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. ?
- 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 some 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.