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 184.108.40.206 or CM (Common Meter – 220.127.116.11). So, for example, “Amazing Grace” is in Common Meter (18.104.22.168). 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.