How Singing through the Psalms Reveals the Excellence of Jesus

Singing through the entire book of Psalms helped Wasilla Bible Church expand its lyrical breadth. This shared Scriptural repertoire is pointing people of all ages toward Jesus.

When an earthquake sent fourth-graders huddling under their desks, young Theo Stamoolis prayed and sang Psalm 46: “We will not fear, though the earth give way” (Ps. 46:2, NIV). Theo’s dad, Joel Stamoolis, is the worship pastor at Wasilla Bible Church in Wasilla, Alaska. A woman from church later told Joel Stamoolis that reading and singing Psalm 46 helped her fall asleep the first night after the earthquake.

They had psalmody in their memory bank because Wasilla Bible Church spent three and a half years singing through the entire book of Psalms. They began in 2015 on Pentecost Sunday with a Psalm 1 versification from The Book of Psalms for Worship sung to a familiar melody by Joel Stamoolis.

Key phrases—“That man is blessed. . . . He’s like a deeply planted tree beside a water stream, which in its season bears its fruit”—describe how singing psalms shaped the congregation as individuals and as a whole.

“We sang one psalm a week in canonical order,” Stamoolis says. “For Psalm 119, the longest, we sang one stanza per week for 22 weeks. We ended with Psalm 150 on September 2, 2018.” The experience was so formative that sung psalms have remained an important part of Sunday worship.

Seeds

Stamoolis describes Wasilla Bible Church (WBC) as a nondenominational Bible church in south central Alaska. It has about a thousand people of many ages and from many denominations, including people with no church background.

“The motivation for our Psalms Project was pastoral—a desire that our congregation (including me) be shaped and shepherded toward Jesus through singing the psalms together,” Stamoolis says.

The seeds for this project, many sown years ago, can be grouped into four catalysts, he explains. First, in 2008 Stamoolis attended the “Deep Calls to Deep” worship symposium at the London School of Theology. The topics of justice and lament caught his attention. “Like many evangelicals at the time, I was looking for more lyrical breadth,” he says. “Some symposium speakers reminded us that, besides writing new songs about justice and lament, we can do what Christians have done for centuries: We can sing the psalms themselves.”

During a summer 2014 sabbatical, Stamoolis and a church elder studied and meditated on psalms quoted in the New Testament. “When Jesus and other New Testament writers quoted from a psalm, they had the entire psalm in mind,” he says “In the Beatitudes (Matt. 5), Jesus quotes only verse 11 of Psalm 37 (“the meek shall inherit the land”), but that psalm’s desire for righteousness, justice, and peace permeates the Beatitudes. I wanted to know the psalms—whole psalms—the way Jesus knew them as he walked the earth. He and other biblical writers learned the psalms by singing them.”

In early 2015, Stamoolis and his wife, Naomi, taught a class on music and worship at Alaska Bible College. They were reminded that psalmody was integral through most of church music history but has become forgotten in many churches. Stamoolis also listened online to an archived lecture by British theologian N.T. Wright on praying the psalms. He started praying for God to inspire Christian songwriters to set the psalms to music relevant for today.

That’s when the Holy Spirit provided the fourth catalyst for the Psalms Project. “I was praying for others to bring back psalm singing. The Spirit kept telling me, ‘You are a worship pastor. You could do this at WBC,’” Stamoolis says. He had many questions about how to do it, but prayer and consultation with other pastoral staff convinced him that they were being led to sing through the whole Psalter.

Roots

“Like many nondenominational churches,” Stamoolis says, “we sang a mixture of contemporary worship songs, traditional hymns, and songs written by people in our congregation. We rarely sang an entire psalm, and we certainly didn’t sing the breadth of the Psalter.”  Nor did the church have a tradition of following a formal liturgy or lectionary that includes weekly psalm readings.

Yet WBC had already been nourishing roots to support growth in psalm singing. Its core commitments are Christ, Scripture, prayer, authenticity, and community. “These commitments shape everything we do at WBC,” Stamoolis says. “The Psalms, as Scripture, have always had a place in our congregational life. It was a logical step to start singing them together.”

Confident that diving deeper into psalmody would reveal more of the excellence of Jesus, WBC embarked on a three-and-a-half-year journey through the book of Psalms. “The Psalms are written with a deep trust in God’s character and an acute awareness of God’s promises, of his story. Singing psalms together helps the word of Christ richly dwell among us (Col. 3:16). It’s worthwhile and deeply enjoyable to cross cultures and time to take these ancient songs on our lips,” Stamoolis explains.

Each week before introducing the weekly sung psalm, Stamoolis highlighted the psalm’s themes and its place in redemptive history. For people who wanted to know more about why they were singing the psalms, he encouraged them to read N. T. Wright’s The Case for the Psalms: Why They Are Essential. “Late in our project,” he adds, “I discovered The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship by John D. Witvliet. I highly recommend it to any church embarking on psalm singing.”

Growth

Christians commonly describe the book of Psalms as the songbook for God’s people or the songbook of Jesus. But even though many psalms include musical directions, no one knows the original psalm tunes.

Stamoolis and his worship teams experimented with chant, call and response, and other genres. They soon concluded that matching metrical psalms to a mix of new and familiar melodies worked best for WBC. “Many of our people enjoyed chanting psalms, but most found it easier to focus on the words if we were singing a metrical setting,” he explains. Metered music arranges rhythms into repetitive patterns of strong and weak beats.

Stamoolis looked each week for musical settings that the congregation could sing and that the scheduled worship musicians could play. He and nine other church members occasionally wrote or arranged music in metered or contemporary song form—a metered setting with a refrain that doesn’t follow a strict syllabic meter and often includes a bridge or pre-chorus.

The congregation had a vocal part in every psalm, but for eleven psalms with more difficult settings, a soloist or choir sang the psalm verses and the congregation sang a refrain.

Using the Wasilla Bible Church app or listening online also helped members musically sink more psalms into memory. Over a third of their sung psalms were on the app by the end of 2018, and Stamoolis continues recording, editing, and adding videos and sheet music.

“Since we started singing them together, psalms come up much more in Bible studies and casual conversations,” he says. “People now have more favorite psalms. One woman told me she wants “O Give Thanks,” Wendell Kimbrough’s jubilant setting of Psalm 107, at her funeral.”

Cora Doner, a young mother in the congregation, says her kids often beg to “be the boss of the psalms today.” The “boss” gets to choose which psalm from the WBC app to sing at breakfast.

“Hearing an energetic four-year-old boy belt out, ‘Shout for joy in the Lord, as is fitting for the righteous’ (Psalm 33) is a beautiful blessing,” Doner says. “My mind remembers music in a way that it doesn’t always remember mere words, just as I’ve seen in my children. The Lord uses this kind of remembering to grow my heart’s understanding of him, his people, or my sin.”

Fruit

“As we’ve sung through the Psalms together as a church, we have lamented together, longed for God’s justice, praised his righteousness, acknowledged our sinfulness, sought his mercy, told his story,and celebrated his faithfulness. All these actions point us again and again to Jesus.”
—Joel Stamoolis

The Psalms Project showed that “all these ancient biblical songs can be sung, even by a congregation without a formal liturgy or prior practice of psalm singing,” Stamoolis says. He sees and hears the fruit of this immersion in sung psalms.

Families listen to the app and sing psalms together. The senior pastor uses the app in counseling situations. A three-year-old goes around singing Psalm 15. An eight-year-old listens to Psalm 37 when she feels anxious.

“A four-year-old recently asked me, ‘Pastor Joel, why are you a worm and not a man?’ He’d been listening to Psalm 22 on the way to church and pondering the gravity of the words, especially verse 3. As we’ve sung through the psalms together as a church, we have lamented together, longed for God’s justice, praised his righteousness, acknowledged our sinfulness, sought his mercy, told his story, and celebrated his faithfulness. All these actions point us again and again to Jesus,” Stamoolis says.

That’s why WBC continues to sing a psalm together every Sunday. Rather than repeat psalms in order, they now select each week’s psalm based on the sermon text, the church year season, or a congregational prayer focus.

If the setting isn’t already on the church app, Stamoolis makes an audio recording available to the congregation so they can learn and sing the upcoming Sunday’s psalm.

Links


LEARN MORE

Gather a group to read and discuss these two books:

Listen to sung psalms on the Wasilla Bible Church website or download the app for phone or tablet. So far, only a few of Stamoolis’ original music settings are registered with CCLI. “Churches are welcome to sing any of our original settings,” he says. Contact Joel Stamoolis for more details.

Listen to more Scripture set to music by Joel and Naomi Stamoolis.

Listen to N.T. Wright speak on praying the psalms at the 2012 Calvin Symposium on Worship. Explore other archived material on singing, praying, and creatively reading psalms in worship and psalms for family devotions.

Use Psalms for All Seasons to find the New Revised Standard Version text for each psalm formatted for responsive readings or psalm chanting, a Christian prayer paired with each psalm, a brief footnote about the psalm’s genre or type and suggested uses in worship, and one or more musical settings for each psalm.    

START A DISCUSSION

Feel free to print and distribute this story at your staff, board, or worship meeting. These questions will help people start talking about introducing more sung psalms into congregational worship:

  • How many psalms are in your congregation’s musical repertoire?
  • What are the pros and cons of singing more psalms in your worship services?
  • What spiritual growth might you see in your church if you find more ways to use more psalms?

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