Praing Twice: The Music and Words of Congregational Song

By Brian Wren
WJKP. 2000. 422 pp. Pb. $22.95. ISBN 0-554-25670-8

Reviewed by Melva Costen, Atlanta


There are many who will identify immediately with the title of this book because of the familiar pairing of "prayer and song," attributed to Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.): "Whoever sings [to God in worship] prays twice." Some will be reminded of John Calvin who considered sacred song in worship an "act of prayer."

This connection continues from Calvin to the current PC(USA) Directory for Worship which identifies congregational song as “a response which engages the whole self in prayer” (W-2.1003. Music as Prayer: Congregational Song).

Many readers will identify immediate with the author, Brian Wren — hymnist, theologian, pastor and teacher — whose exciting and insightful texts have inspired, stretched, challenged and above all expressed the full range of the Christian faith.

Regardless of the initial point of identity, this book will become for the reader a valuable resource on the meaning, importance and depth of congregational song.

With well-honed poetic and theological skill, Wren provides practical, theological and prophetic dimensions to the view that congregational song is indispensable to a meaningful enhancement of corporate worship. With so many well-developed discussions carefully designed to flow from one theme to another in each chapter, one senses the author’s urgency to strengthen an understanding of why congregational song is important, and what song can and cannot do in worship.

Of special interest is his exploration of the corporate, corporeal and inclusive nature of congregational song, which he affirms is at best “creedal, ecclesial, inspirational and evangelical.” The choice of lyrics analyzed from such a wide range of congregational music provides evidence of the author’s concern for inclusiveness, issues of justice, ethnic and global music and current worship styles resulting from electronic technology.

Wren emphasizes the importance of congregational song throughout the centuries as one of the most essential ways of praying, praising, thanking and encountering God, and unifying worship communities. His exploration begins with brief glimpses of congregational song in different times and places and in different cultures, past and present, “through all the changing scenes of life.”

Wren is to be commended for his affirmation of and suggestions for incorporating songs in worship that congregations might refer to as “other people’s songs,” i.e., sacred songs beyond the experience, culture and the familiar repertory of a local congregation. After all, sacred songs of “others” indeed express faith experiences shaped by struggles, sorrows, joys, wisdom and hope of members who are also a part of the body of Christ!

The author uses phrases from old and new hymn texts to introduce the subject of each of the 10 chapters as he carefully crafts the historical, scholarly, practical and prophetic content. Although one chapter focuses on “Why Congregational Songs are Indispensable” (Ch. 2), this important theme permeates the book.

Each chapter could stand alone as a theme for a more-detailed study by congregations seeking to encourage or to reclaim the importance of congregational song as communal expressions of theology in song and poetry.

In Ch. 10, “How Hymns Do Theology,” Wren provides an expanded definition of Christian theology, inspired by his exposure to a culture that is not steeped in the European tradition. Thus, some readers will be challenged when freed from the confines of systematic, intellectual reasoned inquiry in order to embrace non-verbal theology, non-verbal knowing and also musical theology, dramatic theology and visual theology.

For one who claims to be an “amateur” musician, Wren — the John and Miriam Conant Professor of Worship at Columbia Seminary — is adept at exploring the power of music in worship as it enables the congregation to shape beliefs and actions, and ultimately to store and to recall memorable lyrics for sustenance and spiritual growth beyond the time of corporate worship. He also acknowledges his relative newness (as an Englishman) to American so-called “contemporary worship music.”

After experiencing and studying a variety of services and analyzing writers whose publications are on the cutting edge of the subject, Wren offers suggestions that will help abate some of the negative opinions currently in vogue, and/or open new avenues of thought.

This book is written with a broad range of readers in mind: ministers, seminarians, worship leaders, musicians and people who consider themselves unmusical, people who enjoy singing and care about the words that are sung in worship. I also recommend that sessions, music and worship committees and congregational study groups consider using this book as a study guide in order to stretch their understanding of the importance of congregational song as a means of praying twice — and again and again!