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Joyce Borger on Psalm Singing History

Joyce Borger is worship and music editor for Faith Alive Christian Resources and editor of the quarterly journal Reformed Worship. In this conversation, Borger discusses the history of Psalm singing, and how she talks to Christians who have no history of singing Psalms in worship about trying it.

Joyce Borger is worship and music editor for Faith Alive Christian Resources and editor of the quarterly journal Reformed Worship. Borger, Martin Tel, and John Witvliet compiled the new Psalms for All Seasons: A Complete Psalter for Worship. Here, she shares a few historical highlights of psalm singing in worship.

When you talk with Christians who have no history of singing psalms in worship, how do you pique their interest?      

I begin with September 11, 2001, the day America woke up. Worship planners around the country and beyond asked themselves, “What do we do on Sunday when we gather together for worship? What do we say? What do we sing?” Many churches found their answer in the Psalms and, particularly, Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” Since 9/11, we have seen tsunamis, earthquakes, tornados, and economic recession, and we find comfort in the Psalms. 

Each week those gathered for worship come with a range of emotions, and not all are joyful. One gift of postmodernism is the desire to have the gospel message meet people where they are, to see themselves in scripture now, not when they achieve the sometimes elusive state of happiness. How can we help people express their emotions in worship, and not just joy, but sorrow and even anger?

Does talking about the Psalms’ wide emotional range convince people to sing them?

Ultimately no one is going to be convinced to regularly sing psalms in worship until they themselves experience the depth and breadth of the Psalms. As long as they are seen as some abstract requirement, the Psalms will remain ancient Hebrew poetry. Once we learn to pray them individually, as a global community, and with Christ himself, then we are blessed richly.

All too often we equate psalm singing with a certain genre of music or style of worship. Over the past decade, we’ve seen an explosion of psalmody successfully incorporated into and therefore blessing churches of all sizes, denominations, and worship styles. We now have a wealth of psalm settings in all kinds of genres, from Genevan Psalms to folk, jazz, and rap.

What surprises people about psalm singing in biblical history?  

The fact that the Psalms have been used since the day they were written. There hasn’t been a period in history when a group of Jews or Christians were not using them in worship. The Reformers were bringing us back to earlier practice when they encouraged psalm singing in worship. I think it is wise to consider adapting any practice that has been beneficial to so many people throughout time and in various cultures. 

As you were working on Psalms for All Seasons, which historical highlights of singing psalms in worship seemed especially important for people to know about?

Exactly that: the Psalms have staying power, because they speak to and for people of so many times and places. Not only are they what Calvin referred to as the “anatomy of the soul,” they also cover the content of our faith: who we are as people, who God is, and our need for a savior. They point to Christ as our Redeemer. 

Is there a correlation between how often congregations sing psalms and how often psalms are read in public worship or at home?

Churches that use psalms in worship on a weekly basis also seem to be the greatest practitioners of daily prayer, which has the reading and praying of psalms at its core. I believe that Reformed churches that practiced psalm singing in the past also had robust family devotions that often included scripture reading. For some, this practice continues.

By reading psalms more often in worship, congregational members will begin to connect with them spiritually. As they are challenged and comforted by the Psalms in worship, they will turn to them on their own. If people don’t know the riches that the Psalms contain, they likely won’t choose to use them.

Written histories often focus on the people who have the most power. Do you have a story of how singing psalms helped people in trouble to endure or overcome?

Singing Genevan Psalms helped Hungarian Christians hold on to faith during communist oppression. Our June 2010 issue of Reformed Worship had many stories, such as Kevin and Gerry Adams’ “Praying Our Emotions” and Martin Tel’s “Difficult Psalms for Difficult Times: One Church’s Response to the Haiti Tragedy.” The Psalm Story website tells why Pope John Paul II spoke Psalm 31 at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem.

Would you like to mention another historical highlight of singing psalms in church?

It’s interesting to note that the first book published in the United States—and still in existence—was a psalter, the Bay Psalm Book published in 1640.

Apply for a Psalmfest mini-grant to hold a public worship event based on the new Psalms for All Seasons: A Complete Psalter for Worship. Check out the new psalter’s companion website and this online Psalms showcase. Joining Christians around the world in fixed-hour prayer, also known as “the daily office” or “praying the hours,” will sink psalms into your life.