This article first appeared on ChurchTechToday under the title “9 Ways to Worship Corporately Without Singing.”
The recent restrictions that the COVID-19 stay at home orders have imposed on churches has led church staffs to rethink not only how we “do church,” but what elements are truly essential. We must think creatively about how to perform traditional worship service elements such as singing and taking communion. Shared communion cups have always been a little awkward, but now they’re out of the question, and even passing a bowl for people to reach into and extract a wafer with their bare hands is dangerous.
The most frustrating order for some (e.g. worship leaders) was the order from California Governor Gavin Newsome that churches “discontinue singing” while gathered for worship services. This resulted in an uproar from many Christians. How can we hold a worship service without worshiping? How can the government dictate whether we praise God or not? Didn’t Jesus say that we must sing? Luke 19:40 says, “If they keep silent, the very stones will cry out!” (NET Bible) Our God must be praised!
This is true, of course. But did Governor Newsom’s order actually prohibit worship? Did it even actually prohibit singing? No. We are still lawfully allowed to sing our praises to God as loudly as we want…We just can’t do it while publicly gathered together in groups, for the time being. And as disappointed as I was to hear this just thirty minutes after completing a band rehearsal, I began to see this as a wonderful opportunity to remind our congregation what worship really is. My pastor and I have been talking for months about how we can help the congregation distinguish between worship and music. Worship is so much more than just music or singing!
My favorite definition of worship comes from John Piper, who says, “The inner essence of worship is the response of the heart to the knowledge of the mind when the mind is rightly understanding God, and the heart is rightly valuing God.” (For a fuller development of this definition of worship, you can watch my sermon here).
When we limit our understanding of worship to just singing, we are missing out on the riches of a deeper relationship with God. The modern Church has gotten stuck in a pattern of reducing worship to music, but the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing us to rethink and reimagine how we do church in this and so many other ways. Now is the time to expand our understanding of worship to include some new and some ancient methods of responding with our hearts to the revelation of God’s glory, love, and goodness.
So I began to think about ways we can worship without singing and, more importantly for this moment in time, ways we can worship while gathered in groups that don’t involve singing aloud together. I’ve started working my way through the following list with my own congregation, and I invite you to consider doing the same with your own church.
1. Listen to a worship song without singing. It’s not uncommon for people not to sing along when the worship band performs during a worship service, but let’s remind the congregation why the band is playing. They’re not on stage for entertainment purposes. They are leading us in worship. Don’t assume that everyone understands this. Be explicit. The key here is to lead the congregation in worship. Explain how to worship through listening. Invite them to turn their hearts toward God and agree with the lyrics that are being sung by the person with the microphone and to pray the words of the song silently. This can be just as worshipful as singing out loud. And don’t limit yourself to worshiping with song lyrics either. It’s easy to worship along with an instrumental piece, especially if it’s a familiar tune to which people already know the words, like “Amazing Grace.” But simply enjoying the artistry of the instrumentalist can be an act of worship that draws the spirit closer to God. (Psalm 150:3-4)
2. Watch a Worshipful Video. There are plenty of great videos available online that inspire worship. Again, the key is not just to play a video but to invite people to turn their hearts toward God, to participate in worship through watching. You can’t go wrong with a video that displays the words of a scripture passage, and I recommend having an audible voice reading the words out loud (in a dramatic fashion). Here’s one we used recently that was well received (I overdubbed my voice reading the words): Everlasting to Everlasting. And here’s a video that leads nicely into my next item: Be Thou My Vision.
3. Song Reflections. We ask our congregations to sing songs every week, choosing the words for them to sing to (or about) God, but we rarely spend time reflecting on those words. The thing that hymn advocates admire so much about the genre is the rich theological content of the lyrics, but there are plenty of modern songs with theologically deep lyrics as well. Let’s spend some time reflecting on these truths. It is important to remind people that this kind of reflection is in itself an act of worship. (Psalm 119:15) What if we just read through the words slowly, reflecting on each line or phrase, and perhaps restating the truths in our own words? This could end up something like a spoken word performance, a pre-written poetic reflection on the lyrics of a worship song. Here’s an example that could simply be read aloud during a service: Come Thou Fount.
4. Lectio Divina. Here’s our first chance to really move beyond music and recognize that even the act of reading scripture, or listening to scripture, or however we take it in, receiving the word of God is an act of worship. (Joshua 1:8) Lectio Divina is an ancient prayer practice that literally means “divine reading.” It is most often performed individually but can be a powerful corporate act as well. According to tradition, this practice dates back to St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 330- 395) and reiterated by St. Benedict of Nurssia (founder of the Benedictine order). In Lectio Divina, a person will read a specific passage of scripture four times in one sitting, giving ample time to meditate and reflect on the text deeply and personally. Each time through the passage, the reader takes a different focus (i.e., Read, Reflect, Respond, Rest). Check out this article for a fuller description of the practice. In a corporate setting, the worship leader (or another pastor or layperson) can simply introduce the practice and give instruction on how participants should listen and what they’re “looking for” as the leader slowly reads the passage. Then pause for a minute to let the congregation reflect before reading the passage again. This can be a very powerful corporate experience, but it does take some time. I’d suggest planning at least 8-12 minutes for this worship activity.
5. Prayer of Examen. This is another ancient prayer practice that is often conducted individually but can be very effective in a corporate setting if led well. This practice only dates back to the 16th century and Ignatius of Loyola (founder of the Jesuits). The Examen is simply a method for reflecting on the events of the day, a set of questions that guide participants to look for God’s presence in their lives. A guided meditation. It is important here, too, to remind your congregation that prayer in itself is an act of worship. (Ephesians 6:18) Note that to practice the Examen within a service can take a good chunk of time. I have led an abbreviated version within a worship service but found greater efficacy by inviting congregants to show up early and participate in a guided Prayer of Examen just prior to the worship service. Like most churches, it’s not uncommon for just a handful of people to be in the room at my church when the band kicks off with the first song, so I was shocked at how many people were eager to show up twenty minutes early in order to participate in a guided examen for multiple weeks in a row.
6. Prayer Postures. Experts say that up to 55% of communication is body language. When the Bible teaches us to proclaim the mighty works of the Lord, shouldn’t we consider what we’re saying with our bodies, not just with the words we sing? Explain how our posture gives expression to the position of our hearts. Mention the various postures referenced throughout the Bible (here’s an article with more detail on the various prayer postures). Invite your congregation to stand, to lift their hands, or even to kneel! When we kneel before God, we are expressing our submission and acknowledging His rightful place as Lord of our lives. This is an act of worship. Don’t just ask people to stand or sit or kneel, make sure they attribute meaning to the actions. Invite them to kneel as you lead them in prayer or to stand for the public reading of scripture.
7. Responsive Reading and Pre-written Prayer. Now might be a good time to renew the evangelical church’s tradition of responsive readings and pre-written prayer. Responsive readings are common in more liturgical settings, but contemporary worship has moved away from this formulaic activity which can seem “canned.” Modern worshipers tend to favor extemporaneous prayer more highly. Younger Christians want to express their own thoughts and feelings as they experience them, in the moment. It’s not “cool” to use someone else’s prepared words to express one’s own worship. My worship is personal and intimate. And yet there’s something powerful and stirring about praying words that were written hundreds or even thousands of years ago and joining in repeating the same words that have been prayed by so many other Christ-followers in so many different countries and circumstances. Spend a month reading from the Common Book of Prayer, and it will change the way you pray. Leading a congregation through prepared prayers can be a stretch, but isn’t that what we’re called to do as spiritual leaders–to offer fresh ways to worship and stretch people to grow in their faith? (Psalm 40:3) Just make sure whoever’s leading these readings and prayers knows how to lead with vibrancy and vitality!
8. Silent Prayer. Perhaps the opposite of corporate responsorial reading is silent prayer. But even silent prayer can be a moving experience in a large group gathering. (Habakkuk 2:20) There are many ways to do this. Try a few different ones: Have the worship leader or pastor (or lay leader) suggest a specific topic and invite the congregation to pray silently for one to two minutes on the subject, then the leader can close that topic with a brief prayer from the microphone before moving on to another topic and giving another moment for silent prayer. Or get wild and break the congregation into groups (with appropriate social distancing). Perhaps at the end of the service, before dismissal, invite people who want to pray for your church’s missionaries to gather in one corner of the room, those who want to pray for the upcoming VBS or other evangelical outreach to gather in another corner, and others who want to pray for specific members of the church facing illness or loss of loved ones, etc. in another corner. Make sure to have one prayer leader assigned to each group. You can even simply ask people to turn to the three people nearest them in the pews and pray for whatever the pastor’s sermon is on. This can be difficult for some people, but in my opinion, this is perhaps the best area in which to challenge people to stretch themselves a little bit.
9. Social Network Worship. This one’s a bit farther outside the box, but if worship involves proclaiming the good news and telling of God’s wonderful acts (Psalm 105:2; Psalm 29:2) what if we set aside a few minutes during a worship service to post of His wonderful acts? Encourage everyone to post a statement of faith or a phrase of praise on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram as a public proclamation of God’s goodness. This can be as simple as posting a favorite scripture verse or something like “Jesus turned my life around and gave me a new hope and a new life. He’s making all things new!” Or even just “I praise God this morning for my health, my family, and the freedom I have to worship in [name of your church].” Provide several pre-written statements as examples [?] and give time for people to use their phones right then to make the post.
The key to leading worship without singing is to lead the people in understanding the meaning behind their actions and to help them see that anything we do that expresses praise, or proclaims the greatness of God, can be an act of worship. Whenever your congregation partakes in communion, remind people that it is an act of worship. Let’s reframe the church’s concept of worship to include every element within the worship service, not just the singing of songs. When we start to see how simple things, like listening to (or viewing) scripture, kneeling (prayer postures), or meditating on God’s presence throughout the day (Examen), can be worship, then we begin to grow in our ability to worship and in our intimacy with the Lord. It’s time to help our congregations expand their understanding of worship.