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Using More Psalms in Worship

Find out why Christians from many traditions are rediscovering the Psalter for singing, prayer, and worship. A feature story exploring the use of the psalms in worship.

Imagine it. A sanctuary full of people singing, praying, and dancing their way through the entire Psalter—in one glorious worship extravaganza. Those who took part in the Calvin College Psalm Festival say the experience forever changed their view of the Psalms.

The eight-hour musical marathon was shorter than another psalm event that Laura Smit helped organize years ago at First United Presbyterian Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“At that one we started at 9 p.m. on Saturday and finished with a congregational breakfast at 8:30 a.m. on Reformation Sunday. We prayed every word of every psalm, something we did not attempt in our festival here at Calvin,” says Smit, now a religion professor.

But you don’t have to sing 150 psalms at once to intentionally use more psalms and thus enrich your congregation’s worship.

Pay attention to context

It’s easy to forget that each psalm is part of the Psalter, which itself is made up of five books. Scholars point out that Psalms 1 and 2 introduce the collection, and Psalms 146 through 150 conclude it. In between, books I through III express the grief, doubt, and misery of living alone without a savior. Books IV and V focus more on the joy and thanksgiving of gathering in God’s presence.

As Elizabeth Kao Holmlund explained in the Psalm Festival program booklet, the Psalter’s structure—lament to praise, individual to communal—offers a profound message: “Following God should not be done alone.”

Music professor Brooks Kuykendall says that when he and other festival planners met 15 months before the event, he “ignorantly asked” whether they’d do the psalms in numerical order.

Since then he’s discovered that “context matters. I hadn’t thought about how Psalms 90 and 91 would feel after the dark lament of Psalm 88,” Kuykendall says.

He advises worship planners to look for patterns in adjacent psalms, such as the contrast between a life spent meditating on God’s law (Psalm 1) or conspiring against God and others (Psalm 2).

Kuykendall recalls a memorable sermon on Psalms 22 through 24. “Looking at them together, you see David move from feeling forsaken (22) to realizing that, actually, he’s not forgotten, because the Lord is his Shepherd (23)…after which he says the earth belongs to the Lord, who is the King of Glory (24).”

Express every emotion

“The Psalm Festival was amazing. Besides the magnitude of all that text, we experienced the extraordinary diversity of the Psalter’s emotions, authors, and faith experiences. They’re totally open and honest, from unreserved despair in Psalms 22 and 99 to ecstatic utterances in Psalms 91 and 150,” says Robert Nordling, who conducts orchestras.

He suggests that worship planners use the Psalms to help people offer all of themselves to God, not just the happy parts. “The Psalms aren’t just about ‘how I feel when I’ve been blessed by God,’” Nordling explains.

Using psalm settings from different eras, cultures, and Christian traditions underscores emotional diversity. The Calvin event, for example, featured psalms from Anglican chant, blues, Christian contemporary, classical, Genevan Psalter, Hebrew, hymnal, jazz, Sacred HarpScottish Psalter, and other traditions.

Nordling worked out jazz beat psalm readings, inspired by his study of singer Tom Waits and beat poet Jack Kerouac. “I had a string bass player doing a walking bass and a drummer doing a simple swing beat, sometimes in rhythm, sometimes not. I spoke the psalm text over top. It’s a very dated sound, very 50s, and it sure got a response. There’s something about rhythm that gets inside us,” he says.

The festival planning committee sponsored a contest to encourage creative new ways to express the psalms through music, poetry, film, and dance.

Just as the Psalter disciplines raw emotion within its structure, festival contestants had to shape their creativity within certain guidelines. “We specified which psalms and sometimes, which translations, to use. People made proposals. Those that missed the point of a psalm didn’t make it to the next level. We also gave feedback on the proposals,” says Cindy de Jong, former coordinator of Calvin College chapels and its worship apprentice program.

Pray the psalms

The Psalm Festival, along with chapel series on prayer and the Psalms, came about because Calvin College students asked the chapel committee to help them learn to pray.

“The Psalms are the prayerbook of the church. When we know the Psalms, we have the language we need for prayer. Their richness and diversity give us permission to bring before God whatever we are feeling and experiencing. The Psalms help us to put even our most painful experiences into a context of prayer that, ultimately, ends in praise,” says Laura Smit, chapel dean.

It’s quite simple to help worshipers see a psalm as more than words on a page, Cindy de Jong says. You can say, “Let’s pray,” and then read the words of a psalm as your prayer…or ask the whole congregation to read the psalm together as a prayer. You can use part of a psalm in a spoken prayer, introducing the passage with “along with the Psalmist, we pray…”

Or intersperse the reading of a psalm with a sung refrain. The refrain to Psalm 17, as set by Psalm Festival winner Laurie Bos, works well. Its words remind worshipers that the sung psalm is also a prayer: “…I call upon you for you will answer me, incline your ear to me; hear my words.”

Another good choice is to follow verses 4, 9, 11, and 13 of Psalm 56 with the refrain “In my day of fear, I put my trust in you, God most high.” The refrain, from the song “In My Day of Fear,” is in the Iona Community collection Psalms of Patience, Protest, and Praise.

Preachers might consider noting in sermons how often Jesus quoted the psalms. While hanging on the cross, he prayed “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1) and “Into your hands, I commit my spirit” (Ps. 31:5).

Write them on your hearts

Echoing God’s direction in Deuteronomy 6:4-9 to fill your heart and life with God’s commands, Psalm 119 says that God’s law is sweeter than honey, something to hide in your heart, and contemplate while lying awake.

Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, sometimes encourages members to memorize a psalm. Everyone gets a printout of the psalm in their church mailbox. After a month of reminders, they recite it together (from the page or memory) during Sunday worship.

Many Anglican, Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, and Methodist congregations sing or chant the psalms each week. At St. Robert of Newminster, a Roman Catholic parish in Ada, Michigan, a cantor sings the verses of the weekly psalm and the congregation sings the refrain.

“The refrains remain in your thoughts and heart for weeks,” says Grace Schwanda, who directs the children’s choirs at St. Robert. She says her choristers learn the words of Scripture through singing psalms and psalm-based anthems.

“Singing Scripture is a wonderful way to memorize the Word of God, and, for me, it usually is more powerful than the spoken word. I find myself singing the Psalms during the week…The Lord is kind and merciful…Be with me, Lord, when I am in trouble…Keep me safe, Lord,” she says.

Even if your church doesn’t have a cantor or lectionary tradition, you can find memorable psalm refrains. The book Sing! A New Creation pairs dozens of Psalm refrains with suggestions for where in the psalm to sing the refrain.

Connect as a worshiping community

You’ve probably noticed that between the title and first verse, many psalms include a worship reference. David suggested that the director of music accompany Psalm 4 with stringed instruments and Psalm 5 with flutes.

These biblical notes are yet more reminders that the Psalms were compiled for and adapted to congregational worship.

“Get to know the gifts in your congregation and community—even their particular musical tastes—so you can tap into that. For the Psalm Festival, we knew the people who could paint, dance, or do contemporary Christian music, and we asked them to build on their strengths,” Cindy de Jong says.

She suggests that you’ll get the most from the Psalter’s store of anger, pain, and joy if you pay attention to who and how as you plan ways to share a psalm in worship. It might make more sense to ask an older person, someone with more life experience, to lead a psalm of lament.

Knowing the people you worship with adds layers of meaning to certain psalms. At Calvin College, many classmates know Daryl Holmlund from his worship leading at chapel and Sunday evening services. He wrote and composed a setting of Psalm 5 before an accident that put him in a wheelchair.

When he sang that psalm again at the Psalm Festival, it was a poignant testimony that no matter what happens, “those who take refuge in you rejoice.”

Tips to help worshipers experience the Psalter’s diversity

There are so many other wonderful ways to sink psalms into worshipers’ hearts, minds, and lives.

  • People always pay attention when kids are upfront—so ask children or teens to lead your congregation in a psalm, whether spoken or in song.
  • Use simple visuals.
    • On your chancel, platform, or pulpit area, use steps to demonstrate the changing relationship between God and the psalmist through these readings of Psalm 22.
    • Use light and darkness to convey a psalm’s emotion, as actor and professor Michael Page did so powerfully in this reading of Psalm 88.
    • Choose a prop to use during a reading, such as swooping a swath of white fabric at verse 6 (“Oh, that I had the wings of a dove!”) of Psalm 55.  
  • Combine art forms. You might project an image or have someone dance while someone else reads or sings a psalm.
  • Insert contemporary references to help worshipers understand what a psalm means for today, such as adding modern country names to Psalm 87.
  • Ask people to share their stories or testimonies about a particular psalm’s meaning in their lives.
  • Present a psalm as a storyteller might, perhaps using or adapting a psalm from The Good News TranslationThe Message, or Voicing God’s Psalms.
  • Dramatize the psalm through choral readings, interpretive readings, mimes, or skits.
  • From service to service, switch among solo, dual, and multiple readers.
  • Read responsively as a congregation.
  • Focus a service on a single psalm, using different readings and musical settings for the same psalm. Psalms 23 and 51 are easy to dramatize and find music for.
  • To remind worshipers that the psalms have nourished worshipers throughout the centuries, read the same psalm from different eras of the English language.