There are barriers to singing corporately over the internet. Maybe that tells us something important.
Update: Since I wrote this article about missing corporate song, more and more information has come out about the high risk of viral spread in group singing (this article provides an excellent summary), so it’s going to be a while before we can sing together in enclosed spaces again. The situation intensifies the case I am making — in this strange season we are called both to innovate (by offering new forms of connection and worship) and also to ache, “to let absence rekindle a holy fondness in our hearts for the things we’ve taken for granted.”
My little church, like many churches, has proven creative in the age of COVID-19. Once it became clear we could not meet in person, our leadership began prerecording services for video playback. A few weeks in they figured out how to make the service a livestream on Sunday mornings, gathering us together in time, if not in space.
My family of four has attended these services in our pajamas. There are hazards, of course. In the absence of positive peer pressure, there’s a temptation to turn ourselves into the peanut gallery and the service into an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Also, you can get sleepy on the couch, no matter how stirring the sermon. Still, for the most part, virtual church has worked surprisingly well.
Except for one thing.
When musical worship is streamed into our living room, our family can’t bring ourselves to sing along. My husband and I have tried, but the lonely sound of two voices makes our offspring cringe and giggle. We should have had more children, I guess – a family large enough to approximate congregational effect.
It would help if we could see and hear the other families, resplendent in their own pajamas, singing with us. I wondered why my church didn’t turn the worship portions of our services into one big video chat in which we could hear each other’s voices and join something larger than the sum of our parts.
Because I had to lead some virtual worship myself, I researched if there was a way for people to sing together and hear each other over a streaming service. My findings were not encouraging.
It turns out the issue is latency. Although a livestream allows participants to view the same feed at approximately the same time, no two devices are receiving the feed at exactly the same time. Internet capacities have advanced to the point where the latency barely hinders a video chat. But a video sing – that’s another story.
It’s simply not yet possible for people to hear one another singing together over the internet. At least not if you’re seeking anything other than cacophony.
All those split-screen virtual choirs are actually edited together one track at a time. Live music streams only stream one way. Worship leaders must bravely lead into the void, hoping families less hesitant than the Arends sing along.
As frustrating as this technological barrier is, it’s dawned on me that maybe it’s not by accident that the Church must be physically present to fully sing corporately. Perhaps the reason musical worship is so deeply embedded in the life of the Church is precisely because it demands real-time relationship and synchronicity. To sing as a group we must occupy the same space, follow the same beat, breathe the same air.
We must submit our bodies to the music in one accord – a mutual obedience in the same melodic direction.
Maybe by the time you read this social distancing will already be a memory. Maybe not. However long this season lasts, I expect we’ll continue to discover that the Church is adaptive, and that neither her present nor her future is in danger.
Yet, even as we learn that the Church is much more than her buildings and rituals, we rediscover that they actually do matter. Right alongside the invitation to innovate is an invitation to ache – to let absence rekindle a holy fondness in our hearts for the things we’ve taken for granted.
“May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus,” the Apostle Paul prays for us, “that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 15:5–6).
Yes, Lord. May we endure. May we be encouraged. May we even sing in our living rooms, to whatever extent our children will let us. And, when we are together again, may we sing to You in one gloriously latency-free voice . . . just like we always have, and also like never before.