If you’re from a traditional Reformed church, especially in the URC or OPC, it’s more than likely that your church government affirms the singing of psalms in services. This is a key distinction of Reformed worship, and thus Article 39 of the URC Church Order states:
The 150 Psalms shall have the principal place in the singing of the churches. Hymns which faithfully and fully reflect the teaching of the Scripture as expressed in the Three Forms of Unity may be sung, provided they are approved by the Consistory.
But how can the psalms be practically incorporated into church services, especially in congregations that are not familiar with psalm-singing (or that have lapsed from the practice)? Even if your church uses a songbook that contains psalm settings, such as the Trinity Hymnal or one of the Psalter Hymnals, the congregation may be uncomfortable with these songs or unable to sing them without difficulty. In some churches, there may even be a negative connotation associated with singing the psalms. What can be done, then, to improve such a situation? Here are a few thoughts for your consideration:
- First, the impetus for psalm singing must start at the top. Whether the role in your church falls to your pastor, your elders, your worship committee, or one of your musicians, the person or group responsible for choosing the congregational songs must make a determined effort to incorporate the psalms into worship. While beating congregants over the head with the same psalm settings week after week will not produce the desired results, a well-planned gradual incorporation of psalms and psalm-based songs can be immensely helpful.
- Second, the musicians at your church must work towards the cause. Some of the psalm tunes, especially the Genevan ones, are rather difficult and require more practice on our part than usual. Unfortunately, it is very easy to play these tunes much too slow or much too fast, leaving singers faint-headed for lack of breath. Complicated psalm settings often require more time for practice, so you may have to request that the weekly songs be picked sooner. But the extra practice will certainly pay off, allowing both musicians and congregation to make it through the psalm setting without trouble.
- Third, the congregation must be willing to step outside their comfort zone for singing. The idea of incorporating psalms into the church as “new” music seems backwards, but it is a vital part of the integrity of Reformed worship. Hopefully, the previous two steps will make your church more appreciative of the beauty of the psalms. Perhaps, if there are a small number of favorite psalm settings among the congregants, you can use these more familiar versions as bridges to less familiar ones. Maybe the congregation needs to be encouraged to value the psalms more highly from the pulpit. Whatever the case at your particular church, by God’s grace the end result of your efforts will be a renewed appreciation for the singing of his Word.
More practically, here are some suggestions for how the psalms can actually be incorporated into worship, especially relating to our roles as church musicians.
- Start small. It would be disastrous to sing an incredibly long or extremely difficult psalm setting, such as blue Psalter Hymnal numbers 211 or 235, as the congregation’s first attempt at psalm singing. Instead, look for short paraphrases set to familiar tunes (a fine example is “Whole-Hearted Thanksgiving,” number 14, set to the tune of “To God Be the Glory”). If your church is trying to transition from a more contemporary worship style to psalms and hymns (yes, this does actually happen!), you might be able to use some more modern psalm settings as bridges to more substantial selections. But while starting small is a good idea, we should never be satisfied with a permanently half-hearted attempt to sing the psalms.
- During your church’s service order, is a psalm read regularly? Consider whether you might sing a matching psalm setting immediately afterwards. Make sure, though, that the particular psalm settings picked will be suitable for the current singing ability of your congregation.
- Incorporate psalm settings into your weekly service music. This will attune the congregation’s ears to the melodies, especially the more unfamiliar ones, and enhance their appreciation of the psalms. Try to pick psalms that complement the sermon theme, and be sure to make the lyrics of the songs available to the congregation if at all possible!
Do you have any additional advice to aid in bringing the psalms into worship? Many of you, with much more experience than I have, can probably offer some helpful thoughts. The comment field is open!