While many churches have become more adept producing online services during the COVID-19 crisis, the music aspect of congregational worship is still a challenge to recreate virtually.
Virtual ministry and social distancing mean no choir or congregational singing, said Tommy Shapard, minister of music and worship at Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida.
“You don’t have that communal aspect of music-making in the church at the moment,” he said.
Congregants still want music, even at home. It’s a matter of figuring out what music ministry looks like virtually, Shapard explained.
“We have to innovate musically. For us, that means variety and making sure our band mixes various styles of music.”
The technical side of moving music online is something many churches struggle with, he said.
“Initially, we scrambled. We were just going on Facebook Live and we had another camera that we could send to YouTube.”
Hendricks Avenue has included guest instrumentalists and soloists in their virtual music ministry efforts. They have also experimented with whether their chapel or sanctuary was the most appropriate space to broadcast their online service.
“We as musicians have to lead in a pastoral way,” Shapard said. “We have to think through what that means musically and creatively.”
Technology provides opportunities for online music connection, but the dynamic relationship of performing together is not there, said Michael McMahon, executive director of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada.
“Music ministry has been turned upside down by this time,” he said. “Making music has traditionally been an in-person activity and the synchronicity to make music together has been lost.”
Yet the pandemic provides opportunities and lessons, McMahon explained.
“We are learning how to do things we might have been afraid to learn about before.”
The virtual ministry space also overcomes the limits of the locality of a church, McMahon said.
“We’ve expanded to new places and there are opportunities for greater connection.”
At St. Matthews Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, each week is a learning experience for worship ministers, said Tim Galyon, minister of music and worship arts.
Much of Galyon’s responsibility in the COVID-19-era is to be the connector between choir members, orchestra members and video editors.
“In a way, I have transitioned from a worship leader standpoint to a video producer standpoint,” he said.
The pandemic is making it clear what churches need to let go of and what needs to be embraced creatively, Galyon said.
“It’s like somebody took our Etch A Sketch and turned it upside down and shook it. It’s a clean slate right now.”
Steve Kirkland, technical director at St. Matthews, also believes music is an integral part of the worship experience.
“Nobody leaves church humming the sermon.”
Recently, St. Matthews produced a 6-minute virtual choir piece that included 27 choir members. The piece, something that would normally take three hours of rehearsal, took around 30 hours to edit, Kirkland said.
“A lot has changed in just the amount of time it takes to do something,” he said. “People appreciate anything that we can do during this time, especially if we’re able to involve people other than the ministerial staff in worship. It’s meaningful to our congregation.”
Shapard said that as Hendricks Avenue transitions back to in-person services, the music aspect will look different than it did before the pandemic.
“I would hope that some of the variety of expression and worship that we see online right now and over the next several weeks will make itself into the room once everybody’s back together,” he said.
He also emphasized that while physical spaces can be sacred, they aren’t everything.
“We aren’t trying to recreate what we do in the room; we’re just trying to provide something meaningful for people.”
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