Congregational Singing

In his book, Praying Twice, author, hymn writer, and professor Brian Wren contends that congregatonal song needs to hold to the following indicatives.

  1. It is corporate. Wren says that singing together brings us together. In singing together we belong to one another. The goal of the activity is not musical, but spiritual. Perhaps best of all, he says that a congregation’s corporate song makes a bold theological statement: “We are the body of Christ.” Ignatius of Antioch says that we sing in one voice through Christ to the Father, so that He might hear and recognize you through your good deeds as members of His son.”[1] His statement is reflective of truly Trinitarian worship that in its corporate nature reflects and comprehends the interaction of God in Three Persons.
  2. It is corporeal. Music stimulates heightened alertness, awareness, and excitement. Wren notes the obvious, that singing is a physical, bodily activity. While many of Puritanical worship traditions struggle to strike a balance of physical movements that seem rightly expressive, yet appropriately humble and not distractive to others, Wren notes the Bible’s affirmation that human flesh, and the human body, are part of the material universe that God created, and Himself affirmed as ‘very good.” (Genesis 1:31) Wren further posits that God did not make us as brains walking on stilts, but as embodied beings. When we sing from the heart, with full voice, some of us use our bodies more thoroughly, perhaps than at any other time during worship. Sometimes attitude follows practice, such that body and spirit and inseparable, and when we sing with full voice our attitude changes. Wren contends that when body attitude combines with deepest beliefs, singers are taken out of themselves into a heightened awareness of God, beauty, faith, and one another. This seems to me to describe a clearly desired end in our corporate worship.
  3. It is inclusive. Almost everyone can sing. This is not to say that everyone’s singing is equally tuneful, or that there is no distinguishing of quality of voice or musicianship. Once again, however, this is not the objective of this singing. Rather inclusivity is expressive of the spiritual act in which we engage in this worship action. Inclusivity in song is a theological value, a corollary of unity. Wren says, “a congregation cannot demonstrate its unity in Christ if people are shut out from its song.” (Note: this seems more reason why division into age-based, or worse yet preference-based groupings misses the point and theological potency of corporate worship) Admonition to make a joyful noise is not just a slogan, it should be a compelling invitation to be part of the worshiping body.
  4. It is creedal. This is a wider meaning that just singing the historic creeds. Rather singing in this way helps us express a believing response in a self-committing way. The words of familiar songs help shape a congregation’s theology, and music summons them in time of need. Some practitioners push back on words like “familiar,” but most often I find such reaction to stem from another agenda, which we will not go into here. When a particular text is sung regularly matched to a particular tune it gains power over our memories.
  5. It is ecclesial. Corporate worship singing offers opportunity for mutuality in ministry by co-ministry through the shared expression of belief, ministry, and mission. Such expression of priesthood of believers is part and parcel of the church being the church. In the act of singing, the members not only support one another, but proclaim a community of faith reaching beyond the congregation that sings, and identify with the universal worshiping Church. Congregational song is ecclesial when we know that the community sings for us, even when we cannot join in, and that the song joins us with other singers, local and distant, past and present. Martyred Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was said to have been upheld by hymns not only because of their value in personal devotion, but because of their power to connect him to the worshiping Church.
  6. It is inspirational. Unified congregational singing is inspirational, lifting us out of the mundane and the ordinary. Wren believes that such singing puts the words of song in motion, so that they are no longer static sets of words on a page but shapes of sound that exist in time, beginning at one moment, traveling towards a point, and then drawing to a close and stopping at another moment. He comments on how songs can inspire an individual singer, but we would note as well that singing may also engage a local congregation, or even larger body toward Christian action or missional engagement.
  7. It is evangelical. In healthy church environments, singing the truth of the Gospel, reignites evangelical flames among members of the congregation. For unbelievers present among those in a worshiping singing congregation the words and song may well function as Don Hustad states, “to reach out with arms of melody” to those outside the faith. This reaching may occur within the public worship context itself, or may extend through the changed attitudes of believers who depart the corporate worship experience to move with heightened sensitivity to ways they can live out the Gospel in their neighborhoods and communities.

[1] Brian Wren Praying Twice: The Music and Words of Congregational Song (Westminster John Knox Press: 2000) 84 – 97.

Explore posts in the same categories: Choir Ministry, Church Music, Congregational Singing, Leading Worship, Music Ministry, Singing Worship, Spiritual formation through singing, Worship Leaders, Worship Pastors, Worship Reminders, Worship theology, Worship thoughts, Youth Worship

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