnic at 10am, so we knew we could use that date to REALLY celebrate by setting that as our return to congregational singing. In the meantime, we will start to have some of our choir members back in the loft at the 11:00 service (sorry, I can’t guarantee that they’ll be up and singing at 8:30, but you never know – they could surprise me).
On a personal note, I have spent my entire career – 24 years – encouraging people to sing together. To be a part of something of which the product is far greater than the sum of its parts is a rare and holy experience, and our souls have all yearned for that holy experience for fifteen long months. This is a hole that cannot be filled with words or with Zooms or with virtual choirs. Soon, friends. Soon, Brad will pull out ALL the stops on the organ, and we will fill the sanctuary with the music of our hearts and our souls. There will be tears and smiles and laughter, and best of all, we will experience it all together. Just the thought of singing with you all fills my heart with a joy too great for words, but a few verses from a beloved hymn come close:
When in our music God is glorified, and adoration leaves no room for pride,
it is as though the whole creation cried: Alleluia!
How often, making music, we have found a new dimension in the world of sound,
as worship moved us to a more profound Alleluia!