Do you sing psalms in your church? I guess that in most Bible-teaching churches today the answer is “no,” or “not very often,” or perhaps “sometimes in a metrical version,” or “some of our songs are based on or inspired by psalms.” Perhaps we associate psalm-singing with rather formal or old-fashioned churches, or with performances of choral evensong by a trained choir.
And yet, the Bible rather suggests that we ought to sing psalms as a regular part of our Christian meetings. In Ephesians 5:18–19 Paul says that one of the marks of a Spirit-filled church is addressing one another “in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart.” He says something similar in Colossians 3:16: the word of Christ will richly indwell the people of Christ as they sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.”
The words translated “psalms,” “hymns,” and “songs” all refer primarily to the biblical psalms. There isn’t space here to give the overwhelming evidence for this, but they are three ways of speaking of the same thing. If you want to be a church filled with the Holy Spirit and richly indwelt by the message of Christ you will sing psalms, and then more psalms, and then lots more psalms. How extraordinary that seems to us!
I don’t think you can prove from the Bible that we should sing only psalms and nothing else (though others may disagree); but if we don’t sing lots of psalms it would seem we’re neglecting a part of what the Bible teaches.
If you want to be a church filled with the Holy Spirit and richly indwelt by the message of Christ you will sing psalms, and then more psalms, and then lots more psalms.
So, if I have understood the Bible aright, I think we should sing psalms in church. But we don’t. So what are we going to do about it? There are two challenges: one to do with understanding, the other with music. We find the psalms hard to understand and make our own; and we don’t know how to sing them.
I’m a late-starting aspiring musician (trying belatedly to learn the piano), but will never be a competent musician. So what I’m about to say needs to be weighed. I hope some capable musicians can help us.
Traditional chanting—such as we hear in sung evensong by a cathedral choir—can sound beautiful if it’s done well. But when congregations do it, the result can be dreary and unedifying. It’s not easy for your average church member to chant psalms in the traditional manner. And it certainly doesn’t sound remotely contemporary in its musical style (not that that should necessarily matter).
So what can we do? Here are three suggestions.
1. As a start, we can try saying a psalm to one another in church. I’ve sometimes done this at the end of a sermon on a psalm; it certainly promotes a sense that we’re all joining in the psalm—meaning it, praying it, praising it, and declaring it together. I think that’s an easy way for a church to get started.
2. There are plenty of metrical versions of psalms available. Some are better than others. Some are closer to the wording of the original psalm than others. But, at their best, they can enable a musically modest congregation with a musically modest keyboard player to sing an approximation to a psalm quite well. At a recent church meeting we sang an excellent metrical version of Psalm 45 written by Matt Searles.
3. My third suggestion is a challenge to musicians and composers: can you compose settings to actual psalms (rather than paraphrases) of a kind that is singable by an average congregation, where the music accords with the feel of the particular psalm, and which sounds good to contemporary ears? If you can—and I think some musicians have started on this—you’ll do the contemporary church of Christ a great service.
Even if your resource pool for the third suggestion is rather limited, why not incorporate a psalm each week in your church service—either saying it, singing a good metrical version, or both? In doing this, our churches will become more richly filled with Christ’s Word and more abundantly filled with the Holy Spirit.
So let me encourage and challenge pastors to be adventurous. For some it will involve a considerable shift of church culture. But if the Bible teaches that we should do it (and I think it does), then we should. It’s better to do it not so well than not do it at all.