It Just Ain’t the Same

There are bar­ri­ers to singing cor­po­rate­ly over the inter­net. Maybe that tells us some­thing important.

My lit­tle church, like many church­es, has proven cre­ative in the age of COVID-19. Once it became clear we could not meet in per­son, our lead­er­ship began pre­re­cord­ing ser­vices for video play­back. A few weeks in they fig­ured out how to make the ser­vice a livestream on Sun­day morn­ings, gath­er­ing us togeth­er in time, if not in space.

My fam­i­ly of four has attend­ed these ser­vices in our paja­mas. There are haz­ards, of course. In the absence of pos­i­tive peer pres­sure, there’s a temp­ta­tion to turn our­selves into the peanut gallery and the ser­vice into an episode of Mys­tery Sci­ence The­ater 3000. Also, you can get sleepy on the couch, no mat­ter how stir­ring the ser­mon. Still, for the most part, vir­tu­al church has worked sur­pris­ing­ly well.

Except for one thing.

When musi­cal wor­ship is streamed into our liv­ing room, our fam­i­ly can’t bring our­selves to sing along. My hus­band and I have tried, but the lone­ly sound of two voic­es makes our off­spring cringe and gig­gle. We should have had more chil­dren, I guess — a fam­i­ly large enough to approx­i­mate con­gre­ga­tion­al effect.

It would help if we could see and hear the oth­er fam­i­lies, resplen­dent in their own paja­mas, singing with us. I won­dered why my church didn’t turn the wor­ship por­tions of our ser­vices into one big video chat in which we could hear each other’s voic­es and join some­thing larg­er than the sum of our parts.

Because I had to lead some vir­tu­al wor­ship myself, I researched if there was a way for peo­ple to sing togeth­er and hear each oth­er over a stream­ing ser­vice. My find­ings were not encouraging.

It turns out the issue is laten­cy. Although a livestream allows par­tic­i­pants to view the same feed at approx­i­mate­ly the same time, no two devices are receiv­ing the feed at exact­ly the same time. Inter­net capac­i­ties have advanced to the point where the laten­cy bare­ly hin­ders a video chat. But a video sing – that’s anoth­er story.

It’s sim­ply not yet pos­si­ble for peo­ple to hear one anoth­er singing togeth­er over the inter­net. At least not if you’re seek­ing any­thing oth­er than cacophony.

All those split-screen vir­tu­al choirs are actu­al­ly edit­ed togeth­er one track at a time. Live music streams only stream one way. Wor­ship lead­ers must brave­ly lead into the void, hop­ing fam­i­lies less hes­i­tant than the Arends sing along.

As frus­trat­ing as this tech­no­log­i­cal bar­ri­er is, it’s dawned on me that maybe it’s not by acci­dent that the Church must be phys­i­cal­ly present to ful­ly sing cor­po­rate­ly. Per­haps the rea­son musi­cal wor­ship is so deeply embed­ded in the life of the Church is pre­cise­ly because it demands real-time rela­tion­ship and syn­chronic­i­ty. To sing as a group we must occu­py the same space, fol­low the same beat, breathe the same air.

We must sub­mit our bod­ies to the music in one accord — a mutu­al obe­di­ence in the same melod­ic direction.

How­ev­er long this sea­son lasts, I expect we’ll con­tin­ue to dis­cov­er that the Church is adap­tive, and that nei­ther her present nor her future is in danger.

Yet, even as we learn that the Church is much more than her build­ings and rit­u­als, we redis­cov­er that they actu­al­ly do mat­ter. Right along­side the invi­ta­tion to inno­vate is an invi­ta­tion to ache — to let absence rekin­dle a holy fond­ness in our hearts for the things we’ve tak­en for granted.

“May the God of endurance and encour­age­ment grant you to live in such har­mo­ny with one anoth­er, in accord with Christ Jesus,” the Apos­tle Paul prays for us, ​“that togeth­er you may with one voice glo­ri­fy the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 15:5 – 6).

Yes, Lord. May we endure. May we be encour­aged. May we even sing in our liv­ing rooms, to what­ev­er extent our chil­dren will let us. And, when we are togeth­er again, may we sing to You in one glo­ri­ous­ly laten­cy-free voice … just like we always have, and also like nev­er before.

Carolyn Arends

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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