A Revolutionary Question for the Evangelical Church (and the Participants at the “Sing” Conference)

There is a wonderful conference going on just now in Nashville – one that I would dearly love to be at! This could also be a revolutionary conference which may have a catalysing effect upon the whole American church.

Keith Getty’s Sing will have 7,500 participants – mainly pastors and worship leaders. It will be addressed by people such as John MacArthur, Alistair Begg, John Piper, David Platt, Ravi Zacharias, Nancy Guthrie, Ligon Duncan,  Paul Tripp, Tim Keller, Stuart Townend, Trip Lee, Shane and Shane and many others.

And the theme for this year is the Psalms.   Although I am not able to be present I hope to be able to listen in on-line. But I thought I would ask one question of my American brothers and sisters (and my English,  Irish, Australian and Scottish) which genuinely puzzles me –

Why don’t you sing psalms?

It’s a genuine question to which I don’t actually know the answer.  Of course I know that there are some who do but I have been in many churches in the US (and the UK and Australia) who do not have the Psalms as a regular part of their public (or private)  worship .

I come from the background of a church which used to be exclusive psalm singing. No more. However when we changed our position from singing just psalms to singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19), we set in stone legislation which ensures that whatever else we do, we will always be a psalm singing church. I wondered if that was necessary – after all the Bible is very clear about the need to sing psalms. It’s a command of God, so why would any Bible believing church refuse to obey a command of God? But over the years I’ve come to realise the wisdom of that legislation because I’ve noticed a tendency to go for the immediate, the popular and what is perceived to be the most culturally relevant. We very quickly narrow things to our own personal likes and dislikes and our own cultural context. And the Psalms get squeezed out.

Why Sing the Psalms?

Apart from the command of God – which should be reason enough – here are ten reasons for singing the Psalms corporately and privately.

  • 1) They are the word of God.  The Holy Spirit is the songwriter.
  • 2) They are the songs Jesus sang – As a boy Jesus would have memorized and learned many if not all of the psalms. They would become the soundtrack of his life.
  • 3) They are the prayer-book and songbook of the Bible – as Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out in his wonderful wee book on the psalms.
  • 4) They are post-modern and pre-modern.
  • 5) They are missional –   superb for evangelism in today’s world.  One middle-aged hippy wandered into St Peters a few years ago. Afterwards he told me:” Dave, I loved that, man. Especially the plain chant. Singing 3,000 year old words from Palestine….cool!”   The psalms are poetry in emotion that speak to the hearts of all peoples.
  • 6) They are perfectly balanced combining theology, emotion, justice, evangelism, the personal and the collective. They also contain a wide variety of emotions and teachings.  One young woman told me that she came to St Peters because we allowed her to be depressed.  Whilst ‘the Church that allows you to be depressed’ may not be the best advertising slogan in the modern world, I understood what she was saying.  She struggled with depression – and we sometimes sang songs which gave voice to that depression and allowed her to express it.
  • 7) They are the ultimate in ecumenical and nondenominational because they don’t belong to any denomination or tradition. They are the songs the church has sung throughout the ages and continues to sing throughout the world – these are the songs of the Church Fathers, the Reformers, the Huguenots, the Scots Presbyterians, the English Puritans and the US founding fathers.
  • 8) They are Christological – full of Christ. Look at how often the New Testament uses the Psalms to speak of the life of Christ. You want to know what Christ felt like on the Cross?  read Ps 22.
  • 9) They will revolutionise your private and family worship. Many years ago, not long after I became a Christian, I visited a friend’s house in Tain in the Scottish Highlands. When we finished our meal, the father in the home announced – “now we’ll have the books”. The books? What did he mean by that?   I soon found out. Someone came in with bibles and psalm books. We read the word, we prayed the word and we sang the word. It was for me a profoundly moving experience and gave me an insight into why that particular family were such strong and Godly Christians. Ever since then the Psalms have become the DNA of my life. I read or sing one at least every day. My wee red psalm book goes with me everywhere. In 2011 as I was seriously ill going in and out of a coma in hospital, my family did not know what or how to pray. I was in great distress. So every night they sat and prayed a psalm with me. A consultant friend laminated Ps 91 amongst others and stuck them to the wall beside my bed. They sustained me.
  • 10) They will revolutionise your church worship. Your congregation is what they sing.  We memorise what we sing.   If you sing the psalms your congregation will have a vast amount of Scripture stored in their minds and hearts. Last night in St Peters we sang the Getty version of Psalm 8 (we also sang in the course of yesterday parts of Psalm 107 and Ps 25 – one third of our singings were direct psalms).  It was beautiful. Some regard our USP (Unique Selling Point) in St Peters as being that we sing psalms. One impeccably orthodox man wryly remarked “I just can’t get my head round that psalm singing thing”!   Why? I don’t understand why every evangelical church doesn’t sing psalms. If you want to worship in Spirit and truth, would it not help to use the song book that the Spirit of Truth has himself inspired?

The version of Psalm 91 from Sons of Korah.

Why would this have a revolutionary effect? To me it is like one leg of a four-legged chair which the church needs reformation in (the other three being prayer, preaching and persuasion).   The Church exists to worship God.

Have you ever noticed how we tend towards imbalance and extremes?  I think there has been an over reaction against the extremes of regarding public worship and keeping the Lord’s Day as almost the sole priority of the Church. That over reaction has resulted in a situation where we now have evangelicals thinking it is legalism to set aside a day for worship, and false doctrine to teach that when we gather in public worship we are coming into the presence of God.     It is of course true that you don’t just meet God in church (the gathering of the Lord’s people), but it is also true that in the corporate prayers, preaching and praise of the Lord’s people you are far more likely to meet Him!   The over reaction against sacerdotalism, sacramentalism and false spirituality has resulted in what Tozer called the ‘jewel of worship’ going missing.     We gather on the Lord’s Day not just to get a lecture and teaching, nor just to meet with our friends/club. We gather to meet with the living God and worship him. The psalms will help us recover that balance.

This is not about the next big thing –   something that you can package and sell. This is about something that has been the very essence of the church throughout the ages – and yet which much of the modern church seems to have lost.

If any at the conference read this article can I plead with you not just to let this be another conference you have enjoyed.   Enjoy the great speakers but may you go away thinking of the great songs God has given you…not the great talks pointing to them!  Please be doers of the word, as well as hearers. I hope you will go away singing….Psalms.

Can I make the following practical suggestions. ?

  • IMG_0882
  • Keith chillin’ at home
  • Encourage Keith Getty in his psalm writing projec

I have great admiration for Keith and Kristyn Getty and the work that they do.  I love the vision of the Sing project and these conferences.  And I love Keiths passion for the psalms.  I pray that the Lord will use him as a catalyst to get the whole church singing the psalms again.  Encourage him!

  • Get a good contemporary version of the psalms that can be sung to familiar (and sing-pslams-563x1024some not so familiar tunes).  The Free Church has produced Sing Psalms which is a new metrical version in contemporary English, translated directly from the Hebrew (you can get copies from the Banner of Truth or from the Free Church)   There is also a wonderful  Sing Psalms app which gives you the words and suggested tunes –
  • Resolve never to have a congregational worship service without at least one song from the songbook of the Bible.
  • In your personal and family devotion remember – a psalm a day keeps the devil at bay!
  • Sing psalms with variety – acappella, simple accompaniment, stringed instruments and in a variety of styles.   The psalms can be done blues, classical, folk, Dutch, country and western and best of all, Celtic!

To whet your appetite – here are a few to help and give you ideas.   These are just from my own congregation – they are recorded live and so perhaps lack the ‘polish’ of studio recordings, but they show what can be done.

Firstly there is the psalm which we sing at most communions as we ‘rise from the table’.  It has become a kind of theme tune for our congregation.

Then there is this instrumental version of Ps 62 (Keyes/Townend)

Then this song/prayer of lament and confession….we often sing as our Confession of sin. Ps 51

Finally this ‘Celtic’ style version of Ps 139

PS.  This from Babylon Bee sums the situation up well!

ASTORIA, OR—While attending a worship leaders’ conference Tuesday, local worship leader Jake “Freebird” Watson lamented that God didn’t just leave the churches of the world a whole book of worship songs to employ in corporate worship.

Watson stated that if he had been in charge, he’d definitely have inspired an entire book of praise and worship songs expressing a wide range of emotions and declaring various truths about God.

“I’m not saying we’d have to sing them all the time, but it would have given us a whole bunch of songs to draw from,” Watson told another worship leader attending the conference as both sipped iced macchiatos in between sessions. “He could have put it right in the middle of the Bible for easy access.”

“The songbook wouldn’t have to be exhaustive, either—just maybe slap like 150 tunes or so in there and call it a day,” he added, adjusting his beanie.

The worship leader claimed such a book would have helped worship leaders and music ministers add more accurate theology and passionate, inspired singing to the Lord, and further would have prevented worship leaders from playing so many songs written by all the borderline-heretical worship bands out there.

“I’m not questioning God’s wisdom—just saying I definitely would have left a bunch of worship songs for the people to sing,” he concluded.

The Prayer of the Weak and the Joy of Singing Psalms

39 thoughts on “A Revolutionary Question for the Evangelical Church (and the Participants at the “Sing” Conference)

  1. Twice every day at Sunday Mass/Eucharist/Communion and Evensong for most liturgical Churches, and also during the week at Morning/Evening Prayer and any Communions then. It’s a legal requirement set by Parliament that every ordained priest of the Church of England read/pray Morning and Evening Prayer including psalm(s) daily, whether in public or not. The whole Psalter is set to be systematically sung/read through every month, from 1 to 150 (though it usually isn’t – that’s a LOT of singing! But some always is.).
    The old Fathers and Archbishop Cranmer would be right behind you, and many a choirboy whose memory is assisted by Coverdale’s more amusing (mis?)translations and majestic 16th century language. And the attention required to sing prose to music, by the old “pointing” system, helps to keep the mind on the words whether you’re singing all of it or just a “responsorial” verse repeated between sections sung by a cantor or choir.
    Maybe it’s part of the reason I’ve never got on with “free” (in all its various senses) worship – sometimes a framework round freedom has its uses.
    (See also: Lectionary – another device for preventing us skipping the “boring” bits!)
    God’s blessing on your people rediscovering the beauties of psalmody!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. When I turned 40; Almost 23 years ago, I have two friends come daily into my kitchen at Lake Joy; Carnation WA to sing Scripture. I had many homemade tunes. Various Psalms, and even Philippians & Revelations etc. My husband made slant boards, and I copied out the passages of Scripture from my Bible to put on paper with pretty colors. We stair-stepped/weight lifted while singing. Stopping to jot notes as to what God put on our hearts. Each lady had her own sets of verses. They said that The Word became theirs. When they went to church the verses the pastors spoke were what they delighted in.

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  2. In the first 8 years of our missionary work in Indonesia the church denomination under which we served was “Psalms Only” territory with a grudged hymn occasionally. Coming home to the UK we often came away from church services wondering at the shallowness of what was being sung. I’m going to circulate this article to the music folk in our church. Thank you so much for posting.

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  3. “They are the ultimate in ecumenical and nondenominational because they don’t belong to any denomination or tradition. They are the songs the church has sung throughout the ages and continues to sing throughout the world – these are the songs of the Church Fathers, the Reformers, the Huguenots, the Scots Presbyterians, the English Puritans and the US founding fathers.”
    I got quite excited at the beginning of that. Ecumenical. Non-denominational. Sung throughout the ages. This is hopeful. Then we have that massive jump, so common in certain quarters: ‘the Church Fathers, the Reformers’. Heart sinks. The ecumenism and the non-denominational didn’t go quite as far as I had anticipated. Ah well.
    “The psalms can be done blues, classical, folk, Dutch, country and western and best of all, Celtic!”
    Came across this while following up on this article. The source might be surprising.
    “Chanting the Psalms is the Easiest Way to Sing”

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  4. Interesting that the evangelical church might return to singing the Psalms. The RCC, Orthodox, and high Anglican never stopped, so perhaps this could also influence greater, biblically-sound ecumenism among the branches of Christianity. I certainly pray so! All in all, though, I’m pleased to know that evangelicals are conferring around the “songbook of the Church” this year in Nashville. God bless them! And blessings to you, too!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Good to have your thoughts on this David. Can I recommend having a listen to Pete Crockett’s work in the psalms – see this one:

    (his site is http://www.petecrockett.com)

    Also, just to let you know that the New Scottish Hymns Band are in the process of recording more psalms – the next album will be a collection of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Homegrown, gotta love it 🙂

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    1. Thanks for your post. I don’t agree but I’m sorry that I don’t have time to respond properly. I don’t agree that the Psalms are not used in the NT church and I don’t agree that the OT is not Christian!

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  6. Thank you for this article. It provoked some good thoughts.

    Here are a few thoughts I have:
    -There is evidence that the early church made up new music (like the “Christ hymns” of Philippians 2 and Colossians 1). So they were not only singing Psalms, but writing new music out of their cultural contexts.

    -What is the difference between paraphrasing a Psalm (as in your videos above) and writing other Scripture-inspired worship music? If the argument is that Psalms are better because the Holy-Spirit is the author, it seems that would limit you to only singing/chanting the literal words of Scripture.

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    1. Thanks Megan I agree that new songs were written and sung. That’s what it says in the article as well. I don’t think the videos above are paraphrases of the Psalms – but rather a versification. The position of singing only literal words would mean that we only sang Hebrew – that would be as absurd as saying that the Bible is not the bible if translated!

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  7. Thanks for this encouragement to be singing the Psalms in our churches.

    A couple resources that might help. The first includes access to the “Sing Psalms” words. My own sense is that the “metrification” has been highly successful, and it might help others to see examples:

    http://www.thepsalmssung.org/singpsalms/

    The second is (largely? solely?) the work of Julie and Timothy Tennent (the latter, president of Asbury Seminary) who have in earlier times spent several years in Scotland:

    http://psalms.seedbed.com/

    There are probably other quality resources for singing Psalms on the internet. It would be great to have them brought together in one place.

    (I hope my links make it past the WordPress spam filter!)

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  8. What many people do not realize is that Jews would reference an entire Psalm by the opening verse, and, as they all knew the Psalms pretty much by heart having sung them. they would automatically understand the reference made.

    Now, think of what that means when Jesus quoted the opening lines of Psalm 22… they would have immediately thought of the rest of the Psalm and would have realized they were literally seeing it fulfilled before their eyes.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Very interested in this post. I’m CofE. As Karen Watson has said above, we’re supposed to sing the psalter. Common Worship has not changed that. But we don’t. One reason is that most people can’t sing prose.

    To try to do something about this, I have put an updated metrical psalter on my website,
    https://psalmsandpsimilar.wordpress.com
    with tune samples on Soundcloud for at least one tune for each psalm version – some such as many of the Ascents have more than one version, in different metres. There are links from psalmsandpsimilar.

    It’s taken me some years to do this. I’ve now also put almost all the Common Worship Canticles (in Scots, Paraphrases) into metre as well. There’s some evidence that the Early Church may have sung some of these. Some of them at the moment, you’ll still have to find by reading through the blogposts, but I’m working on a second edition.

    Can I get people to sing them though?

    Please have a look at the site, spread the news that they are there, and unless you really don’t like them, encourage other people to use them too.

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    1. “Most people can’t sing prose” – Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think brains or voices have changed much in the fifty years since I learned, by pretty much the same method we learn to speak and read. Congregants of my vintage and above still join in, with nothing more than the text, verse by verse in their Book of Common Prayer, to sing from. And even our lovely Danny, multiply disabled in a wheelchair and only able to make inchoate noises, roars his contribution with all the love of God and music in the world!
      But the courage to sing out loud is increasingly lacking in others, even in those Churches where everything is so “produced” and amplified you needn’t fear anyone but God hearing you. In the clip above, a good point the speaker made is that few nowadays appreciate the music of their own language or the natural rhythms of speech – so they don’t see how easily actual music can be added to it. This famous setting (Psalm 150 – C V Stanford) is a lot more simple than first hearing would suggest – the same tune for each verse, sometimes sung by one or another group taking turns, and climaxing with descant above and harmony beneath. But you could perfectly easily just sing the tune from start to finish.

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  10. I love the notion of singing the Psalms. When I was in college in the late 70’s and early 80’s, I was introduced to the music of John Michael Talbot. He is a layman but is a member of what is known as a third order Franciscan. He helped to create the Little Portion Hermitage in Arkansas. A community consisting of monks, laymen and women, families and single folks… living as a Franciscan community.
    The music he sang (still sings) was /is that of the Psalms.
    It was /is not exactly traditional but melodic, purposeful and hauntingly beautiful just the same.
    Come to the Quiet was my favorite album (yes the vinyl variety ; ) )
    with the song of the same name based on Psalm 131

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have his album of the Psalms in song. I love them very much and they inspire me to praise,honor,and worship our Heavenly Father,His son,and the Holy spirit. It’s only been fairly recently that I learned that Jesus sang the Psalms and I feel closer to Him when I hear a Psalm done to music. John Michael Talbot has composed beautiful music to the Psalms that tug at your heartstrings. Come to the Quiet is my favorite. Thank you for posting it, God bless.

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  11. Really appreciated this post.

    I grew up in a tradition (Presbyterian) that often sang metrical Psalms. Some were awesome, but many of them did not resonate. I think a lot of metrical psalters focus on literal translations of the text, often to the detriment of translating the powerful emotions of the psalms. And the whole point of poetry is emotional impact. There’s nothing worse than singing a powerful lament with a trite versification that makes it sound like a nursery rhyme.

    I’ve spent the past few years as a songwriter trying to solve that issue. I write Psalm arrangements that are focused on getting the emotions to translate. Would love to hear what you think. Here’s one from Psalm 69. https://youtu.be/LRiAJsVc-Gk. You can hear the others at http://www.wendellk.bandcamp.com.

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  12. For several years now I’ve been enjoying listening to portions of the psalms as sung by Sons of Korah. Their choices of psalms including a much wider range of emotional experiences than I often find in the hymns and songs usually sung in the churches I’ve attended.

    Great article, David, as always.

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  13. Thanks, David, for starting this fascinating interchange of ideas and experience. Having been involved in producing Sing Psalms and also versions of the Psalms in Hindi while in India, I have grown to love and appreciate the Psalms more than ever, even when we now sing hymns in the Free Church! The full text of Sing Psalms (and also Sing Scripture) is available on https://freechurch.org/resources/praise/
    The music edition is available from the Free Church Offices.

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  14. I am an English worship leader, currently director of music at Apostles Anglican church, Knoxville. I grew up singing the Psalms when I was a chorister at Peterborough Cathedral. My main musical background in in pop, folk and rock music (I was signed with Virgin records in an indie band) and so discovering that there was something called contemporary praise and worship music was something of a revelation for me. I love both traditional worship and modern expressions, and was always disappointed that we never included Psalm singing when I was invited to join the worship music team at our church in London (Holy Trinity) ..other than excerpts from them which were used in modern songs. I have since discovered an eight note method for singing the Psalms (when pointed correctly) that allows the entire congregation to sing them either with the choir (at our traditional service) or with the band when we include them at the contemporary informal service. There are two or three great ones out there, and I write new ones for teh different Liturgical seasons to ring the changes. It is and excellent way to sing all or part of the daily Psalms, and draws on the ancient traditions of the church including the Sternhold and Hopkins traditions that filled churches and homes with Psalm singing for hundreds of years in England from around 1580. Have a go! It is a greatand simple thing to add to your worship, and does not require a cantor, worship leader or ‘Clerke of ye churche’ …!

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  15. One of the most striking factors of many of the songs that emerged from new churches in the 1970s and 1980s was how many of them were based on Psslms or other scriptures. There has been a noticable decline in the use of scripture for new songs in recent years, and this has coincided with far more songs being me-centred rather than God-centred.

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  16. David, any hints as to how one can find out a bit more about your eight note method? What does it sound like, is it prose or verse based and how suitable really is it for congregations to sing rather than listen to? Are there any samples anywhere?

    I can’t find any way of emailing you off this board, but if you would prefer to correspond off board, you can email me via my own website (see reference above).

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  17. I discovered psalm singing in January when I found the corner room’s two album of psalms, and I haven’t been able to enjoy any other music since! All I sign now are psalms from these two albums. My kids know them and now my non-believing wife is starting sing them with me.
    http://cornerroommusic.com

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