What do the songs that you sing reveal about your theology? It’s been said that the DNA of the local church is reflected in what we sing. In September 2018, I had the privilege of attending the Sing! Conference, which is a conference for pastors and musicians organised by Keith and Kristyn Getty in Nashville, Tennessee. The conference was the second of a five year program that is seeking to engage the church with the biblical foundations of music and urge the church to delve deeply into our rich heritage of singing psalms and hymns. The previous conference focused on the ‘why’ of singing but the 2018 emphasis was on the place of the psalms in Christian worship.
While studying at Christ College, I was able to spend some time researching in this area, but I was really struggling to see how the biblical imperative to be singing psalms along with the hymns and songs of the church (Col 3:16) connected with the day-to-day reality in our local churches. We just don’t sing the psalms; and as a musician I am constantly wrestling with a desire to sing the psalms in our gathered worship, yet lack the knowledge of how to go about sourcing a good and accessible psalter for our churches to sing.
I grew up in a small country Presbyterian Church in North East Tasmania which had a rich tradition of singing hymns and my granddad, who had quite an influence in my life, had been heavily involved in a church that practised exclusive psalmody. At the time, as a budding guitarist, I found the idea of singing psalms and hymns dreadfully dull, but it has laid a wonderful foundation for me in my Christian walk. It surprises me nowadays how little knowledge of hymnody we have in our churches. The question that needs to be addressed is: ‘Is this ok?’ Singing is not a part of our culture anymore. We are certainly listening to music a lot more than we ever have, but this is a passive activity. Congregational singing requires active participation. But are we going to actively engage?
Where have the psalms gone in our gathered worship? Our theological and historical tradition has had such a rich heritage of singing the psalms in our services, yet over the years it has all but disappeared from our services. Why is that? Ligon Duncan, when he opened the Sing! Conference said, “The psalms are the sleeping giant of the evangelical church – it’s time to wake it up.” For many of us, the singing of psalms is such a foreign concept. We have no idea how to sing a psalm, or what it even looks like. John Chrysostom in his sermon on Colossians 3:16-17 from the late fourth century said, “no one knows any psalm, but it seems a thing to be ashamed of even, and a mockery, and a joke…Teach him to sing those psalms which are so full of the love of wisdom” If this is what he was writing during his day, imagine what he would say now?
Many of us do not realise that we are already singing paraphrases of Psalms in our churches. When we sing Luther’s A Mighty Fortress is Our God we are singing his rendition of Psalm 46. Joachim Neander’s Praise to the Lord, the Almighty is a rendition of Psalms 103 and 150. When we sing Francis of Assisi’s All Creatures of Our God and King we are singing part of his adaption of Psalm 148. We are already singing Psalms to an extent. Are we however, making the psalms an integral part of our gathered worship? The reality is, there are more psalms in the liturgy of the Catholic Church than there are in our Sunday gatherings.
If we neglect the Psalms, we will lose them. Tim Keller made the comment: “that a church that does not sing the psalms, is like living on fast-food. It sure tastes good, but it’s really not good for you in the long run.” The Psalms hold such a special place in our lives. They speak of the broad range of human experience and emotion and show us that it is God alone that we boast in. The psalms will also take us to places in our singing that we need to go. How many songs do we sing that cry out to God, ‘How long O LORD? Will you forget me forever?’ (Ps 13.1a)? When walking through the valley of the shadow of death, what songs do we sing that bring comfort to us?
This is not to advocate a return to exclusive psalmody. In fact, we would suffer a great loss if we were to lose the hymns of our forefathers and the songs of our generation that declare of God’s greatness and of our salvation through Jesus. Yet we must recover the singing of psalms in our gathered worship. The psalms read us. They expose our hearts and point us to Jesus. To not sing them is depriving us of experiencing the full nourishment of God’s word. Kevin Twit from Indelible Grace says the, ‘the DNA of our church is expressed in the songs that we sing”. This is a really helpful but also challenging thought to ponder when trying to gauge where congregational singing is at in your local church.
If someone asked you: ‘What’s your church on about?’, would that be reflected in the songs that you sing? Could you say that we’re a church whose one foundation is Jesus Christ our Lord. That it is in Christ alone that our hope is found, he is our light, our strength our song. That as a church you want to sing unto the Lord a new song, to tell of his salvation day by day. Are you a church that declares that this life I live is not my own, for my redeemer paid the price? That the God you worship is Holy, Holy, Holy – Lord God almighty? What is the DNA of your Church? Do you sing of that rugged cross? Do you sing; ‘Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love?’ (Ps 51.1a)or that your ‘soul waits for the Lord, more than the watchmen waits for the morning’ (Ps 130.6a)?
We must continue to keep singing new songs and keep testing them. We won’t know if they will stand the test of time for another 100 years, but that is no reason why we should stop singing them. Every generation that has gone before us has left us with wonderful songs to continue singing. Every generation that has gone before us has many songs that have not stood the test of time. So keep learning new songs, encourage the songwriters in your church. Keep looking for good, rich, sing-able songs that allow the congregation to gaze upon the glory and majesty of God, redemption in Christ Jesus. But don’t neglect the psalms.
We want to be singing about the vastness and greatness of God as shown in the Psalms. To sing together as we walk through the deep, dark valleys. We want to praise God with our whole being and declare that his steadfast love endures forever.