Psalm Singing, Discerning the Body, and Projected Song Texts

Q  Some people in our church want to sing more psalms. I often respond by saying that we sing songs with verses from the psalms all of the time. Why doesn’t this satisfy them?

A  They may well be thinking of psalm singing in a particular musical style. Ask them to provide some examples of the kind of psalm singing they have in mind. And consider organizing an informal singing session to explore the wide range of psalm settings available. (I have catalogued many of these publications in The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship available at www.faithaliveresources.org.)

As you consider these options, remember, though, that psalm singing involves much more than simply singing favorite verses. Many psalms gain their meaning by either leading us on a journey (for example, from lament to praise in Psalm 22), or by juxtaposing powerful claims (such as the sections on creation and law, the two modes of God’s revelation to us, in Psalm 19). In both cases, we miss much of the meaning if we simply extract a memorable verse from its context. So your psalm-hungry friends may well be raising a topic that goes beyond musical style.

Although it’s perfectly fine to sing some songs that dwell on a single verse, it is also appropriate to sing many of the strong psalm settings that capture the structure or flow of a whole psalm.

Q  What does it mean to “discern the body” at the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:29)?

A  “Discern” is an action verb that involves reflection, judgment, and perception about the nature of what we are doing at the table.

“Body” refers, at minimum, to the church as the body of Christ. This is clear from the context of the passage. As Jeff Weima, professor at Calvin Theological Seminary, explains, Paul is calling the Corinthians “to examine their relationship to their fellow believers and to celebrate the sacrament in a manner that does not humiliate other congregational members. In other words, the apostle is first and foremost calling for a horizontal self-examination” (CTS Forum, Spring 2007, p. 8). Thus, the phrase means primarily “to determine, perceive, and practice what it means to be the church—a community who embodies Jesus’ love.” The central application of this discernment action is beautifully summarized in verse 33: “wait for, receive, and welcome one another” as you gather at the table. It is a powerful antidote to individualism, inhospitality, and arrogance.

At the same time, part of the delight and discovery in the powerful “body” metaphor involves its multiple referents. The physical body of the dying and resurrected Jesus is always in view when we consider the church as the body of Christ. Thus, we gain little by insisting that Paul means only discerning the church as the body of Christ. The text can well be understood, then, to refer to how we perceive the relationship of the bread, Christ’s physical body, and the church as body, and whether we relish each as a gift from God.

I would also add the word “savor” to our description of this action. “Discerning the body” involves much more than simply realizing that the bread and cup are no ordinary snack. When we discern the beauty of the Rocky Mountains, we are left with awe. When we discern the meaning of a significant novel or film, we may be moved to tears. When we discern the body of Christ, we are taken up with delight, awe, and overwhelming gratitude.

Q  A few years ago we installed a screen and projector in our worship space. Do we need to sing every single song from a screen?

A  Absolutely not.

In the past twenty-five years, one of the single greatest changes in worship in many congregations has involved projecting the words and sometimes the music of songs on a screen. Many churches have moved from singing from a printed page 100 percent of the time to singing from a screen 100 percent of the time.

Singing from a screen has some advantages: it is easier to sing with head raised, it allows the singer to raise or clap hands, and it avoids having guests fumble to find the right hymnal page.

Yet singing from a printed page also has some advantages: it allows us to sing with a bowed head or while kneeling, and to see the entire song rather than just the part that fits on a screen at a given time. This is a much overlooked advantage, especially for songs that narrate a story or that compare or contrast images or ideas. In many cases, singing from a printed page makes it easier to sing in harmony or with a descant. It is also easier for people with certain visual disabilities.

Given the pros and cons of each, I recommend that worship planners regularly ask, What mode of singing will best help us render each of the songs in this service? So, for example, three songs in a particular service might be sung best from a screen, and two from the hymnals in the pew racks.

One other option to consider is to sing some music without either a printed or projected text. For simple refrains, have a choir or lead singer sing out a line and invite the congregation to join in. This mode of singing—probably the most ancient and universal mode—can engage our minds and memories at a deep level.

John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin College.