To sing, or not to sing?

There are no one-size-fits-all answers

Russell Adrian directs Hesston College’s Bel Canto Singers on April 21 at Hesston Mennonite Church, singing for the Hesston Chamber of Commerce. — Larry Bartel/Hesston College Russell Adrian directs Hesston College’s Bel Canto Singers on April 21 at Hesston Mennonite Church, singing for the Hesston Chamber of Commerce. — Larry Bartel/Hesston College

To sing, or not to sing, could be the question. To hum, or not to hum, could be another.

Last May, we at MennoMedia shared guidance from the Center for Congregational Song encouraging people to refrain from singing in person altogether due to the high risk for transmitting COVID-19 from singing.

With vaccination increasing, is it time to change our tune and encourage singing again? Or to stay the course?

Doctors and public health professionals have learned a lot about how the coronavirus is transmitted, what kinds of protections help stop the spread and how to reduce the risks

“Some of our worst anecdotal outbreaks have been related to choirs or church gatherings, so we know that this is a really high-risk situation for congregations and individuals attending those congregations,” said Dan Nafziger, an infectious disease specialist in Goshen, Ind.

Practical considerations

Consider the following mitigation factors when making your congregational plan. Mark Shelly, an infectious disease specialist in Danville, Pa., encourages congregations to build these layers upon one another to help reduce the spread of the disease.

TIME: How long is the group together? How long are they singing? Shorter is better than longer. If getting together inside is important, what parts of church life should be done inside, and for how long?

Shelly and Nafziger want congregations to think strategically about the value of something happening in person or indoors. Then move other parts of church life to Zoom or outdoors. This will minimize the amount of time spent together.

SPACE: Once you are a solid 6 feet apart outdoors, you can do just about anything you want, Shelly said. But any time you are less than 6 feet apart, and certainly within 3 feet, it’s less clear that being outdoors matters.

“If you’re going to sing, you probably should be masked,” Nafziger said. “If we’re willing to be 10 to 12 feet apart, then you might not need masks outdoors. If you are talking about 3 feet, people should have their masks on, even outside. It also depends on the disease activity locally.”

VENTILATION: If your group can be outdoors, that’s better. Data on transmission show it’s about 20 times safer to be outside. When inside, keep sanctuary windows open, if possible.

VOLUME: Volume matters. “If you have a vigorous singer behind a mask, that’s the same level [of transmission] as someone speaking normally without a mask,” Shelly noted. Singing quietly is safer, so humming is safer too.

Each church is unique and needs to make decisions based on all these factors. Look too at the level of community spread and your local health department guidance, says Paul Shetler Fast, global health coordinator with Mennonite Central Committee. Local risks vary and can change quickly, so local public health guidance should be a minimum standard as you decide what is best.

If a congregation is seated indoors in “family groups” 6 feet apart, is it OK to sing? Nafziger does not advise doing so right now — even with masks — based on current disease spread and low vaccination rates.

What about singing a couple of songs at the end of the service, with congregants wearing masks, so that people who would prefer not to be present for singing can leave without missing out on anything else? “This is better than singing throughout, but after the two songs everyone should get up and leave,” Nafziger said.

Fast added: “An even safer alternative would be to save congregational singing for outdoor hymn sings. For those doing indoor services, consider instrumental music (or mic’d performers) instead of congregational singing while risk in the community remains elevated.”

Ethical considerations

Don’t go to church if you aren’t feeling well or if anyone in your household isn’t feeling well.

“We need to help people not feel guilty about missing church,” Shelly said. “This is a good time for you to be electronically connected.”

With millions of people now having received a COVID vaccine, some churches are wondering if it’s OK to gather vaccinated groups together in the building. None of the experts was keen on separating the vaccinated from the unvaccinated. This could create pain and bitterness.

However, if a pastor knows 50% of the congregation is vaccinated, that can help a church set guidelines for what can be done together in person.

So, should you sing or hum or something in between? There are no one-size-fits-all answers. Politely bow out if you aren’t comfortable with the guidelines in your church. Respect your church’s restrictions even if you wish there weren’t any.

These are hard decisions, so show kindness and compassion to those making decisions for your church.

Since writing this article, the CDC issued guidance on “choosing safer activities.” Find a helpful chart here.

Amy Gingerich is publisher and executive director of MennoMedia.

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