LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) – Worship music leaders in Kentucky Baptist churches have leaned on each other as they navigate the difficult season of the coronavirus.
In the space of a few months, group singing has gone from being something life-affirming to a potential source of disease and even death. Outbreaks of the coronavirus have been linked with choir rehearsals and church services in Kentucky and throughout the United States.
Singers are left now with little but anxiety, and their church leaders – often the most creative thinkers in the building – have had to think far outside the box.
“The whole process has been challenging to say the least,” said Matthew Bone, the worship leader at First Baptist Church in Pikeville. “But it’s been an opportunity for us to be creative.”
Bone said it has also broadened the network of worship pastors throughout the state, and they have huddled together via Zoom to discuss how to do church music, an area of worship that may have been the mostly greatly affected through the pandemic.
“We needed other people’s ideas, support and encouragement,” Bone said.
Worship pastors have their hands in a lot of church activities, usually including technology – another area that has begun to evolve in Kentucky Baptist churches since March. But church choirs were their primary ministry and there are “serious concerns about singing in a room together,” Bone said.
Jason “Bubba” Stewart, the worship and music consultant for the Kentucky Baptist Convention, has found himself being a counselor to a lot of the worship leaders.
“Because many of us identify with what we do as a profession, when that is stripped from us, we lose our identity and our self-worth,” he said. “Consequently, we have had lots more cases of depression and despair among our KBC church leaders. My main job has been helping pastors and church leaders reframe their issues, or challenges, and utilize the technology that God has blessed us with to do an even better job and be even more effective at our calling to point others to Christ.”
Worship leaders throughout the state have risen to the occasion with virtual choirs, leading in areas they never considered before the coronavirus.
Thearon Landrum, the worship arts minister at Unity Baptist Church in Ashland, said while leading in an empty sanctuary he was aware of the need to keep a high-energy level for the sake of those tuning into the service online.
“There was a challenge with it to have to create even more energy myself to feed through the camera,” he said. “It was more exhausting. I felt when we didn’t have a live audience how important it was that I was energetic to keep my focus. In a live setting, I’ve got a choir, instrumentalists, people up there. It didn’t all have to come from me.”
Landrum had 2-3 person vocal teams who alternated weeks that led through the online services. They were all a proper social distance from each other as they sang. “Thank goodness I was able to use some vocalists because that helped me a lot,” he said.
While a majority of churches in Kentucky have returned to in-person services after months of having to do online or drive-in services, the church choir has not returned.
“For those churches that have choirs on a regular basis, they have had the hardest transition time to not having a choir,” Stewart said. “And in these uncertain times of how the virus is actually transmitted, the best call has been for the cessation of choral groups until we can safely gather together again, hopefully sooner than later.”
Churches have had services where masks are required and some where they are optional.
“Every church has been different in one way or the other,” Stewart said, “but, so far, I have not heard of any KBC church having a choir sing in their regular morning service.”
While the online services have been a positive for churches overall, replicating the music portion falls far short of being there in person.
“Other than singing and communion, everything else could be replicated or done online,” Bone said. “We’ve gone back to church wearing masks. I had a church member that said, ‘I just love that we’re singing’ and another say, ‘I can’t sing in a mask.’ Practically, we sing a capella at least one song every week. It forces the church to listen to each other and sing.”
He has noticed the church audience singing “more passionately” now that services have restarted.
“It’s challenging enough not to see each other’s faces because of masks,” he said. “They have compensated for masks by singing passionately, expressing ourselves as we sing. I have noticed our church has been more physically expressive than beforehand. My pastor has encouraged that. My congregation has been very quick to raise their hands, quick to clap and move. They may not be singing as loudly as before but it hasn’t stopped their expressions of praise.”
Resuming choir practice
Landrum has restarted choir practice with all the proper guidelines for safety. His practice takes place in the church sanctuary with plenty of room between singers and a homemade face shield, designed by a niece of one of his choir members, that protects from spreading the mist but keeps the voice from being muffled.
“I recognize we have this need, as musicians, as artists, we like to be able to share our art,” he said. “We like to share that experience together. There’s nothing like being able to sing harmony in a group. That’s very powerful.”
Like most worship pastors, Landrum is especially close with his choir.
“Within worship arts, because of the time I spend with those people, I also become a pastor figure and I view them that way,” he said.
Stewart said he’s heard of choirs gathering weekly in online Zoom meetings to share life and prayer with each other. Some have put together virtual choir using all the recorded voices. Others, he said, even gathered in the church parking lot so they could see each other and sing together.
“For those involved with choir, choir is more than just music,” Stewart said. “There is a strong family bond and the rehearsing of music is only part of the draw to be a part of musical ensembles. The real key to effective choir ministry is that of fellowship and discipleship.”
‘Singing is fundamental’
When Gov. Andy Beshear said churches could begin reopening but advised against having choirs or even singing at all, he received backlash from the faithful who said singing was an important part of the worship experience.
He backtracked a little although continued the warning of how easily the virus could spread through singing.
“When you look at what God has given us and instructed us to do when we gather, singing is fundamental,” Bone said. “It is a non-negotiable. It’s critical to the gathering and to individual faith. We wrestled (with the first announcement). Thankfully, it was shortlived. We were thinking it’s not worth coming together until we can sing.”
Kentucky Baptist churches, as a whole, have generally followed the guidelines that have come forth from health officials as well as anyone.
“I guess we will eventually be able to look back to see if our choices have made a difference, and I would think that the social distancing and the wearing of face masks have made a difference,” Stewart said.
Landrum said he harkens back to the story of Jehoshapat in 2 Chronicles when during a great battle, the king appointed a choir singing praise to God to lead the army. The battle was God’s and the end result was certain. The army marched out singing: “Praise the LORD, for his mercy endures forever.” (2 Chronicles 20:21).
They trusted God and praised Him in advance and God intervened mightily for them with a great victory.
“He called all the musicians together and had them singing and leading God’s praise,” Landrum said. “People were singing His praise and He’s going in front of them. The enemy can’t stand. We’re fighting darkness. It starts with inspiring troops, singing praise to God. That’s why I see the choir as so important. We need to be at the forefront of ministry.”