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story.lead_photo.caption Pastor Jesse Curney III of the New Mercies Christian Church in Lilburn, Ga., watches Praise and Worship singer April Thompson perform during the Aug. 2 church service. (Steve Schaefer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

ATLANTA -- Going to church on Sunday is centered around hearing the Word.

And while the sermon feeds the mind, it's often the music that stirs the soul and reinforces the pastor's message.

For many Georgia churches, however, the musical experience -- just as the service itself -- has had to change because of the coronavirus.

Before the pandemic, the large sanctuary at New Mercies Christian Church would be filled with the rousing voices of dozens of choir members singing "Every Praise" and "Grateful."

These days, there are only six or seven singers, spaced at least 6 feet apart. There are no hugs and no sharing of microphones. Temperatures are checked at the door.

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Screens are set outside for those who want to watch from there.

Music "brings people to worship," said the Rev. Jesse Curney III, senior pastor of the Lilburn, Ga., megachurch, which has about 2,800 people who attend Sunday services and where services are shorter and livestreamed -- for now. The church has four different choirs -- men's, women's, young adult and mass choirs. The mass choir is a combination of the three. "It's engaging. That hasn't changed. Music still touches the strings of one's heart."

Many denominations still recommend that churches continue to hold virtual services or allow a limited number of people in the building.

There's good reason to be concerned; some choir members are older or have pre-existing conditions.

Across the United States, and in Georgia, covid-19 outbreaks have been tied to church-related services.

Several people became ill after attending a March 1 choir reunion at the Church at Liberty Square in Cartersville, in northern Georgia.

Also in March, in Skagit County, Wash., dozens of people contracted the highly contagious disease following a 2.5-hour choir practice attended by 61 people, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

Transmission, according to the CDC, was likely because of people standing less than 6 feet apart, sharing snacks, stacking chairs and "augmented by the act of singing."

Months into the pandemic, churches continue to improvise so members of their congregations can still connect with the musical aspect of their services.

Instead of large choirs, there may be a handful of singers. Some churches use recorded music, use Zoom or have singers record individually in their homes then a technician merges the videos together.

The concern for having church without singing goes well beyond having a worship service without a choir, said the Rev. Donna Cox, a professor of music and coordinator of the bachelor of arts in music degree program and church music studies at the University of Dayton, Ohio.

"The worship and praise movement, using praise bands and worship teams to lead music in the service, is readily accepted across most Christian denominations," Cox said in an email. "What makes worship powerful is deeply connected to the connections created between singers and congregants and between worshippers and God. Raising voices in song is critical to the worship experience for singing churches, irrespective of the style of song performed. From hymns to chants, to spirituals, to gospel to anthems, lifting a song together transforms an ordinary gathering to a supernatural one. This is what is missing when a pandemic makes it difficult, or impossible, for worshippers to gather in one place and sing with one voice."

But just how risky is it to hold church with full choirs?

Researchers seem divided on the extent of the issues.

Some say the act of singing or shouting can spread the virus several feet through droplets or aerosols, although that analysis is evolving. Others are less sure.

Research by Public Health Ontario could not determine the degree to which this contributes to the risk of spreading the virus. It's also not clear if those affected could have gotten the virus through other means.

Jose Jimenez, a chemistry professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has studied aerosol transmission of covid-19.

"Singing is a very high concern," he said. "It would be extremely dangerous and irresponsible to sing as a group indoors, especially without a mask, depending on the space."

For instance, several people singing in a tight space, say a choir room, can create problems. He said some churches may also not have the most efficient ventilation systems.

The main concern, he said, is the aerosolization of the virus when singing, which allows it to linger in the air. "It happens all the time, even when breathing." He said the amount of aerosols expelled is 10 times larger if a person is talking. Those increase much more when a person sings, shouts or yells.

"Droplets fall to the ground or on a surface," he said. "Aerosols may stay floating in the air for an hour or more."

At Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Atlanta, the Mass is sung, so it was important to have the worship experience as close to what it is on a typical Sunday, although the services are currently online.

On Saturdays, the priest and lectors record their parts in the Mass. Choir members listen to music recorded by the band and sing along from their homes, basically creating a "virtual choir." These components are then combined to make it a meaningful worship experience, said LeRell Ross, assistant music director, who has been employed by the church for nine years.

"Everything is done from the confines of everyone's individual homes, so unless the virus is in the home, there's no chance of you getting it from anyone," Ross said. "To celebrate the Mass without music would not feel like a Mass at all. It's an integral part of the worship experience and Mass celebration."

Ricky Dillard, a multi-Grammy-nominated recording artist and gospel music historian, said music has been important to the church and the church movement. Enslaved people would sing spirituals to soothe their situations and increase their faith "that God will bring them out" of slavery, he said.

"We know that music invokes the presence of God as well as ushers us into his presence to receive the Word of God," said Dillard, who lives part time in Atlanta.

His home church in Maryland has two services and about 300 choir members. Since the pandemic, much of the music has been recorded. Only recently has the music team gone back into the sanctuary, and it's just a handful.

"I hate it," he said. "I hate it. We are created to touch each other. It's like intimate family. We hug. We touch. We fellowship. All that has been kicked to the side in this pandemic."

The Bible even references the importance of music in Ephesians 5.

"Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ."

People also point to certain spirituals and gospel songs that have changed their lives.

For recording artist and gospel music historian Ricky Dillard, it was hearing Aretha Franklin on "Amazing Grace," recorded with James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir.

Others cite lyrics to their favorite songs when going through tough times and when they feel God is working in their lives.

Dillard recently released his latest CD project, "Choirmaster." Rather than tour in person, he's doing a lot of social media like YouTube and other online platforms to promote his work.

Trey Clegg, a Spelman College music instructor, has a long career in the field.

Clegg founded the award-winning Trey Clegg Singers, a semiprofessional, multicultural choir. He also serves as music director and organist with First Congregational Church of Atlanta.

He has 80 singers in the Trey Clegg Singers, but they are meeting virtually right now.

There's another reason Clegg is interested. Earlier this year, Clegg was diagnosed with covid-19. He spent a night in the hospital, and it took him months to fully recover.

Clegg doesn't know where he contracted the disease. Possibly from someone who was asymptomatic. Perhaps working with some of his singers. Before having covid-19, he spent time around them several times a day, every day of the week.

"It's a hot topic right now in all churches, regardless of demographic," he said. "The more singers you have, the greater the possibility of having a superspreader in the mix."

At First Congregational, there are now four singers (a professional quartet), he said. Before covid-19, there were between 20 and 25 singers in the choir, both professionals and volunteers.

He remembers what an Episcopal priest once told him.

"Nobody ever left church humming a sermon," he said. "That's how important music is. You would be hard-pressed to find any church that's active, growing and alive without a solid, thriving music program."

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