Singing the Psalms: A Beginner’s Guide

If the idea of singing the Psalms for corporate worship is a daunting or outdated proposition, here’s some practical help.

Dr. John Witvliet

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.

Engaging With God Popularized

David Peterson, who’s masterful book Engaging With God:  A Biblical Theology of Worship is the most referenced and footnoted resource on worship, recently (and quite quietly) released a more practical follow-up, Encountering God jpegTogether: Leading Worship Services That Honor God, Minister to His People, and Build His Church

In a recent interview with the book’s publisher, Peterson was asked what inspired him to write Encountering God Together:

Many peo­ple have urged me to apply this teach­ing more specif­i­cally to con­gre­ga­tional gath­er­ings and to write at a more pop­u­lar level on wor­ship. So my lat­est book is the result and I hope it meets the need that has been expressed.

Here are the chapters:

  1. The Gathering of God
  2. Worshipping God
  3. Edifying the Church
  4. Patterns of Service
  5. Listening to God
  6. Praying Together
  7. Praising God
  8. Singing Together
  9. Baptism
  10. The Lord’s Supper

I’ve read it, and it’s fantastic. Whether you’re a pastor, church planter, elder, music leader—in short, have anything to do with leading congregational worship—this book’s for you. It’s a fairly quick read and will stimulate your thinking and practice about worship and the church.

Read the first chapter here.

What Is Worship? A Working Definition




D.A. Carson, in Worship by the Book, offers a helpful definition of worship, breaking it down into four categories: worship, human worship, Christian worship and corporate worship:

  1. Worship is the proper response of all moral, sentient beings to God, ascribing all honor and worth to the Creator-God precisely because he is worthy, delightfully so.
  2. This side of the Fall, human worship of God properly responds to the redemptive provisions that God has graciously made.
  3. While all true worship is God-centered, Christian worship is no less Christ-centered. Empowered by the Spirit and in line with the stipulations of the new covenant, it manifests itself in all of our living, finding its impulse in the gospel, which restores our relationship with our Redeemer-God and therefore also with our fellow image-bearers, our co-worshipers.
  4. Such worship therefore manifests itself both in adoration and in action, both in the individual believer and in corporate worship, which is worship offered up in the context of the body of believers, who strive to align all the forms of their devout ascription of all worth to God with panoply of new covenant mandates and examples that bring to fulfillment the glories of antecedent revelation and anticipate the consummation.

Worship by the Book, ed. D.A. Carson, contributors Mark Ashton, R. Kent Hughes and Timothy Keller. Reformatted for readability.

So Long, Sin. Hello “Ceasingly Cheerful Worship”

Sin. Lament. Confession.

According to Cornelius Plantinga Jr., senior research fellow at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, these words and concepts are absent in many evangelical—even confessionally Reformed—churches in the United States.

So what’s the dominant tone and tenor of these churches?

Ceasingly cheerful worshiper? Yes. says Plantinga.

Ceasingly cheerful worshipers? Yes, says Plantinga. And it’s not good.

Ceasingly cheerful worship.”

Plantinga, along with The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, spoke at the Ethics and Policy Public Center’s recent 2014 Faith Angle Forum on the topic “Whatever Became of Sin—2014 Edition.”

Read Plantinga’s perceptive comments and consequences of this shift here.

Also read Plantinga’s bracing book Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be:  A Breviary of Sin, or download a condensed article of his book in this free PDF.




Transcendental Worship: An Evangelical Oxymoron?

John Stott:

This quest for transcendence is a challenge for us and to the quality of our public worship. Does it offer what imgres-2people are craving—the element of mystery, the “sense of the numinous”; in biblical language, “the fear of God,” in modern language “transcendence”? My answer to my own question is “Not often.” The church is not always conspicuous for the profound reality of its worship. In particular, we who call ourselves “evangelical” do not know much how to worship. Evangelism is our specialty, not worship. We seem to have little sense of the greatness and glory of Almighty God. We do not bow down before him in awe and wonder. Our tendency is to be cocky, flippant and proud. We take little trouble to prepare our worship services. In consequence, they are sometimes slovenly, mechanical, perfunctory and dull. At other times they are frivolous, to the point of irrelevance. No wonder those seeking reality often pass us by!

The Living Church, pp. 33-34

Worship: The Accidental Funeral?

John Stott:

When I attend some church services, I almost think I have come to a funeral by mistake. Everybody is dressed in black. Nobody talks or smiles. The hymns are played at the pace of a snail or tortoise, and the whole atmosphere is lugubrious. If I could overcome my Anglo-Saxon reserve, I would want to shout, “Cheer up!” Christianity is a joyful religion, and every service should be a celebration. I am told that Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher said before he died: “The longer I live, the more convinced I am that Christianity is one long shout of joy!”

The Living Church, p. 30

The Benefits of Historic Liturgy

Carl Trueman:

…the use of historic liturgy, like the use of historic creeds and confessions, can carry with it powerful biblical impulses: it can give the church service dynamic, intelligent, theological movement; it can prevent people from saying stupid and heretical things in public worship; it can teach people profound theology; it can give people exalted, appropriate, and beautiful language to express themselves; and it can remind us that we connect to a past.

Read Trueman’s take on the benefit of liturgy in contemporary churches here.