Getting the Psalms into Worship

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!



6 Responses to “Getting the Psalms into Worship”

  1. 1 Reita Julien February 20, 2012 at 5:54 pm

    the Psalms are my favorites and I don’t believe they are that difficult to sing or play. If accompanists can play, and people can sing the modern rhythmic hymns that they can’t even “count”, they can surely learn the Psalms. Most of them do not have to be sung slow, as they did when I was a kid, but according to the words.
    The words should be emphasized some, as well. Yesterday we sang Psalter Hymnal #370 and one line is broken up right in the middle and people are not even aware of the meaning. “All the powers of nature, shaken by His looks, prepare to flee,” The way is is written, people don’t even realize that the powers of nature are shaken by His looks! The line is sung as if it is “shaken by His looks prepare to flee”. Most people don’t think about what they are singing. Some Genevans are not the best but most of them are, we just are not familiar with them. the people in our church really sing them with gusto!
    Just wanted to give my thoughts on this topic. Thanks for the “article”.

    • 2 Michael Kearney February 20, 2012 at 6:12 pm

      Amen! Thank you so much for sharing this. Your point about the tempo of the songs is especially true. Each tune, I would say, has its own ideal tempo, at which the music can keep flowing, but the singers can avoid passing out as well. (Incidentally, somewhere I read that the Genevan Psalter gave instructions that the tempo of its tunes should be similar to that of an adult breathing normally.) And yes, with psalm settings as simple as those in the blue Psalter Hymnal, we hardly have an excuse for not learning how to sing them. I really appreciated your comments!


  2. 3 Reita Julien February 20, 2012 at 9:17 pm

    I have read some more of your “article” and see that you played for RYF at Dordt. I have played that organ many times yrs ago when we lived in Sheldon, Iowa. Very fun to play that organ. I have also played the organ at Redeemer College in Hamilton, Ontario–totally different! That organ is self-contained and a tracker. It was fun to play, too, but very different. I used to play for the original ARC meetings and then for the URC Synods so I have been able to play lots of different organs.
    Just wanted to also tell you that we are trying very hard to get rid of what we call “the peep note” at the beginning of every line. It is my understanding that that came from when they had no instruments in the churches and the “voor-zinger” had to give the pitch. It is very annoying! The congregations are so used to it they don’t even know what you are talking about. The organists that have always done it have a very hard time getting rid of it. I don’t know if you know Chris Teeuwsen, but he has gotten rid of it but if you know about it, sometimes you can feel it even with him. Although I have not heard him in a long while now so maybe it is better. The funny thing is they do not do it with the piano.
    I don’t know where you are in relation to the new Psalter Hymnal being worked on but here in Ontario, most of the people we know are not happy to get rid of the blue one. Our church loves the book. Many of the songs they did not know until we came and my husband has very few that he has not picked. He keeps track of all of the ones we have sung and choses very carefully to go with the sermons. We have 2 pre-service hymns before every service that the elder announces and so he is able to chose different ones there as well as the hymn of the month from the blue PH that the kids are learning. Works great! Anyway, thanks again!

    • 4 Michael Kearney February 20, 2012 at 9:49 pm

      Yes, the opportunity to play the Dordt College organ has been my greatest musical experience so far. I’d love to be able to play on a variety of different pipe organs, but on Long Island they are sadly scarce. You described Dordt’s organ well though–it’s just plain FUN to play.

      You mentioned that you’ve played at the URC synods–I wanted to ask if you were the “official” organist at those meetings. Synod 2012 is meeting about two hours from where I live, so I might end up there!

      I have never heard of the “peep-note” before, but come to think of it, I have heard a few recordings of songs in which the organist would start the first note and the congregation would join later. It certainly seemed disjointed to me, so it’s probably for the best to remove it. Personally, I tend to have the opposite problem–on the organ, I sometimes don’t pause long enough at the end, and run right into the next verse.

      Here in West Sayville we’re fairly supportive of the URC’s Hymn Proposal, though I’m not sure what our church’s reaction will be to the Psalm Proposal when it comes out. Since our church is actually coming out of a more gospel-hymn-centered repertoire and slowly returning to the psalms, I think the general consensus is that the new Psalter Hymnal is a step in the right direction. This is probably because there are fewer traditions and memories associated with the settings of the blue Psalter Hymnal in our church than in many traditional CRC/URC churches. Still, I’m reluctant to have the time-tested songs of the hymnal unnecessarily changed–especially, as you mentioned, when congregations are still learning and appreciating them today.

      It’s great to hear that you sing widely from the selections of the Psalter Hymnal in your church. At our church, there is a small group of songs that people know and can sing, but venturing outside this comfort zone is very difficult for the congregation. For now, I’m trying to gradually bring the Psalter Hymnal tunes into our service music, with the hope that one day our church will be as familiar with them as a church like yours.

      Thanks for taking the time to talk!


      • 5 Reita Julien February 21, 2012 at 8:40 am

        I believe firmly that it is mostly the ministers fault that the congregations do not know the songs in the Psalter. When I was a kid in GR, the minister did not take much time to find songs that went with his sermon, he just chose the ones he liked—which is why there are certain ones that I don’t even have to take the book out of the pew for.
        A suggestion for you for “time” between stanzas. First, do you sing a long? If you do, then you know to hold the last note, take a breath and start again. You can hold the note as long as you want and then take a definate break and begin again. Dale Grotenhuis said that he had never heard and organist do it as well as I ( don’t mean to be tooting my own horn) , and I attribute it to having played in Canada and trying to figure out how to get them over that peep note thing. The first time I heard it, I almost went nuts. More of the churches have tried to get rid of it now, even the Canadian Reformed Churches. It has become such a habit, it is hard to get rid of it.
        As to being official organist for synod, I did not had that title, it just kind of happened. The first time I went to a meeting with my husband just to sit in the back and knit and one of our minister friends grabbed me and said we need an organist. That was back in the middle 80’s and I played for all of them through the meeting in Escondido, 2001. Loved doing it and miss it.
        Where did you grow up and have your organ training? I grew up in GR, Mi. and took lessons from Mrs. Alice Lantinga at LaGrave CRC and a lot of what I learned has been from my husband, as to correct Reformed music, and listening to others methods and “mechanics”.

      • 6 Michael Kearney February 21, 2012 at 7:31 pm

        Very true. Everyone in the church–pastors, musicians, and congregants–needs to be willing to step outside the comfort zone and try unfamiliar psalms and hymns once in a while. Of course, not needing the book for some of the familiar ones isn’t always a bad thing…

        Thanks for your comments on the timing issue. During my chamber music instruction, I was told again and again to breathe with the music as if I were singing it. I know that’s what I should be doing–most of the time, I just don’t. Also, when I play organ, there’s usually a pianist accompanying me, so I tend to get preoccupied trying to make sure they’re with me as well. (We always have trouble communicating during the service anyway, because the way the front of the sanctuary is set up, the pastor is always standing right in our line of sight.) In good time, hopefully I’ll get that pause at the end worked out. And Dale Grotenhuis is a name I’m excited to hear! I have a CD set of some of his music projects from Dordt–what a gifted musician!

        I was born and raised (well, and continue to be raised) here on Long Island, NY. Our church in West Sayville is one of only three URCs in New York State, and the only one on Long Island. Churches that still worship in a “traditional” style–as opposed to a rock-band style–are scarce here. So the only real opportunities I’ve had to learn the ins and outs of Reformed worship music have been in our own church. Thankfully, the organists here at West Sayville (Mrs. Betty Miller and Mrs. Nancy Almodovar) have been very helpful in teaching me a great variety of ideas and techniques, for which I am very grateful. I’ve also benefited a lot from regular piano lessons, and my involvement in orchestras and chamber groups (which I mentioned earlier). I really do look up to church musicians like Dale Grotenhuis, with so much more knowledge and experience than I have. But I guess the main thing I’ve come to realize regarding church music is just that there’s always more to learn.


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