Join our mailing list

Returning to the Psalms

Churches that want to use more psalms in worship will find a wealth of resources related to prayer, music, and readings.

Churches that want to use more psalms in worship will find a wealth of resources related to prayer, music, and readings.

A recent Calvin Symposium on Worship featured an all-day seminar on adding more psalms to any kind of Christian worship service. You can find resources for adding psalms in several forms—reading, responsorial, chant, metrical, contemporary—in this handout and in John D. Witvliet’s very practical The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship: A Brief Introduction and Guide to Resources.

Reggie Kidd, a worship pastor at a Presbyterian Church of America church plant, said that many people at his church would happily sing nothing but songs in the Passion genre.

“I’ve been surprised how well the mode of simple chant has been received. We looked at how psalm chants tie in with the Presbyterian prayer book and introduced it as a way to let the biblical text stay in control in music. I also asked our 27-year-old music director to help give the chants some sparkle,” he says. Kidd is also professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida, and author of With One Voice: Discovering Christ's Song in Our Worship.

Building entire services around a psalm is a good way to handle long psalms, according to Stephen Breck Reid. “You can break the psalm into pieces, so that by the time you get to the end of the service, you’ve sung the whole psalm,” he says. Stephen Breck Reid is editor of Psalms and Practice: Worship, Virtue, and Authority, which shows how to use psalms in public prayer, liturgy, and preaching. He is also academic dean and professor of Old Testament Studies at Bethel Theological Seminary in Richmond, Indiana.

When is it appropriate to use psalms of rage and lament in worship? “Usually laments are just sprinkled in funerals. But during droughts in the 1800s, churches would gather to sing and pray psalms as corporate laments. It’s a good time now for churches to do this, because lamenting together brings you back to public engagement. Lament can put you in a missional mode,” Breck Reid says.

There’s a learning curve to using laments in worship. “It feels uncomfortable when you lament and are forced to praise…or vice versa. But ‘it’s not about you’ is a key learning for worship,” says Carol Bechtel, professor of Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. Her widely known Bible studies use music, video, and current events to help people relate the Old Testament to contemporary life.

Connecting real life in the Bible to our lives

Ellen Davis suggests that one way to see the psalms as germane to life, rather than as irrelevant snippets, is to look at how psalm superscriptions give a context. You can read Psalm 90 (a psalm of Moses) or Psalms 72 and 127 (by Solomon) and then look for narratives about them elsewhere in the Old Testament.

In Wondrous Depth: Preaching the Old Testament, she writes, “If the psalms are to be genuine prayers for us, then we must make that effort of recontextualization” and link them to our personal, congregational, and national life.

Reggie Kidd tells of hearing Gloria Gaither speak to ministers of music. She asked, “How many of you have written a song based on a psalm?” Everyone raised a hand. Next she asked, “How many of you have read through the life of David in the last year?” Hardly any hands went up. So Gaither chastised, ”How dare you rip off David’s punch lines if you don’t know what he went through to write it?”

Adding an interactive element can make psalms jump out in 3-D. Davis suggests reading or singing Psalm 55 as people gather around an altar or communion table. “If an enemy were insulting me, I could endure it….But it is you, a man like myself, my companion, my close friend, with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship…” (Psalm 55:12-14).

Responsorial psalms have long been an interactive way for worshipers to use psalms. But in The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship: A Brief Introduction and Guide to Resources, John D. Witvliet suggests a twist to the usual practice.

“For a children’s sermon on Psalm 8, instead of doing an object lesson about scientific wonders they can’t comprehend, try call and response. Let the kids lead the congregation,” he says. The leader says a few words (“Lord, our Lord.”) The kids face worshipers and repeat the phrase. The worshipers echo back. And so it goes in three parts through the whole psalm—“Lord, our Lord…how wonderful…is your name…” This method is almost guaranteed to help everyone experience the psalm’s exuberance.

Art resources

Betsy Steele Halstead, who coordinates Calvin Institute of Christian Worship’s visual arts work, suggests the following books or artist websites to find art that will “help people dwell with the text.” Her book of woodcuts, Visuals for Worship (Faith Alive Christian Resources, 2006), includes Old Testament images such as the Cedar of Lebanon and Stump of Jesse.

Liven your Old Testament worship elements with more resources on visual arts, including liturgical art, and multimedia resources from around the world.