To Cheer Us By the Way

“Worship, biblically defined, is not at heart an information download.”

Bill Knott

The poll was informal and non-scientific—factors that usually lead us to ignore results.

Participants were self-selected by voluntarily joining a Zoom Sabbath School hosted in the state of Maryland—not the prototypical American state by reason of its proximity to federal power and major urban centers.

Though participants represented a diverse range of cultures and ethnicities, no attempt was made to create a representative group that approximated either the racial or cultural diversity of the suburban location or the nation in general.

“Worship, biblically defined, is not at heart an information download.”

It was, in short, a Zoom Sabbath School class.

But the near-unanimity of responses to the host’s initial question was striking and unexpected.

“I miss the singing,” said the first respondent when the class was asked what they missed most about congregational life since the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered the church 10 months ago.

“The singing,” said the second—“the opportunity to experience something corporate in worship, something beyond my living room.”

“I miss the congregational singing,” said the third, even though the host was clearly hoping for differing responses. “I miss standing there and lifting up our voices together in worship.”

By my count, nine of the first 11 identified congregational singing as the thing they missed most about church life.

And somewhere from the depths of my pandemic-weary heart, the great “Amen” resounded, rolled, and took flight again.

The takeaway from this informal poll—and dozens of others—is not initially comforting to preachers, who typically have found a way to continue their accustomed ministry during this long hiatus by way of Zoom or Skype or FaceBook Live. Perhaps if we had gone months without hearing a sermon, we would name preaching as the thing we missed the most.

But listening to a sermon is, at heart, a solitary event, even an intimate one. The most gifted preachers are those who create a bridge between a deeper understanding of the Word and our distractable minds. They build a bridgehead on our side of each week’s living, and construct a way for truth to walk across and enter our existence.

But singing together—not listening to others sing, but joining in with what voice we have—rich, high, or flat—cannot be replicated by virtual experience. If you’ve tried standing in your living room to join a hymn led by an onscreen chorister, you know just what I mean.

And here, thanks to the unwelcome impact of this pandemic, we glean a deeper understanding of what is truly central to Christian and Adventist worship: singing together. As much as we celebrate the sermon in Adventist church culture, it’s the experience of lifting up our voices in chorus to an awesome and so-worthy God that ties us to the great worship scenes of Scripture.

We hear the traveling pilgrims of Psalms 120-134 as they ascend the climbing paths toward Jerusalem, chorusing their cares, their worries, their solidarity, and their triumphs. We gather with the elders and the living creatures in John’s glimpses of God’s throneroom. Something deep within us stirs as our imaginations join with that “great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev, 7:9-10, NRSV*), crying, laughing with the astonishment of grace, and singing with every fiber of our being—”Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

For singing together is an act of both listening and expressing, merging the pieces of our individuality with the gathered praise of others—blending, modifying, harmonizing—so that the result wonderfully embodies not only “me” but “we.”

Worship, biblically defined, is not at heart an information download where we gather insights from the preacher’s exegesis or amusing stories that remind us of our foibles. It is, instead, those moments when we rise above our loneliness and brokenness, our pride and self-absorption, to sing the goodness of the God who covenants His faithfulness to us.

When church doors open once again, you’ll know just where to find me.

* Bible texts credited to NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.

Bill Knott