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Psalmfests Bring Psalms into the Heart of Worship

Psalmfests, public festivals based on Psalms for All Seasons: A Complete Psalter for Worship, help worshipers cross boundaries of time and tradition, to explore the full spectrum of psalm singing.

Some congregations seem wed to a particular style of historic Christian psalmody, such as chant or Genevan psalms. Other churches only sing psalms from among the recent outpouring of new settings. Still others hardly ever sing or pray the Psalms.

Psalmfests—public festivals based on Psalms for All Seasons: A Complete Psalter for Worship—help worshipers cross boundaries of time and tradition, to explore the full spectrum of psalm singing.

After Psalms for All Seasons (PfAS) was released in 2012 by Brazos and Faith Alive Christian Resources, the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship provided Psalmfest support to 40 worshiping communities. These U.S. and Canadian churches, colleges, seminaries, and organizations planned and hosted events of astonishing variety.

Each Psalmfest recipient agreed to do a free event that included congregational singing of at least eight selections from PfAS. They also agreed to share their learning after the event. Although the Psalmfest program has ended, you can harvest the learning to help bring psalms-related worship renewal to your community or to plan a song festival.

Multiple formats from one psalter

The Psalmfests demonstrated dozens of faithful and fruitful ways to use biblical psalms in worship. That’s because PfAS is one of the most comprehensive resources ever published on using psalms in Christian worship. It includes all 150 psalms, and most in multiple formats. It has the entire biblical text for each psalm, marked (pointed) for responsive reading or chanting. Every psalm has a musical presentation, and most psalms have several. You’ll find performance notes and suggestions for how to use each psalm in worship.

From St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Vancouver, Washington, the Psalmfest team reported, “Psalms for All Seasons gave us additional ways to think about the Psalms, primarily through its clear structure and musical selections.” They searched PfAS appendices and indices by psalm, genre, country source, language, occasion for use, biblical subject and church season, composer, and author.

The St. Andrew team decided to do a Saturday morning workshop session to help people prepare for Advent by using psalms in Sunday and mid-week worship and personal devotions. Participants sang, worshiped, and chose from group painting, labyrinth, and worship planning workshops.

“For several psalms we chose multiple settings to highlight the variety of ways to present and use the Psalms, even stretching to an interesting Indonesian setting. We included musical, spoken, and prayer forms,” they reported.

The International Council of Ethnodoxologists (ICE) went with a global theme for their Psalmfest near Dallas, Texas. PfAS has songs in 25 languages and from most continents, so ICE’s challenge was to narrow their program to just 15 multicultural psalm settings that cover a wide range of emotions. Responses were so positive that they’re thinking of doing another Psalmfest.

Psalmfest formats ranged from simple to elaborate. West End Christian Reformed Church in Edmonton, Alberta, hosted an ecumenical attempt to “sing as many psalms as possible in one hour.” First Presbyterian Church in Dallas, Texas, designed a Friday lecture, dinner, and discussion and Saturday worship that moved people “from darkness to light.” First Presbyterian of Homewood, Illinois, combined two days of Friends of the Groom drama and arts events with a third day of psalm singing.

Several Psalmfests followed theologian Walter Brueggemann’s orientation-disorientation-reorientation rubric for understanding how the Psalms change us. Most Psalmfests showcased the breadth of the Psalms themselves and their musical settings. Many applied the breadth theme to Lent or another church season or to a typical worship service, showing how psalms can be sung, responsively read, or enacted in every element of worship.

Balancing new and familiar songs

“People in any particular psalm-singing tradition will find hundreds of examples of their own material in PfAS, but they’ll see it side by side with hundreds of examples from Catholic folk tradition; Reformed metrical psalms; Lutheran chants, refrains, and responses; contemporary worship; and psalm settings from Iona, Taizé, and single author psalters,” PfAS senior editor Martin Tel says.

Psalmfest participants discovered that the ideal ratio of familiar to new songs depends on how much musical diversity a community is already used to.

“We sing in many styles, so we did the same at the Psalmfest,” said Brian Larson, cantor at Trinity Lutheran Church in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. Selections ranged from traditional tunes, Anglican chants, and German chorales to gospel, contemporary, and Taize songs and spoken narration with musical responses.

Third Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan “primarily worships in a traditional style, so we chose most psalms in that style. We also chose psalms that were ‘outside the box’ in musical style or texts,” said Linda Strouf, minister of music. She said that doing one psalm as a dramatic reading underscored by music was “especially effective.” Singing new texts to familiar tunes also worked well.

Choirs, small groups, cantors, soloists, and instrumentalists introduced new music at many Psalmfests. Often the congregation would join in after the first verse.

Shiloh-Inwood United Church in Bright’s Grove, Ontario, mainly does responsorial psalms. Its Psalmfest, however, included bells, triangles, and Asian and Jewish tunes. “We even chanted a psalm. We learned how from a CD,” reported pastor Susan Woodhouse.

Using a responsorial setting was new to folks at American Lutheran Church in Clinton Township, Michigan. “Our congregation enjoyed our tutorial and sang out with more gusto than we usually hear,” said choir director Sonja Bennett.

Forming worship habits

Psalmfest participants shared many results of how using more psalms touches lives, especially in communities that included lament or embedded their event in small doses of learning over time.

Chinese Teachers Bible Fellowship in Scarborough, Ontario, used a Psalmfest as its kickoff event. Singing laments in worship was “most striking,” they reported. “Being Chinese believers, most people do not consider it appropriate to argue or plead with God. The use of 51N and 73C was very effective.”

Trinity Evangelical Covenant Church in Livonia, Michigan, has experienced loss, grief, and transition in recent years. Several church education participants wrote their own psalms in weeks before the Psalmfest. The event itself included psalms of lament and a litany of letting go. People shared their psalms during the feast that followed the Psalmfest. “We took the path of lament. Our hope is that the community will find in these hard experiences a new understanding of its calling,” said pastor Phil Apol.

Second Christian Reformed Church in Grand Haven, Michigan, is one of many Psalmfest congregations that now use psalms more often in worship. Psalmfest participants bought multiple copies of PfAS, especially at Wake Forest University School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The Wake Forest planners focused on inviting musicians from local colleges and churches so that they could “bring back the learning to their own settings.”

The Psalmfest at Princeton Christian Reformed Church in Kentwood, Michigan, led to an intergenerational small group that meets in a home to read, sing, and pray from PfAS. The group focuses on two or three psalms per meeting, often using several settings per psalm.

Featured Links

Learn More

Read and apply “Seven Psalmfest Tips to Design Your Song Festival” to your context.

Explore the Psalms in Worship Showcase and enjoy audio and video recorded at the 2012 Calvin Symposium on Worship, which focused on the Psalms.

Order one or more copies of Psalms for All Seasons (PfAS). Learn more about the (now closed) Psalmfest program. Buy CDs or mp3 albums from Choral Scholars, GIA Publications, and Princeton Theological Seminary to learn and teach dozens of PfAS songs.

Read a Fergus J. King’s short essay on the orientation-disorientation-reorientation structure that Walter Brueggemann described in his book Spirituality of the Psalms. Several Psalmfests based their format on this concept.

Apply by June 30, 2013, for a to host a Hymnfest based on the new Lift Up Your Hearts hymnal.

Also in this Series

Seven Psalmfest Tips to Design Your Song Festival
Singing the True Story of the Whole World

Elizabeth Broschart on Planning Music in Small Churches

Martin Tel on Psalms for All Seasons

Start A Discussion

Feel free to print and distribute these stories at your staff, worship, music, or church education meeting. These questions will help people think about how you might deepen your use of the Psalms.

  • Which ideas from Psalmfests described above capture your imagination and why?
  • If your congregation rarely uses or sings from the Psalms, why not? How might this omission affect worshipers’ big pictures of who God is, what God is doing, and how we fit in?
    Which Psalmfest insights might help you introduce new songs and psalm settings in your worship services?