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Corona Virus & Congregational Song

Last Sunday at my little congregation in Baltimore, the pastor decided that for the passing of the peace we would encourage people to say “peace be with you,” bow, wave, jazz hands…anything but touch. We made it clear that this was not out of panic, but out of thoughtful precaution. Although not hugging and shaking everyone’s hand at this small family-like church felt very strange, I think it was the right decision. Meanwhile, I’ve heard from many of you, especially in places like Washington state, where church services are being altogether canceled or substituted for online/streaming options with only the worship leadership team meeting in the same room. So what is the role of congregational song in all of this? Can singing together help? Is singing together even possible when we aren’t physically in the same place?

With the absence of human touch, it is easy to feel disconnected and unloved. For those congregations that are still meeting but are taking steps like not touching during the passing of the peace, we need to step up our congregational song game. One simple but powerful way to increase our personal connections through song is to ask people to look at each other while singing. Choose a song they know well (particularly something cyclical that they don’t have to look at a page to see lots of words) and after a few repetitions invite them to sing to each other. Looking each other in the eye while singing can be an extremely personal and moving experience.


Singing at Home

For those who are moving to an online/streaming option where most of your congregation will be worshiping from home, singing together becomes very difficult. But this can be an opportunity to reestablish the tradition of family hymn-singing in the home. Singing hymns with the family at home is an old devotional tradition that has largely be lost in America today. What if we took this opportunity to reclaim that tradition? Here are a few guidelines and ideas that might help re-establish this powerful singing tradition:

  • Tell people ahead of time that during the stream services they will be invited to sing with whoever they are with, whether it’s just themselves, their spouse and family, or their nursing home friends.
  • Set expectations. Things like:
    • We hope you will sing, even if you’re by yourself. While we can’t hear each other, God will hear our voices raising together.
    • It won’t sound like it normally does when we’re all together and that’s okay!
    • God commands us to sing unto the Lord and doesn’t mind if your voice is a little shaky or off-pitch. God delights in your voice because God gave it to you and only you.
    • Singing is an ancient Christian tradition. No virus or any other global crisis can keep God’s people from raising our voices in praise. By singing from home, we are engaging in an act of resistance, telling the world that no matter it throws at us we will be faithful to the God who casts out fear.
  • Have a hymnal or song-book team prepared to deliver books to your congregation. Let your people know that if they don’t have a hymnal at home or a song-book of some kind that they can contact the church office and someone will deliver it to their home. This is a great opportunity for your choir or praise team to serve. Also have a downloadable resource available if possible.
  • Have the music or lyrics prepared on your live-stream platform. Remember that people will have less support than they normally do for the congregational singing parts of your service. Providing them with more resources (like notation) than normal is important to set them up for success.
  • Choose songs that works well a cappella. This is where the great hymns of the past often excel. Simple melodies without big leaps, smaller melodic ranges, and less syncopation are all things that help make something more accessible to singers at home.
  • Choose songs that people know well. This is not a good time to choose new songs or try to teach. There’s enough uncertainty going around. Give people something to hold on to that is familiar and comforting. This is a time to lean on whatever songs and hymns that your people know and know well.
  • Finally, and this is important, have your leadership stop singing. Seriously. If a soloist is singing on the screen, people will be much more likely to just listen to it like a solo than to sing themselves. I challenge you to just play the accompaniment and not sing along, like a karaoke track. This will feel awkward to you in leadership. That’s ok…it’s not about you. It might work like this:
    • Friends, we’re now going to sing “it is well with my soul.” I’ll sing the stanza 1, but then we invite you at home to sing the remaining stanzas at home.
    • Sing stanza 1 with refrain.
    • Play stanzas 2-4 and only sing on the refrain. Have the music or “stanza 2” or something like that displayed on the screen so that people know where they are. Include the melody strongly on an instrument like the organ, flute, or other obbligato instrument.
  • Finally, follow-up with your people. Did they sing? What was their experience? How could it be improved. Make this a community effort to worship together while in diaspora. Let them know you’re there to support their song even when you’re not in the same room.


Singing for Others

There are times in our lives when we can’t do certain things. When we’re babies, our parents have to do pretty much everything for us. Until we get our driver’s license, we have to get driven around to our various events. When we’re young professionals we often need colleagues help to train us and teach us new procedures. When we’re older we often need help moving while downsizing, driving to doctor appointments, and so on. And then there are times when it is difficult to pray, such as when we’re grieving. The Apostle Paul reminds us that when we struggle to pray the Spirit prays for us. Likewise, when our congregation members find it difficult to sing, we can sing for them. This may be one of those times when your staff, worship team, and/or choir needs to step up their own singing game to sing for the congregation. While we must be careful that this doesn’t become a permanent replacement, it is good for us to take up the role of singing to the Lord on behalf of the congregation. This may be a time when more solos, choir anthems, and other “special music” is used instead of congregational song. Don’t apologize or lament this, name it. Take it up as a part of your mission for the church and handle it with respect, always ready to hand it back to the congregation when you are able to gather again.


Helpful Resources

Most popular hymns of all time as listed by

A Capella Sunday resources

Hymns in Times of Crisis – Free Download

Live-Streaming Copyright Guidelines


Prayer & Action

Every year the world seems to be in a new crisis: war/conflict, stock market crash, terrorist attack, or a global virus. It is in these situations where people are fearful or panicked that the church must step in to say “be not afraid.” We must be the voice of reason and peace. We must be the ones to say that violence is not acceptable, money is not God, and panicking out of fear is deadly. God has given us tools for dealing with idols and fear…things like preaching the gospel, prayer, and song. So tell people about Jesus, pray for peace and wholeness for this world, and sing with people.

The church must also help spread truth, not fiction. God has given us other tools and knowledge on how to live through global pandemics…things like hand sanitizer, common-sense health precautions, and global health experts to advise us. Use hand sanitizer, don’t go out when you’re sick, and listen to those knowledgeable about science and healthcare. In a time of fear and anxiety, let’s set the example on how to fact-check and spread thoughtfulness.

CDC Updates on COVID-19 (Corona Virus)
Johns Hopkins Article on COVID-19 (Corona Virus)

If you have other helpful ideas, resources, or thoughts, please use the comment section below to share.


Author Brian Hehn is the Director of The Center for Congregational Song.


This episode is with Taize Brother Jean Marie, who is one of the community’s lead musicians. The Taizé Community is an ecumenical Christian monastic fraternity in Taizé, Saône-et-Loire, Burgundy, France. It is composed of more than one hundred brothers, from Catholic and Protestant traditions, who originate from about thirty countries across the world. It was founded in 1940 by Brother Roger Schütz, a Reformed Protestant. The community has become one of the world’s most important sites of Christian pilgrimage, with a focus on youth. Over 100,000 young people from around the world make pilgrimages to Taizé each year for prayer, Bible study, sharing, and communal work. Through the community’s ecumenical outlook, they are encouraged to live in the spirit of kindness, simplicity and reconciliation.


Season 1 – Episode 6

In this interview with Brother Jean Marie of the Taize Community, host Ben Brody explores what it means to pray in song. Insights into how the Taize Community writer their own songs as well as choose the songs they sing in their services. What does it mean to pray? What does it mean to live in community? How does a song find its way into a community?



Listening time: 42 minutes


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I grew up with the idea that Christianity is relevant. It involves young people. It was vibrant.


There are always new discoveries.


Jacques Berthier was a very special person. He was a musician from head to toe. It was not easy to find a way to continue [Taize’s music] after his death.


It was a living tradition that was carried lightly.


People are trying to meet the challenges of today…of singing and enlivening congregational singing in contemporary communities.


Liturgy and prayer is something that comes from the hearts, the ground up…there’s something that has to strike a chord deeply in the people.


Author – Ginny Chilton Maxwell is Music Minister at Church of the Ascension in Norfolk, Virginia, where she serves as organist, choirmaster, and elementary music teacher.


One of my choir members was telling me the other day that every time she hears “Be Thou My Vision,” she can picture the outdoor chapel where she worshipped at sleepaway camp as a child. She can feel the miniature Episcopal hymnbook in her hands and see the faces of the two women–sisters– who ran the camp. I was struck by the image of her as a child and the power of the music, combined with the setting, to make such an impression on her (this took place over 50 years ago!). It made me ponder how important it is that we all take some sabbath time to refresh ourselves, and how singing and summertime naturally lend themselves so well to that refreshment.


Sleepaway Camp

My choir member called it “sleepaway camp” but I just called it “camp” when I was a kid. The only camp I ever attended as a child was St. George’s Camp, at Shrine Mont in the Shenandoah Valley. I think my favorite part of camp was the worship services, which were held twice a day, and the best part of that was the singing. We sang all the music by heart and had hand motions for nearly every song. There are so many things that you share at camp, but sharing song is so powerful because it engages all of yourself: your voice, your body (especially if there are fun motions!), your sense of hearing, sight, and touch. It was something you could share with the other people at camp, something you could look around and feel you had in common with folks who were strangers just a few days ago.


I was a “St. G’s” camper over 25 years ago, but when I hear those songs I can still feel the friendship bracelets on my wrist and taste the grape soda like it was yesterday. I’m trying to think what else but music would conjure up such vivid memories. Looking at a photograph or touching an old t-shirt can certainly send a wave of memories crashing down on someone, but I think music has a special ability to help us recall the past in such detail.


St. G’s was so important to my sense of sabbath as a child. I came home with a cassette tape which I played on repeat after a tough day at school, in an 8-year-old’s version of what I would now call self-care. I looked forward to that week (just one week!) away every summer to clear my mind. It restored my self-confidence and put the stress I experienced during the school year into perspective. And I cried my little heart out to say goodbye to all my new friends, friends I’d only known for a week! I think music–specifically, singing together– had something to do with how close we were all able to grow in such a short amount of time, how renewed I felt, and how vividly I can recall these memories some 25 years later.

She can feel the miniature Episcopal hymnbook in her hands and see the faces of the two women–sisters– who ran the camp.

Summer Conferences

I no longer fit the age requirements for St. George’s Camp, but my need for a summer singing sabbath is as important as ever. The Hymn Society’s annual conference is one place I’ve found to refresh myself through singing in the summer. No counselors or bunk beds at this sleepaway camp, but you can often stay in a dorm with a roommate! My first annual conference was in 2012 in Winnipeg, Manitoba. I had never been to that part of Canada before, and I was struck by the vast expanses of prairie stretching out all around us as we rode the buses to and from the university for our evening hymn sings. So different from the east coast! The evening that sticks out in my mind the most was a hymn sing we did at a little Anglican church with a BIG organ. It was the first time I’d been introduced to the music of Thomas Pavlechko, who accompanied the hymn sing and played several of his hymn tunes and harmonizations. We had enough people there to fill nearly every seat in the church. I remember at one point I felt totally transported; everyone was singing with all their might, and our voices, woven together with the organ, filled every bit of aural space in the sanctuary. I got teary-eyed, and at the end, with uncharacteristic exuberance, I rushed up to have my picture taken with Mr. Pavlechko. I came home feeling refreshed, with a renewed passion for organ music and congregational singing. It was not just the music, but the fact that I could participate in it, and join my voice with so many others, that made this such a moving and refreshing experience for me.


Singing, Summer, Sabbath

I know there are many of us who read this blog who have had a similar experience at a Hymn Society annual conference. What year stands out in your mind? What about summers from your childhood, or the summers your own children are experiencing now? Are there summer camp experiences that set the precedent for your love of congregational song? What are you guys doing to refresh yourselves this summer?

…but when I hear those songs I can still feel the friendship bracelets on my wrist and taste the grape soda like it was yesterday.


Congregational Song, St. George's Camp, Summer Camp Worship, Worship

Ginny’s Summer Camp Worship Service

Hymnal, Song Book, Songbook, Church of England, Singing, Hymnals

“She can feel the miniature Episcopal hymnbook in her hands…”

Congregational Singing, The Hymn Society, Annual Conference, Hymn Festival

Ginny Chilton Maxwell and Thom Pavlechko after Thom’s Hymn Society Festival







Center for Congregational Song, Ginny Chilton Maxwell, Organ, Singing

The beautiful church where Thom Pavlechko’s hymn festival was held in Winnipeg, Manitoba.


Pipe Organ, Ginny Chilton Maxwell, Congregational Song, Singing, Church, Worship

The organ played for The Hymn Society’s hymn festival that evening in Winnipeg, Manitoba.