November 19, 2020
I am writing today regarding many questions we have received about congregational singing, prohibited under Governor Inslee’s recent statewide Phase 2 order. You may view the entire 4 page document here.
We care about you, and the tough decisions you are facing these days. I understand that there are many opinions about this, and everyone by now has some type of pandemic fatigue/anxiety/stress. In fact, I don’t think it is a stretch to believe that every leader is experiencing grief over the loss of something this year. You have had to make monumental changes and painful decisions regarding this pandemic, and your mind is spinning from pivoting so much. No doubt you have also been misunderstood along the way. This impacts us physically, spiritually, and emotionally as we experience the various stages of grief. These include denial, anger depression, bargaining, acceptance, and eventually meaning/learning. In the midst of it all, I still believe that when the pandemic is over, our communities will remember how the church responded. Hopefully they will remember that we brought the hope of Jesus to them, while loving them well, sharing our abundance, and doing nothing to cause them angst in our efforts to be incarnational, evangelistic, and worshipful.
I am sorry for your pain, and for the pain the governor’s order brings by disrupting yet another important component of our lives by temporarily restricting singing, one of the beloved ways we worship. However, the statistics speak for themselves about the pandemic with over a quarter million deaths in the US thus far. Many among us have suffered the effects of a personal bout with COVID-19, including new names today, and some have lost their lives in the battle with the disease, others have watched their loved ones suffer or die. The disease itself is our enemy, not people who are trying to help stop the spread of the disease. Health care workers tell me that they are at their limits in many of our communities, and persons who once doubted the reality of the disease typically change their mind when the disease hits them. That has been our experience as a network, and we all are suffering in one way or another. Now is the time for us to show our empathy and compassion to the world, as Jesus showed us by His example, and by giving us new vocabulary, from the “Good Samaritan” to the “Golden Rule.”
We have consulted with our attorney, Caleb Stewart, and we are advising our churches to abide by the order not to sing. This makes us sad because we are all worshipers. But how could we respond to this challenge with a worshipful tone, to temper our righteous indignation, particularly given the short-term nature of this order? In addition, there are potential legal ramifications for not complying, which I will mention at the end. With that said, here are a couple of my observations about singing and worship options:
Pastors often set the tone for how people respond to a lot of things. If you make not singing a big deal, it will likely become a big deal for your congregation. Tensions may be high in your congregation about this. How could you help lower the tension?
- We do have other options for dealing with this temporary restriction. After all, it is only for four weeks. This is a time for short-term creativity and teaching our congregations patience, sacrifice, and working together for the greater good. And the good news is, a vaccine is on the way.
- Silence is a spiritual discipline and part of worship that we often neglect. What if you used these weeks to highlight that, and have someone read Scriptures linked to a theme, while asking the people to silently reflect?
- What if you did a series on worship, titled “More than a song?” You could use the time normally devoted to congregational singing to listen (also a part of our worship) to pre-recorded singing while they engage in some other component of worship.
- People who love to sing do so, other people not so much. But we can all worship. I love music, and constantly have instrumental worship music playing in the background as I work. But my singing, not so great these days. It is interesting that Paul told us in Ephesians 5:19 to sing, but to also “make melody in our hearts.” Again, back to the idea about worship is more than a song we sing, we can practice listening not only with our ears, but with our hearts.
- You could just downplay and avoid making any lengthy commentary expressing your feelings about not singing, and state the facts, approaching it as a new opportunity for worship, and let the worship soloist with a guitar (that is about what you can do live under the guidelines) sing. As people are supposed to be masked, they might hum along, or just enjoy the worship “in their hearts” without actually being prodded to sing.
- Worship leaders used to often say, “Just listen to the words of this next verse.” Encourage listening to and meditating on the words of Psalms, hymns, or spiritual songs while instrumental music is played softly in the background.
Play a worship video with scenic backgrounds, and encourage people to think about the wonders of God and His Creation. There are lots of them available. Here is one your elk hunters might enjoy.
- Reflective readings – read a story or poem and ask people to respond in their hearts by reflecting on what the Spirit is saying to them through those words. There are many inspiring stories or testimonies you could use to raise the level of faith and worship.
- Assign families in the church to record videos of them reading specific scriptures together, or even singing together, and add them to the weekend worship set.
- Ask members of the congregation to compose prayers on specific themes or subjects, which they could do at home and then play back a family praying together during the service, etc.
I hope you understand my heart. I am not trying to be facetious, in fact I have observed all of the suggestions above while visiting various churches online. Obviously no governor nor anyone else can stop us from worshipping the Lord or “making melody in our hearts.” So maybe this is an opportunity to grow our understanding of worship. After all, we often say that the church is not a building, it is people, and we should worship not only in the church building, but also at home. What would that look like?
The question is being asked, “is the governor’s order forbidding congregational singing a violation of our First Amendment rights, specifically the ‘free exercise’ of religion?” I have consulted with Assemblies of God legal counsel Richard Hammar about this, and he stated that the Supreme Court has already made decisions in two cases upholding a state’s right to place such restrictions. However, the Supreme Court now has a different makeup, so who knows? We do know that this order is only for four weeks, so it is doubtful that a court case would get to the Supreme Court in that time. We are closely following this situation, as are other Christian legal organizations.
For now, what is at stake if we just ignore the governor’s order about singing and sing anyway? Of course we are all free moral agents, but I would ask pastors to seriously consider the potential issues that could arise from defying the governor’s order, and urge every pastor to not make an independent decision about this without discussing the potential ramifications with your board. While we could not endorse a decision to dissent or practice civil disobedience, I do understand why some would want to do so, as some of our churches have already done. But before doing so, consider what we do know.
Legally, not only would it be a violation of the law, punishable as a misdemeanor under Washington state law (even if there is very little risk of prosecution if past trends continue, by the way), but more importantly it could be used as proof that you or your board willingly violated the law, potentially causing the spread or infection of COVID-19 which could be viewed as gross negligence of your responsibility to follow the guidelines and provide a safe environment for your congregation. Consider the news this week where we hear reports of a wedding in Ritzville, Washington that was reportedly attended by 300 people, and caused the spread of COVID-19. They are calling it a “super-spreader” event. How do you think people in the community would view such an occurrence, especially given the fact that those people present may have travelled from anywhere to get there and back? Even now, contact tracing is in effect to determine how widespread this one event has become. No doubt attorneys will be contacting those persons as well, seeking potential litigation.
You may think that everyone in attendance is in favor of just ignoring the governor’s orders, and would never think of suing you or the church for doing so. However, people’s attitudes tend to change when confronted with the reality of this disease, and especially if they are faced with the death of a loved one, or mounting medical bills they cannot pay. Where do you think they will look for relief if they feel the church, or pastor, or church board are responsible? Your church insurance policy would not cover such a lawsuit if it could be proven that you willingly violated the law, leaving the pastor and board of directors personally responsible for any damages awarded. I have a list of dozens of outbreaks in the US traced back to churches. This does happen and could happen, and the results of a lawsuit for gross negligence could be catastrophic. Only this morning I heard that Tyson Foods is being sued in a wrongful death suit of an employee for ignoring COVID-19 requirements. Judges and juries might be asking the question, “What would a reasonable and responsible person or pastor have done in such a situation?” Chances are that they would not think that violating the law and creating a greater risk would be reasonable, prudent, and responsible. I’m not trying to cause alarm, but to provide perspective.
My heart goes out to all of God’s people in our Network and our nation, and the church around the world who are suffering because of this. Let’s work together for the common good, with compassion, empathy, and kindness. I trust you to be a person of good intentions, and I will respect whatever decisions you might make, even if I disagree. However, I cannot endorse breaking the law through civil disobedience, at least not at this point and for this reason. That day may come, but for now I have a responsibility to do the research and share the facts, that is my duty as Secretary/Treasurer of the Northwest Ministry Network. Just remember, a lot is at stake. I am praying for you, and look forward to the day when this will all be behind us. God bless.
Associate Network Leader – Secretary/Treasurer