Music ministers compare notes during a pandemic

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An informal survey of Texas music ministers revealed two-thirds of the churches they serve currently offer both online and in-person worship services, and average in-person worship attendance is less than 40 percent of the pre-pandemic level.

Nearly all of the churches continue to practice congregational singing in their worship services, but more than half in the COVID-19 era do not have a choir.

John Bell, multimedia director and assistant minister of music at The Worship Place in Georgetown, surveyed members of the Singing Men of North Central Texas to find out how their churches are handling worship at this point in the pandemic.

“In the Singing Men, we always want to know what everybody else is doing in their churches—particularly now,” Bell said.

So, Bell put together the questionnaire using Google Survey. He sent it to members of the Singing Men of North Central Texas on June 26 and asked them to respond over the weekend. He compiled the results on Monday afternoon, June 29.

Bell received about 80 responses. After eliminating duplication, the completed survey represented 66 churches.

While not a scientific survey, his findings offered a snapshot of churches—nearly all Texas Baptist—covering an area from Round Rock to the Red River.

Survey says …

Average worship attendance at the individual churches ranged from 35 to 3,500 before COVID-19. Peak average in-person attendance at any church now is 800.

On average, the music ministers reported in-person worship attendance at their churches is 38.5 percent of pre-pandemic attendance.

The music ministers reported 65.4 percent of their churches are meeting both in-person and online, 17.9 percent are exclusively meeting online and 15.4 percent are meeting exclusively in-person.

Almost all—96.2 percent—of the churches include congregational singing in their worship services or will include it when they resume meeting.

The status of church choirs is considerably more complicated. Only 14.1 percent of the churches have a choir in the loft on Sunday morning or definitely will when they resume gathering; 10.3 percent of the churches didn’t have a choir before the pandemic; and 57.7 percent either don’t currently have a choir or won’t when they resume in-person worship. The remaining churches reported having praise teams of varied sizes or offered other responses.

Music ministers from less than half of the churches—43.6 percent—said their services would not be affected by Gov. Greg Abbott’s June 25 announcement that he is pausing the state’s re-opening. More than one-fourth—26.9 percent—said the governor’s announcement would affect their plans, while 15.4 percent said it might and 14.1 percent were uncertain.

However, when asked if their churches started holding in-person worship services and were deciding to pause again, seven out of 10 (71.8 percent) said “no,” while 6.4 percent said “yes,” 11.5 percent said “maybe,” and 10.3 percent was uncertain.

When asked about wearing masks in worship, music ministers from 57.7 percent of the churches said they were optional, 23.1 percent said they are required and 11.5 percent require worshippers to wear them until they are seated. Other responses included requesting but not demanding that worshippers wear masks and requiring only ushers to wear them.

Bell noted he may conduct a follow-up survey in a few weeks to compare results—particularly in light of continuing increases of COVID-19 in some areas and newly implemented local requirements about wearing masks inside public buildings.

Feels ‘kind of weird’

The survey form allowed respondents to include comments if they wished.

One music minister noted his church gathered for in-person worship five weeks after a relaunch, but the congregation will suspend in-person worship for at least two weeks after a couple who tested positive for COVID-19 attended a service.

A music minister at a Central Texas church wrote: “We started meeting the first weekend in June with six services—two on Saturday and four on Sunday. Called off our service this weekend due to high COVID numbers in our county. So we had just three weeks of meeting at church.”

Several music ministers offered projected dates for resuming choir or resuming other activities, but indicated those plans were subject to change.

One music minister candidly wrote about how different in-person worship is during a period of social distancing: “We had a couple join today, and it was kind of weird, because normally people come down and shake hands and hug them. Instead, they stayed six feet away as they came down and just kind of waved and spoke. Some of them gave it the elbow bump. I just thought that was kind of interesting.”

Bell noted his own church, which serves a senior living community, is rethinking plans to resume in-person worship—particularly after he showed the survey results to his pastor.

“He said, ‘Maybe we need to hold off,’” Bell said. “Our average age is somewhere in the 70s, and everybody who lives in the community is 55 or older. So, when anybody talks about the high-risk population, that’s our church.”

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