Christian music has its beginnings in the music of Israel, most especially the psalms. From the early church through the Reformation, the psalter formed the cornerstone of musical worship. Sure there were other kinds of musical texts sung as well, but the psalms were ever present. All of the reformers sought to bring the psalms back to the people and they looked for ways to involve the congregation in singing. The psalter has a big part of the soundtrack of historical Christianity.
Beginning in the 1700’s, the psalter began to give way to the hymnal, as writers like Isaac Watts began to compose psalm paraphrases and hymns that were not based on the psalms. Today, most evangelical churches do not use the psalms as part of their worship. Instead, the psalms are seen as a resource for contemporary songwriters to use in the creation of new songs. Only a handful groups, mainly Reformed churches and those with denominationally established liturgies, continue to use the psalms as part of their regular worship.
In May of 2016, my church began a sermon series on the book of Psalms. Our sermon series tend to be long, multi-year events so I knew going into it that with a 150 chapter book, we were essentially climbing Everest. After the first week, however, I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were missing out. It was nice to be examining the psalms in a closer way, but it felt strange to be studying what are in effect song lyrics without listening to the music. So I began looking for ways to promote corporate psalm singing.
Did someone just say, "Wait, why would you do sing the psalms as a congregation?" I'm glad you asked. Aside from the fact that we are exhorted to sing the psalms (Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16), the psalms have several benefits. First, they are Scripture, and are useful for teaching and whole host of other stuff. Singing a text is one way to help remember it. Moreover, the psalms present, in abridged form, the whole Old Testament story - that's why the Gideons include it with their little pocket New Testaments. But that's not all! A number of the psalms are messianic and point to first and even second coming of Christ. But my favorite reason to sing the psalms, by far, is that the psalms say things that we feel as human beings but would be hesitant to express in prayer, let alone in song. God gave us the book of Psalms with all of its varied expressions to be used (sung), not simply cherished.
There are a ridiculous number of ways to sing the psalms, but the three biggest ways are plainsong, Anglican chant, and metrical psalms (Russ Stutler has a great article outlining these three and many more). Of the three, the one I enjoy the most is plainsong. The melodies are beautifully haunting and rich with historical connections. Plus, any version of the psalms can be used. If you like the majesty of the KJV, no problem. The literal approach of the NASB, it works. The gritty imagery of the Message, not an issue. There was just one problem. I lead a contemporary service at a Baptist church. Breaking out the “monk songs” is a non-starter. Likewise with Anglican chant. The one avenue that offered possibilities was metrical psalms.
Metrical psalms are translations of the psalms set to poetic meter. These were huge during the Reformation and were the preferred method of singing the psalms for most Protestants. Here’s how it works. By counting the number of syllables in a line of the text, we can match it to a tune that has the same number of notes in a line, i.e. has the same meter. If you look in hymnal, you’ll find somewhere on the page a string of numbers or letters that signify the meter of the tune/text. They look like 126.96.36.199 or CM (Common Meter – 188.8.131.52). So, for example, “Amazing Grace” is in Common Meter (184.108.40.206). Since the theme from the TV show Gilligan’s Island has the same meter we can sing the words of “Amazing Grace” to it. If you’ve never done it before, you should try. I’ll wait.
Because of their stricter adherence to poetic rules, hymns are great candidates for this kind of musical mixing and matching and a number of old hymn tunes actually began as psalm tunes. But as a contemporary service, we don’t do a great number of hymns. We do have a dozen or so that we sing – though in a modernized form. Songs like Chris Tomlin’s “Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)” and Hillsong’s “Cornerstone” fit into this category, but they are a minority in our musical vocabulary. What most of the people in my congregation know are the songs that come on the Christian radio station. For the idea to work, I had to do some counting. I started with just a handful of songs and began working out the meter for the verses, choruses, and bridges.
Metrical psalms pose an additional problem beyond their association with tradition hymns. Most of them are well over a hundred years old and are filled with antiquated language. Not all of them, but most. Thanks to an internet search, I was able to find the Seedbed Psalter, a good modern language version of metrical psalms, as well as online versions of some other modern versions and the older texts.
Thus armed, I started a trial period, crafting one congregational psalm a week for five weeks. I made sure to pick tunes that the congregation would easily recognize. The psalms we sang were the same as the sermon text for the day. After the five week period we took a break for several weeks and asked the people to give feedback on what they thought of singing the psalms. The response was overwhelmingly positive. We have been singing the psalms for about ten months now. I’m still amazed to watch people singing a psalm that they’ve never sung before as if it was a song they’ve known for years.
In recent years, more and more resources have become available to help churches sing the psalms. Some, like the Seedbed website, seek to use traditional hymnody as an avenue to encourage the practice. Others have written completely new songs to match the sacred texts (Shane and Shane are a good example). For my congregation, neither one of these avenues works as a viable worship practice, but by taking the best of both approaches, we have found a solution that works.
In the weeks and months ahead, I will be posting the metrical index of contemporary worship songs and recordings of some of the psalms we have sung in our service.
This is the third in a series of articles that looks at the impact the Trinity has on Christian worship. The material has been adapted from my doctoral thesis.
In the previous article of this series, we examined how the church brings glory to God simply by its existence, aka the church as worship. Turning from the church as worship to the church at worship, we must keep in mind that in both respects, worship is participation in the divine life of the Trinity. The former is concerned with temporal relationships taken up and renewed by the triune God, while the latter is concerned in particular with the divine/human relationship. Among Evangelicals, there exists a tendency to view the divine/human relationship in a direct way. Because the veil has been torn, we often think that humanity can simply come before God as his children. This statement is partly true, but it leaves out a crucial detail: there is only one true Child of God. Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of the Father, is the only human being who has a perfect relationship with the Father, and it is in and through Christ that the rest of humanity are accounted children of God. Moreover, all human experiences of God, with the exception of Jesus’ own experiences, are mediated, and the mediator is Christ.
Regarding the liturgical action of worship, the mediation of Christ rests at the heart of what we do. The Son is in a state of continual worship of the Father and as we enter into worship, the Son’s worship becomes our own, and our worship becomes his as he clothes us in his righteousness and presents us to the Father. Our own works of worship are not worthy of God, but, by the Spirit, our offerings are made acceptable through Christ in the sight of the Father. This pattern is a reversal of the normal action of the economic Trinity. Instead, we are drawn up by the Spirit through the Son into relationship with the Father.
The paradigm of mediated experience necessarily affects the manner in which the worship service should be understood and enacted. For one, worship is an interactive encounter with the God who is three in one. The idea that worship is what we do for God is false. Worship is what we do together with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as we seek to bring glory to God. So, how should we approach worship if it is not wholly our own act? The answer is found in the reality of the triune God.
God is not a static monad, but a Trinity – a community of three persons each relating to the others in unique ways. As mentioned above, the pattern of worship within the Godhead found in Scripture is that of the Spirit glorifying the Son, the Son glorifying the Father, and the Father sharing his glory with the Son and the Spirit. Likewise in us, the Spirit calls us to worship and leads us to worship the Son. The Son, as High Priest, in turn, brings us before the Father that he might receive the ultimate glory. While revelation from God represents a downward movement from the Father through the Son in the Spirit, our response is an upward movement in the Spirit through the Son toward the Father. God calls us to himself, and we answer his call, yet both movements take place with the individual actions of the divine Persons.
This trinitarian understanding of revelation and response forms the basis for all that occurs in a worship service. Everything that happens in a service falls into one of these two categories. The call to worship, the reading of scripture, the preaching of the word, the retelling of the story at communion, and even the benediction are all types of revelation. They are intended to be words from God to his people. On the other hand, our prayers, the passing of the peace (aka the welcome, for us less liturgical types), the collection of the offering, coming to the table, and most of our songs are examples of response.
Let’s look at some specific instances. When we consider the reading of Scripture, here as in other divine actions, we see that the Father speaks through the Son in the power of the Spirit. In the reading of the Scriptures it is not the voice of the reader that is heard, but the voice of Christ. The words of Scripture are not merely of human composition but are the very words of God and when we read them aloud it is Christ who speaks through us. Likewise, in preaching the preacher is meant to be a conduit through which Christ might speak in the power of the Spirit. If we accept that the sermon is a joke and three points of application then we have missed the bigger picture. The most relevant preaching is that which sets our attention on the triune God in whose image and for whose pleasure we were created. Bookstores are stuffed with self-help books. What we need in the sermon is to hear the voice of Christ.
When it comes to our response to God’s self-unveiling prayer is the ultimate paradigm. Prayer at its most simple is communication with God. As such, prayer defines all of our actions in worship. But prayer is not simply something we can do on our own. The access available in prayer is the gift of God. In prayer we engage directly with the whole Trinity. We pray to the Father in Jesus’ name but that prayer is offered up in the power of the Spirit. Praying in Jesus’ name means that our access to the Father in prayer is mediated by Christ. But prayer is also offered in the Spirit, who leads us to Christ. Too often prayer in the Spirit is associated with glossolalia and intense emotional experiences, but the truth is that all prayer is offered in the Spirit, even the most humble mealtime blessing. It is the Spirit who empowers our prayer to God and directs us to Christ the Son. It is Christ the High Priest who brings our prayers before the Father as his own. This same pattern is at the heart of all of our Godward actions in worship.
The question will undoubtedly be asked as to the rightness of praying to Jesus or the Spirit. Though the question attempts to take seriously the norms of the economic Trinity it does seem to miss the wider point. The Son and the Spirit are not lesser beings than the Father. Each of them is in fact fully God and worthy of receiving worship, including prayer. The problem is not worshiping or praying to the Son or Spirit, but instead when we fixate on one Person to the detriment of the other two. The whole doctrine of the Trinity matters, not simply the economic Trinity.
The beating heart of worship is not music. Or preaching. Or even Jesus. No, the heart of worship is the one God who exists eternally as three Persons bound together in a relationship defined by perfect love. Because of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we have a place in that divine relationship. We experience it as we are conformed by the Spirit to the likeness of Christ and the image of God is restored in us. We also experience it as we enter, in Christ by the power of the Spirit, into the ongoing worship within the Godhead. In these things we bring glory to God, and that is what worship is all about.
Cocksworth, Christopher. Holy, Holy, Holy: Worshiping the Triune God (London: Darton, Longman, and Todd Ltd, 1997).
Letham, Robert. The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2004).
Parry, Robin A. Worshiping Trinity: Coming Back to the Heart of Worship (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2012).
Thompson, John. Modern Trinitarian Perspectives (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).
Torrance, James B. Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1996).
Volf, Miroslav. After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998).
Ware, Bruce A. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, and Relevance (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2005).