I have often been guilty of singing in church because that’s just the expected thing, not giving any thought to what I am singing, much less the significance of my singing in a local assembly.
Brian Wren, in his book Praying Twice: The Music and Words of Congregational Song, has given seven thoughtful characteristics of congregational song (84-97):
Congregational song is by nature corporate, corporeal, and inclusive; at its best, it is creedal, ecclesial, inspirational, and evangelical.
Following is a bit about each of those characteristics.
1) Corporate. “As we sing together . . . we agree, in effect, not to be soloists, self-absorbed meditators, or competitors, but to compromise with each other, join our voices as if joining hands, listen to each other, keep the same tempo, and thus love each other in the act of singing.” Congregational singing was understood in the early church to be theologically significant because it showed the loving unity of all Christians.
2) Corporeal. Physiologially speaking, congregational singing stimulates heightened alertness, awareness, and excitement. [Speaking generally, I assume!] Even beyond vocal production, our bodies are involved — if only slightly — in the singing. Wren moves from our flesh not being intrinsically evil to plug more movement in congregational worship, but I am not convinced that his conclusions follow from his premises.
3) Inclusive. Almost everyone can sing to some extent or another, and in a congregation, it matters little how tuneful one individual’s song is. “Congregational song is healthy when people know they are accepted as they are, want to express their faith, and feel sufficiently convinced about it to make a joyful noise together, knowing they are not performing to one another, but offering themselves to God.”
4) Creedal. That is, congregational song helps us express a believing response in a self-committing way. “Congregational song is creedal . . . because the words of familiar songs help shape a congregation’s theology, and music summons them in time of need.”
5) Ecclesial. Congregational song reminds the singers of their common faith and hope. “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.” Wren speaks of the “spatiotemporal transcendence of congregational song.”
6) Inspirational. Congregational song can lift us out of the mundane and the ordinary. Quoting Linda Clark, “When a congregation sings together, the words of the hymn come alive to them and mean more than just a statement of fact.”
7) Evangelical [or, “evangelistic”]. Wren is not necessarily speaking of songs which directly appeal to the unconverted. He is speaking of congregational song which demonstrates how the church is unified and loves each other.