How refreshing to attend a conference on psalm singing without any other Reformed Presbyterians! Not that I tire of RP fellowship, but rather I was energized by the enthusiasm of non-exclusive psalmists who are hungry to sing psalms. The buzz question (and name) of the conference was “Where Are the Psalms?” (See related post.)
People were looking. Some were musicians, some pastors, some students. They asked questions like: “Why did the American church go from psalmody to almost exclusive hymnody so quickly?”; “How can we introduce more psalms into our worship?”; “What are the best kind of arrangements to sing?”
Terry Johnson, pastor of the Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Ga., summarized a history of psalmody and psalm books. He referred to the psalter as the “canonical hymnbook”; and he stressed that in reformed theology the “congregation is the choir” and music must be written with that in mind. He, unlike some others, preferred the Scottish metrical tradition with familiar tunes and clear, modern versifications.
Composer Hal Hopson, on the other hand, introduced his responsorial psalm arrangements, which use the words straight from scripture. This style requires a trained choir and cantor, singing Anglican-chant style, with the congregation only singing a repeated phrase of the psalm occasionally.
John D. Witvliet, author and director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, spoke of challenges to psalm singing and how to overcome them.
1. Viewing worship as expressive not formative. When we think that worship is just about expressing ourselves, as opposed to us being formed and changed by worship, we might not choose to sing the psalms or at least not all of them, suggested Witvliet. He quoted from a few early church fathers to show that they thought that scripture, particularly the psalms, were meant for us to know how to feel and how to be—not just for us to use to express how we already feel or how we already are. Singing the psalms, all the parts, will change us toward what God wants us to be.
2. Over-familiarity or casual familiarity with the psalms. Sometimes we are so casually familiar with certain psalms that we don’t think about their true meaning or all the applications to our hearts and minds. One solution, he said, is to juxtapose psalms with the sermon sometimes—not always singing the expected or familiar.
3. The psalms settings we sing. Sometimes the melody doesn’t fit the whole psalm. Witvliet suggested singing different parts to different tunes or finding tunes that can adapt to different moods.
4. The “untidy parts” of the psalter. Here, the challenge is how to sing imprecations, complaints, and despairing thoughts. “With a holy whisper,” was his reply. We must wrestle with God in humility. All the words in the psalter are profitable for us because they are God’s word, but this doesn’t mean that we sing them casually or with arrogance, especially those more difficult parts.
5. Resources. If you think there are not enough resources for psalm singing, Witvliet has compiled an encouraging stack in his book, The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship: A Brief Introduction and Guide to Resources. You will not be surprised to know that Crown & Covenant Publications is mentioned more than once.
If I am able, I will provide a link to the recorded audio of these talks when they go online.