Parishes, schools and agencies

How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange (online) land?

From the parishesThere is much that we are missing about gathering, in person, as the people of God - and congregational singing is one of the hardest elements of a worship service to replicate online. Parishioner Ellaine Downie spoke to two worship leaders in Melbourne parishes about how they are responding to the challenge.

By Ellaine Downie

Whether you belong to a church filled with tech-savvy filmmakers or a crowd of the digitally naïve, this year everyone has had to respond to the challenge of doing church in the online world. Due to COVID-19, churches have been launching themselves into cyberspace at a great rate, using a range of innovative video computer technologies.

Everybody has suddenly had to expand their technical horizons: from finding people with skills in filming and video editing to teaching parishioners of all ages to use programs such as Zoom. All the while working within diocesan, state and federal lockdown restrictions on numbers allowed at church gatherings. And always having to rethink new methods when the goalposts move every couple of weeks.

Within the limitations of lockdown, churches of all shapes and sizes have been forced to ask themselves the same question: if we can’t meet together physically, how do we now do church?

Rethinking church

When it comes to online church, most of us probably come with preconceived ideas: deep down we want it to be as “normal as possible”. But after 20 weeks organising online services, Angela Chandler, Children and Families Minister at St Mark’s Forest Hill, says: “In fact, there is nothing ‘normal’ about doing church online. What works live does not necessarily work online.”

For their online services most churches have been trying to maintain the common elements of a live service – Bible readings, prayers, music, sermon, kids’ talks, prayer book liturgy and so on. But despite these familiar rituals, the primary disadvantage of church online is, of course, that it doesn’t look or feel the same as meeting together in one building. Major parts of our Christian experience of worship are missing, and everyone feels a sense of loss.

This is particularly so with congregational singing.

Singing worship songs helps develop our sense of Christian community, both physically and emotionally, as well as reinforcing the understanding of our faith. But despite the sophistication of the new video technologies, one of the hardest aspects to recreate online is this sense of belonging together – something which congregational singing enhances so much.

I discussed this dilemma with two experienced worship leaders / musicians currently producing online services. These two churches have taken quite different approaches to providing worship music for their congregations in this new medium. Each is discovering different ways to be effective while also having to confront their own particular challenges.

This photo also taken from The Blessing. This is a final photo manufactured in the program - the 12 people actually were recorded individually , one after another. 

The Revd Elizabeth Webster, Assistant Curate, St Hilary’s Network

How do you manage music and “congregational” singing in your online church services?

We are a big church and would normally have about 80 to 90 volunteer musicians playing each month, covering six live services. But restrictions by the government and the diocese meant that at the start of the first lockdown we could only use clergy to record services in the church space. Thankfully several of our staff are also good musicians. As restrictions eased we have been able to include volunteers in small worship bands recorded onsite.

We normally livestream our service, including the sermon from the church, and edit in pre-recorded Bible readings and prayers recorded by people in their homes.

What have been some of your challenges doing music for online church?

We are a large church and blessed by having enough people with technical skills in filming and editing, so we were able to set up the church as an ad hoc TV studio. We wanted to present the best music we could, as similar as possible to our pre-COVID services.

However moving online actually created some problems that we really did not anticipate.

Were these technological problems?

No – although there are always some technical glitches. Surprisingly, the problems were not so much technological as pastoral.

We normally have many musicians and other volunteers participating in “upfront” activities in our services. When we could only allow five people in the church building to record, it meant choosing only three or four for a music group. Many volunteers who had been serving faithfully for years found themselves with no role to play. A significant number began grieving the loss of their contributions to worship.

From an organisational viewpoint, it was difficult to find the balance between caring for people and at the same time trying to provide the best music that we could.

Have you found a solution?

We have recently expanded to two services per week, and we are also consciously trying to include a larger number of musicians, especially singers. We are now using a sophisticated computer program that allows each singer to record their part at home. The separate parts are edited together and it creates a kind of “mosaic” video, with many faces and voices. We recently did a version of “The Blessing” which was really lovely.

We are now attempting to do more congregational songs in this manner so that people can see and hear several people singing, not just one. We hope this approach helps create the sense of being part of our bigger Christian community and will encourage people to more easily join in singing in at home.

Watch “The Blessing” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hG9lq8f3vyI  

Angela Chandler, Children and Families Minister, St Mark’s Forest Hill

How are you doing music for your online services at St Mark’s?

We have a team of about 18 musicians but we have not attempted to record small bands in the church building.
We have avoided the difficulties of restrictions by using songs recorded by parishioners in their own homes. Usually a family or a couple sing the congregational songs.

While the sermon is recorded in the church, most of the service is recorded in homes – the Bible readings, prayers and music are then edited in with the sermon into one video.

For variety, we add in archival footage showing our congregation singing from various previous church events, such as weddings. This helps to provide the congregational sound people are used to hearing in church and shows them their own familiar worship space.

What is the thinking behind your approach to online services?

The key thing we are trying to do with our services is to make connections with our community.
We asked ourselves: “What do our people need? What are the things that only we can give them?”

So we have resisted using online YouTube resources from professional Christian musicians: all of what we do is “home grown”. We have always emphasised being inclusive, rather than aiming for performance standard in worship. You can get wonderful music and teaching from other places, probably better than we can do it, but no one else can give our congregation their own people.

And what people in our community are feeding back about our online services is:
“We love seeing our church family and we loved seeing that person whose name we never knew – because now we do!”

Maintaining our sense of Christian community

We all recognise that online church is not the same as meeting face-to-face in familiar surroundings. But it seems that our churches are making it a priority to find ways online to help maintain our sense of Christian community.

Despite some initial angst, we must acknowledge that we have been blessed in the process: by video computer technology being provided in our hour of need; by the many volunteers and clergy spending hours planning, filming, editing, recording videos; by our musicians’ attempts to help us sing together in this strange cyber-land.

Despite some clunky efforts online, every church is doing its best to help us experience a semblance of fellowship in this time of isolation.

And for this we are thankful to God.

Ellaine Downie is a member of the St Hilary’s Network.