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No joyful noise: Many South Georgia congregations will return to in-person worship without singing


By Kara Witherow, Editor

When Thomasville First United Methodist Church returns to in-person worship this Sunday morning, things will look – and sound – a lot different than they did when the congregation last met in person March 15.

Instead of a full choir of hymn-singing choristers belting out well-known songs like “I’ll Fly Away,” “Amazing Grace,” or “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” soloists or duets will likely sing more obscure, lesser-known hymns.

It’s one way to help prevent congregational singing, deemed unsafe by experts from the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS), the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA), Chorus America, the Barbershop Harmony Society, and the Performing Arts Medical Association (PAMA).

“We are going to continue to have instrumental music and we’re going to continue to have music that’s sung by one or two people, but we’re not going to be playing the hits,” said Tim Peck, Thomasville First United Methodist Church’s Director of Worship Arts. “That wouldn’t work out too well.”

As South Georgia United Methodist churches prepare to restart in-person worship services, church leaders have to grapple with many big questions, one of which is whether or not to sing, or how to sing safely.

According to a Centers for Disease Control report, in early March a choir practice led to a large outbreak in Washington state. Dozens of choir members who met for practice at a church were diagnosed with COVID-19, and at least two died. South Georgia UM churches are being vigilant, observing guidelines and following recommendations to help prevent the same happening here.

The suspension of congregational singing and church choirs is sad and disappointing, but music directors and worship leaders say they have a responsibility for the safety of the entire congregation.

“I feel like it’s part of my job, not just to direct a choir, but to look after my people and keep them safe,” said Ellen Hanson, who serves as director of music for traditional worship at Martha Bowman United Methodist Church in Macon. “We’re all very sad that we won’t be able to sing together, but I hope that we can provide a rich worship experience.”

When Martha Bowman UMC does resume in-person worship services this Sunday, they will observe social distancing and the congregation will not participate in singing, Hanson said. Soloists, duets, trios, and the church’s handbell choir will offer new, lovely, and interesting sounds, she said.

“We’re doing our best to be creative about offering musical experiences without having choral singing or hymn singing,” Hanson said.

She’s also thought through liturgy like the Gloria Patri, the doxology, and congregational readings that may spread droplets or aerosols that can carry the virus.

“I’ve learned the Gloria Patri in sign language, and I’ll encourage people to join me in that.”

Music is vital to worship, says Kenji Bolden, and planning for worship services without singing has been a challenge.

“Music is the heartbeat of worship. It’s everywhere inside the book of Psalms. Music is at its core.” said Bolden, director of music ministries at Valdosta First United Methodist Church.

Valdosta First UMC also plans to re-start their in-person worship services this Sunday, without congregational singing. Bolden will also use solos, duets, and small ensembles. His musicians will be in the choir loft, distant from one another and the congregation.

Throughout the pandemic, he and other church leaders have stayed connected to the congregation via online worship and social media. Each staff member posts about their respective ministry area one day each week; Bolden posts a music-oriented topic every Friday.

“I think it’s very important for music leaders to find ways to engage their congregations, whether it’s in the sanctuary or outside the sanctuary, in music so they can lift their voices in some way, shape, or form, so they aren’t silenced by this,” he said. “It’s very important that we emerge from this time better for it.”

Through all of this, Peck hopes people see a more complete picture of worship.

“My job is to communicate that worship is a way of being, a way of demonstrating obedience and appreciation to God, and that doesn’t just involve the music on Sunday mornings,” he said. “My hope is that we are able to see that it’s about relationships. The bottom line is that we’re ministering to people.”

For resources on restarting in-person worship and singing, visit www.sgaumc.org/coronavirus.

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