Does your church sing the psalms? I don’t mean singing psalm snippets like many modern worship songs do–nothing wrong with that, but it’s not the same as psalm singing–but singing a psalm in its entirety or at least a significant portion.
There is a movement toward psalm singing in modern churches. Many traditional and liturgical churches have often sung the psalms, but I am thankful for this resurgence of psalm arranging and singing. I think every congregation can find its worship voice by studying and interpreting the psalms for their community. I also think it helps us teach the next generation to discover the fullness of the Christian life. After all the psalms explore the gamut of emotions from sorrow to exuberant joy, as well as providing a poetic history of redemption.
People have been singing from the book of Psalms for at least 3000 years. Thankfully, we don’t have the original music that David sang while tending his father’s sheep. Nor do we know the tunes Jesus and the disciples sang. If we knew this music, we might feel constrained to sing only those tunes–I know there would be groups who would advocate this, just as there would be those who rebel against this notion. Instead, God mercifully set us free to sing the psalms in musical genres that are appropriate to our local culture.
The Psalms Project
During seminary I conceived of a way to help congregations do this through what I called The Psalm Project. The goal is to bring artists of many disciplines together to study the psalms and then create works of art based on their study. In 2007 and 2008 we had many versions of this crop up in Chicago, San Diego and Denver. We had some amazing musical, visual and poetic renditions emerge. (If I can find some of the recordings, I will share those here in a future post.)
A Survey of Modern Psalm Singing
The Calvin Institute of Worship has also sponsored several projects along these lines, including one by my friend Bruce Benedict where his church and some friends created a project based around the Psalms of Ascent.
I remember in college hearing Ian White of Scotland speak of his goal to write new versions of all 150 psalms during his lifetime. That inspired me to set a similar goal (so far I have about 10 settings). Here is a psalm from Ian White:
Brian Moss is seeking to do something similar through his Prayer Book Project, though his songs are stated as “inspired by the psalms” as opposed to being psalm settings. He will soon release his second set of songs based on the psalms.
Another group that has made a major impact on psalm singing is The Sons of Korah, getting their name from the biblical group of priests who wrote many of the psalms that David didn’t write. Group founder Matthew Jacoby said this, “The best exposition of the psalms you can do is put them to music.” While this is a professional caliber band and many songs aren’t specifically for congregational singing, the interpretations seek to strictly follow the text and get inside the emotion of the psalms. Here is their setting of Psalm 51:
If you’ve read many of my posts, you know that I love Sovereign Grace Music for writing theologically rich songs in modern musical idioms. Their review of the psalms is no exception. Our congregation has done God is Our Refuge on several occasions and loved it. Here is their “Out of the Depths”:
In the Wakeful Hours: An Album Review
With that exposure to some broader movements in modern psalm singing, I’d like to feature a new project released by Mark Chambers and his church at Westminster Reformed Presbyterian Church in Suffolk, Virginia.
In 2011 their pastor decided to preach through a number of psalms. Mark and church leaders invited the musical members of their church to write new settings to the psalms based on their communal study. Over 25 church musicians participated in the project (not counting the choir).
While the artists didn’t specifically meet to discuss their arrangements, they came with a strong collection of psalm settings that I’m sure their congregation will enjoy and sing for decades to come. It took them about 2 months to produce the project (and Mark wished he could’ve had another month to fine tune the mixes). The only outsider involved was the mixer.
Here’s what Mark had to say about the project:
“For us it was a matter of contextualization. I wanted our people to see that all music does not come out of Nashville and that we have a number of people in our own midst that can contribute quite substantively to the worship life of WRPC. That is why the CD is so diverse. I purposefully wanted it that way, too. I did not want to leave people out of the project because their material was so very different from my own. I have seen in this process our musicians grow as they have been stretched to meet a goal and to also continually rework material. Our congregants have also benefited from it by seeing that our worship life is not limited to CCM and that many people have something to say within our own community.”
Some things I love about this project:
1) Representation of the church – After listening to this project, I feel like I know some of the people of this church. They have poured their hearts and talents in these arrangements. You’ll find many voices and many instruments. One of my pastors used to say worship services should allow “Grandpa and Johnny to worship together.” This project has the diversity of styles that would truly allow all generations to sit together.
2) Fresh and diverse interpretations – I loved the choral setting of Create In Me, but also the Bob Dylanesque setting of In the Wakeful Hours. This project covered many styles, including choral, traditional, rock, folk and even a little gospel/jazz.
3) Multi-voiced – I loved hearing a wide range of musical instruments (guitar, piano, violin, trumpet, bass, drums, organ and many more). It was nice to hear the singers represent all the church’s generations, not just the youngest members. While this might keep some settings from gaining prominence on the CCM top 40 charts, it will endear the songs to their community. A very worthwhile commitment to the longterm worship life of the church!
4) Thoughtful arrangements - Many of the settings felt very appropriate to the lyrics. The psalms cover a wide emotional array and this album’s settings covered that gamut.
5) Outward focused – Many of the psalms have a focus on God’s missionary heart, but that’s not my point here. WRPCA has decided to use all proceeds from this project to support their on-going musicianary work in Austria with the Musik-Brucken project.
***WARNING: This is not an album you can just casually listen to. Instead allow each song to take you into the mood and meaning of the text.***
This album provides an incredible model for churches everywhere to create their own psalm projects, I do have a couple of wishes:
1) Stick to the text – Unless you’re doing as Brian Moss by writing songs inspired by the psalms, I think it’s important for psalm arrangers to stick to the text (changing translations is fine). You’re putting these songs into the minds and hearts of your congregation and it would be best to help them memorize scripture. A couple songs clearly added some new lyrics that will quickly become dated. I remember writing a song with the line, “Let’s roll!” soon after 9/11. My congregation responded negatively and I wisely removed that song from our rotation.
2) Focus on making psalms singable for your congregation – I asked Sons of Korah about why they didn’t make all their songs congregation friendly and their answer was they are a performance group. I have no problem with performance songs, I’ve written quite a few. I don’t know how many of the WRPCA authors were seeking to write for the congregation, but I believe we need many more psalm settings written for the congregation.
What do you think?
I’m very encouraged by this project. I hope many other churches take up this charge and create psalm settings they will sing and share with the rest of the world.