If the idea of singing the Psalms for corporate worship is a daunting or outdated proposition, here’s some practical help.
I asked Dr. John Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship and author of The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship: A Brief Introduction and Guide to Resources, to give the worship leader with little to no prior experience in leading the church singing the Psalms, some practical and easily accessible starting points. The following is our mostly unedited correspondence.
Dr. Witvliet, why should we care about singing the Psalms in corporate worship in the 21st century?
JW: First, because the Psalms are a divinely-inspired school of prayer. Then also realize that they offer a point of contact with nearly every human experience: from desolation to gratitude, loneliness to community, anger to joy.
Is it okay if churches don’t sing the Psalms in corporate worship? Isn’t reading them aloud, even responsively, adequate?
JW: Centuries of church history across cultures offer us dozens of fascinating models for how to use Psalms. Have them read by a leader, and echoed by the congregation. Read them back and forth by two parts of the congregation. Punctuate your reading of a Psalm with a simple musical refrain. Rework them to fit well-known tunes. We have the joy of discerning which modes will help congregations in particular culture contexts access the meaning and wisdom and sheer beauty of these texts.
What are the benefits of singing Psalms in Christian worship? Conversely, what are the detriments?
JW: Singing the Psalms helps them sink deeply into our bones. A detriment could be that we can be tempted to sing musical settings that treat them sentimentally, but that’s not really an argument for not singing them.
Is it possible that many evangelical churches in the west have used the Psalms in Christian worship, but perhaps didn’t know it? Can you think of some contemporary songs that are essentially a particular Psalm?
JW: Hundreds of contemporary songs are inspired by particular Psalm verses. Many fewer are settings of an entire Psalm—which is too bad because often the power of a given Psalm comes through the Psalm as a whole. However, it’s wonderful to see a variety of songwriters returning to the ancient tradition of grappling with larger portions of Psalm texts.
Suppose you’re sitting down with a young worship leader who grew up on a steady diet of contemporary worship songs (i.e. Hillsong, Matt Redman, etc.), but is open to explore incorporating Psalms in corporate worship. Where should he begin?
JW: Savor the many new Psalm settings being written by contemporary artists. You can start by typing any given Psalm into YouTube. When I typed Psalm 42 this morning, I not only ran across a classical setting by Mendelssohn, an Anglican chant, and vigorous singing of a Genevan Psalm by a Dutch men’s choir, I also discovered a variety of contemporary settings by people like the Robbie Seay Band and a variety of other contemporary artists.
Younger churches, especially church plants, no longer have physical/paper hymnals, so using a physical/paper Psalter seems unrealistic. Does the church need to spend a lot of money to begin using the Psalter?
JW: You could start by having a leader read a Psalm line by line, have the congregation echo it back, imitating leader’s tone of voice. No extra costs there!
Can a church that isn’t musically trained still use the Psalter?
JW: Absolutely. Start simple. Another approach is to use a simple refrain that is already well-loved, and to sing it after each section of a Psalm reading.
Isn’t using a Psalter culturally regressive?
JW: The Psalms are always out ahead of us—showing us expressions that form, guide, shape our growth in faith. That’s why Bono, David Crowder, and so many other perceptive contemporary artists love them.
Can a church be contemporary, young, “missional,” etc. and use the Psalter?
JW: Yes, perceptive use of the Psalms is one of most missional acts of worship I know. The Psalms create a missional “point of contact” with culture—demonstrating how the whole range of human experience is found in the Bible. And the Psalms also offer a kind of “worldview medicine,” changing how we perceive God in the world.
Any go-to resources. i.e. books, websites, blogs, you especially commend?
JW: We are working at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship to promote thoughtful, honest, missional Psalm-singing. Our publication Psalms for All Seasons features musical settings of all 150 Psalms. Our website includes a Psalm showcase, with several dozen resources. But they are only a start. I think that YouTube can be fascinating resource, if we have the patience to make discerning choices.
Any final words/parting shots?
JW: There are certainly Psalms that need to be treated with great care, the Psalms of protest—just like other challenging texts found throughout scripture. But rather than avoid these texts, I have found that throughout history, God has provided wise and thoughtful interpreters to help understand these texts. Never rush to use a vexingly difficult Psalm without studying this wisdom. Expect the Spirit to teach you a lot through the loving struggle with what God may be saying to the church through texts like these.
Thanks again to Dr. Witvliet for his time and desire to better help us think through singing the Psalms in corporate worship. Find out more about Dr. Witvliet’s work with the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship here.