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Psalms in Worship: God knows we need help praying

Discover why more congregations are following Christ's example of praying the Psalms in worship. A feature story exploring the use of the Psalms in Christian Worship.

What do you say to family, friends, and team mates gathered to mourn a life cut short by cancer at age 16? What comfort can you offer the grandparents who raised the young man?

When Jesse Leimbach died three years after being diagnosed with cancer, the people of Granite Springs Church in Lincoln, California, knew that pious clichés wouldn’t help. So they used the words God has given us all in the Psalms.

“During the funeral for Jesse we spoke two psalms from memory, Psalms 23 and 46, to encourage everyone attending, especially the high schoolers,” says Kevin Adams, senior pastor.

Keep in mind that few in this suburban Sacramento congregation could have recited psalms from memory three years ago. But Granite Springs has made an intergenerational effort to explore, learn, and use psalms at home and in worship. Like people from Palestine to Germany to North America, Granite Springs members have discovered that the Psalter provides a powerful vocabulary of faith.

“Therefore we will not fear”

Nearly 500 high schoolers attended Jesse Leimbach’s funeral. “Most were biblically illiterate. We introduced the psalms we recited as ‘words to say when there is nothing to say’ and ‘words that have been tested and found helpful to millions of people from all different faith backgrounds,’ ” Adams says.

Granite Springs members were able to speak Psalms 23 and 46 together at the funeral because they were well into their “year of psalms,” which began in September 2008.

On the surface, life looks easy in the fast-growing towns northeast of Sacramento. It’s a region of new homes, excellent schools, ample parks, low crime, and economic opportunity, not a place you’d expect to resonate with bleak Psalm 88 (“darkness is my closest friend”). The temptation is to practice a Christianity as upbeat and shiny as the surrounding culture.

Starting a year of psalms as the economy tanked turned out to be “an amazing fit,” Adams says. Granite Springs experienced psalm-based sermons and worship in themed series:

  • Beginning with “The Anatomy of the Soul,” a phrase John Calvin used to describe the Psalms
  • Connecting “the psalms of Christmas” to Luke’s Advent narrative
  • Framing the new year with four services on Psalms 103 and hesed (God’s unfailing love)
  • Focusing on creation psalms and stewardship
  • Observing Lent with the Egyptian Hallel (Psalms 113-118) that Jewish people use during Passover
  • Exploring the vertical habits through psalms
  • Finishing with the psalms of ascent (120-134)

Filling the storehouse

Worshipers listened to or read entire psalms in worship. Leaders briefly explained where a given psalm fit in the Psalter and how others, such as Paul or St. Bernard or Swiss Protestants, used it. The same psalms resurfaced in subsequent Sundays in calls to worship, prayers of confession, and sermon references.

Adams says that to build “a storehouse of love for the psalms” the church offered a small-group curriculum in psalms, which 80 percent of small groups chose to use. Children’s, youth, music, and other ministries also aligned with this emphasis on psalms.

Granite Springs people based private and family devotions on the psalms. One parent mentioned “getting an ear full about ‘we should do two tonight because we missed last night.’ I loved watching them learn that even mountains, trees, and animals can sing praises to God and how God is with us even in the darkest places.”

Weekend workshops let people experience the psalms as “the ancient prayer language of God’s people” that still helps us pray today, alone and together—especially when we need solace, reconciliation, or forgiveness.

“Very freeing”

The raw emotion in many psalms surprised worshipers. “We react honestly to the psalms. Take the ‘dash the infants’ line in Psalm 137. We wonder, think, question, and listen to why these prayers were first—and are still—spoken,” Adams says.

One member described some of the psalms as “yelling at God” or sounding “self-righteous, like ‘I have done everything right. Why are you not doing your job, God?’ ”

Although reading and hearing such psalms first felt awkward, maybe even out of line, this member “found it very freeing. I know that God will love me no matter what. So why am I not being honest with him? He always knows what I am feeling and when I am not being honest.”

As job loss, difficult jobs, ill health, and other traumas stir up emotions, Adams says, “Folks are daring to pray in new ways.”

The psalms have become such a part of how congregation members pray and understand themselves as God’s people that Adams says, “It will be hard to imagine a worship service without the Psalms!”

What Happens when the Psalter Vanishes—or Is Restored

German Christians found themselves in a terrible bind as Hitler’s power and demonization of non-Aryans increased. Believers had to decide which story to live by.

The conflict led some to form Deutsche Christen (German Christians), basically a political action group that sought to synthesize nationalism and the gospel. They rejected the entire Old Testament as too Jewish. Meanwhile Dietrich Bonhoeffer, part of the Confessing Church, ran an illegal seminary where staff and students prayed the Psalms every day.

After the Gestapo closed the seminary, Bonhoeffer wrote The Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible to explain how praying the Psalms is necessary to sustain a Christian community. “Wherever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure vanishes from the Christian church. With its recovery will come unsuspected power,” he wrote.

Bonhoeffer testified that the Psalter is the prayer language God gave us—and that Christ prayed—to form us, in worship and over time, into one people of God.

Losses and gains

Children learn from their parents how to speak, and the Father in Heaven gave the Psalms, Bonhoeffer wrote, so we children would learn how to speak “not only the words he wants to say to us, but also the words he wants to hear from us.” Neglecting or rejecting this prayer language in worship means “thinking that we know better what we ought to pray than does God himself.”

Bonhoeffer’s The Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible influenced Brian Moss, who for 11 years was director of worship, music, and the arts at John Knox Presbyterian Church in Seattle.

“Pretty early on in my time at John Knox, there was a quadruple homicide near our church. Some members of our congregation had had a connection with the murder victims, and the memorial service was at our church. Also, after 9/11, people wanted to have a place to come and pray. How do you pray through that?

“These events shocked and rocked our community. They forced us to lament, but we didn’t know how to pray through this deep sense of loss. We just knew how to do triumphalist language,” Moss recalls. He learned about Bonhoeffer’s approach to the Psalms from his senior pastor, Bryan Burton.

“So often we go into worship thinking we have to check our bags, our struggles, at the door because we think those struggles keep us from God. But the Psalms invite us to bring all of who we are—even the crying, doubt, envy, and malice—to God. That’s where transformation happens. Small moves happen over a lifelong journey of transformation,” he says.

John Knox pastors and worship leaders think, talk, and pray about using the Psalter’s entire emotional breadth. Worshipers listen to, responsively read, and sing psalms. Liturgies often base the call to worship, confession of sin, or congregational prayer on a psalm. Sermons point out New Testament connections with psalms, such as Psalm 2 and the baptism of Jesus.

Enlivens prayer

Several psalms compare God’s voice and power to thunder and storms. A tornado at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, led that community to recognize God’s voice in the Psalms.

The tornado wrecked the campus a week before a planned conference on worship in the Baptist tradition. The conference had to be cancelled. Planners started wondering how worship sustains people in difficult times so re-envisioned their project.

The resulting Psalms Project included a chapel series, "Singing the Lord's Song AGAIN, Renewing the Psalms in Worship Today" and seminars on the psalms and singing, poetry, prayer, preaching, drama, personal devotions, and public worship.

“In our contemporary Baptist tradition, people are not usually aware of the many ways to read, pray, and sing psalms in worship,” says Ray Van Neste, who teaches Christian studies at Union and led the Psalms Project.

“During the spring semester, we used the psalms in congregational singing, choral singing, solo and group readings, and prayer. Cal Seerveld led a whole service on the laments that included solos, congregational singing, and readings of various sorts,” he explains.

The idea of praying the psalms intrigued students and area pastors. Richard Wells, dean of chapel, modeled how to use psalms as a guide to prayer. Don Whitney of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary led a seminar called “Turning the Words of Scripture into the Wings of Your Prayers: The Simple, Permanent Cure to Boring Repetition in Prayer.”

Whitney used Psalm 23 as an example of how to pray line by line through a psalm, using the text to bring to mind things you might not normally think to pray about. “Read ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ and thank him for being your shepherd. Ask him to shepherd your family that day, to guide, protect, and provide for them. Pray that he will make your family members his sheep, that they will look to him as their shepherd.

“If nothing comes to mind, or if you don’t understand the verse, go to the next. You might choose to linger long on one verse. Conversely, there may be only a handful of matters that prompt prayer as you go through many verses. Nothing says you have to pray over every verse,” Whitney said.

Words to grow into

Since the time of David, people have prayed psalms at fixed hours. Following a psalm schedule means that at times the assigned psalm doesn’t match what you’re feeling. You’re still glowing after a wonderful worship service and the psalm asks, “Why have you forsaken me?” Or you’ve just had to lay off an employee and feel even worse when the psalm says that the righteous “are always generous and lend freely.”

Those mismatches between a given psalm and our experience remind us that prayer isn’t just about us. They push us beyond ourselves to pray on behalf of others who, right now, need joy, humility, justice, or a sense of God’s presence.

Bonhoeffer wrote that what’s most important is “not what we want to pray…but what God wants us to pray…. This is pure grace, that God tells us how we can speak with him and have fellowship with him.” This fellowship includes everyone else who is reading, hearing, singing, and praying the Psalms.

Phyllis Tickle was a young mother when she began the joyful discipline of fixed-hour prayer. She recalls finding many psalms “infinitely wearisome” and “so removed” from her own situation. Now that she is in her 70s, however, she looks back through the Psalter and can’t recall which psalms she couldn’t connect with.

“Instead, even as I mouth the words softly to myself, my years rise up around me like the everlasting hills of the book itself, and I am held comfortable and comforted in the valley of them,” she writes on a website that posts her The Divine Hours series online so people can easily join the fixed-hour prayer community.

Learn More

Brian Moss’ blog, The Prayerbook Project, explores what he’s learning about using the Psalter in worship and chronicles his decision to set every psalm to music. Listen to his first 15 sung psalms here. Moss is now in the M.Div. program and leads worship at Regent College in Vancouver.

“Steal” ideas that have worked well for embedding Bible memorization and the Psalms in worship and life at Granite Springs Church in Lincoln, California, and Union University in Jackson, Tennessee.

Listen to these 2009 Calvin Symposium on Worship workshops:

Gather your pastors, worship leaders, or small group to study a book on the Psalms. Each is easy to read, offers excellent ideas for creatively using the Psalms in worship, and would make a great addition to your church library.

Browse online Psalms resources related to prayer, preaching, responsive reading or singing (easy to adapt in most cultures), and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In the spring 2009 issue of Calvin Seminary Forum (p. 13), Anne Zaki tells how Evangelical Presbyterians in Egypt learn already as children to memorize Scripture so they can use those words as prayers.

Patrick Comerford summarizes psalm use in worship for centuries. He is a Church of Ireland (Anglican) priest and Canon of Christ Church Cathedral Dublin.

Use ideas from Reformed Worship stories on psalms in worship.

Browse related stories on biblical lamentfixed-hour prayerOld Testament resources for worship, and Scripture memorization and public reading.

    Start a Discussion

    Talk about using more psalms in worship:

    • What do you think of the idea that God gave us the Psalms so we’d know how to pray in worship? Which topics have you seen in the Psalter that don’t get mentioned in your church?
    • Over the course of the church year, how many psalms appear in your worship services? Which first steps might you take to use more (and entire) psalms, use them more often, or use them in new ways?
    • Which psalms have meant the most to you and why? Which can you recite from heart?

      Share Your Wisdom

      What is the best way you’ve found to talk about the importance of psalms in worship?

      • Did you categorize psalms by theme (e.g. confession, deliverance, petition, praise, blessing, etc.) and then track which categories are over- or under-represented in worship? If so, what did you find and how did you respond?
      • Which resources—Bible studies, music, visuals, drama, video, online, whatever—have you found especially helpful in explaining to your congregation why the Psalms are still essential to our lives and worship?