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Singing the Psalms in Modern Worship

The book of Psalms is the prayer book of the church, the template for how we express ourselves to God in worship. Yet the modern evangelical church has used psalms in worship haphazardly. Unlike the Roman Catholic tradition, which mandates the use of certain psalms on certain days; or the historic Reformed church, which allowed no other singing but psalms; the modern church feels no obligation to include psalms in worship.

Modern worship is not devoid of psalms. Many early “Scripture songs” quoted psalm texts verbatim. Many songs in the Praise and Worship genre are inspired by psalms. What Christian songwriter doesn’t feel compelled to go to the book of Psalms for artistic direction?

However, the relationship between psalms and Praise and Worship is uneasy. P&W is derived from pop music, and there isn’t much precedent in pop music for lament, history, wisdom, or other expressions that are common in the psalms. In addition, the psalms don’t rhyme, they use forms such as acrostics that are foreign to pop music, and they certainly don’t fit neatly into the verse/chorus/bridge patterns used in pop.

The composer of modern psalm songs needs to stretch both biblical text and musical idiom so they can meet. Of course, this is true of any musical setting of a psalm text: the demands of the text are set against typical musical aesthetic schemes (how many psalm settings are equally satisfying to theologians and musicians?).

The recordings reviewed below illustrate a wide range of approaches to setting psalm texts to music. Only a handful of these songs successfully recast the original psalm in a way that faithfully illuminates the words or spirit of the text. Even fewer do it in a way that is singable by a congregation. However, they all display a commitment to allowing psalms to shape our faith. My prayer is that modern songwriters will redouble their efforts to translate psalms into modern musical language and that today’s churches will intentionally voice their faith with the rich words of God’s prayer book.

These Things I Remember by Sojourner. Sojourn Community, 2005. (www.sojournchurch.com)

As Praise and Worship recordings become more polished and professional, it’s refreshing to find a CD that emerges from a local church context. This recording from the Sojourn Community in Louisville, Kentucky, is a snapshot of one worshiping community’s musical life. The songs, many of which are based on psalms, range from dobro-tinged folk to blues rock to experimental world beat. All the songs are well written, and many—particularly “Psalm Fifty-Seven,” “Bow,” and “Mourning into Dancing”—are appropriate for group singing. Especially welcome is the inclusion of lament throughout the recording. In fact, the CD starts with the words “All I feel is broken and weary to the bone. I’ve given up the fight and find I have no strength to carry on.” These honest expressions of doubt and confusion create a rich context when words of hope and trust come to the foreground. When the CD ends with the joyful “Mourning into Dancing,” it is no superficial happiness. It is a hard-won, rooted joy, much like the joy in the psalms themselves.

Make A Joyful Noise: Psalms for a New Generation by Paul Field. ICC Studios, 2003. (CD info: http://www.essentialchristian.com/product_info.php?products_id=22637; Artist info: http://www.paulfield.com/)

Though Paul Field has more than 25 albums to his credit and his songs have been recorded by a veritable Who’s Who of pop music (Avalon, Rebecca St. James, and Cliff Richard, to name a few), he is hardly a household name. That’s a shame, because he is an exceptionally fine songwriter. On Make a Joyful Noise, Field has crafted a fine collection of psalm songs for children. Each song distills the message of the psalm into a simple and memorable musical message that can be sung by children. The upbeat songs are energetic without being trite and the ballads are sweet without being syrupy. In “Surrounded by His Love (Psalm 23)” the folk/pop music style amplifies the psalm’s comforting message; the simple “I Will Hide Your Word Inside My Heart (Psalm 119)” could be sung prior to the reading of Scripture; “Hold On (Psalm 40)” is a kid-sized lament; “Now and Forevermore (Psalm 121)” is a beautiful benediction or bedtime song. Fields is serious about people doing more than just listening to the CD—he’s included PDF files of the music (vocal, piano, chords) and lyrics for overhead projection.

Psalms by Shane Barnard and Shane Everett. Inpop Records, 2002. (www.inpop.com)

Shane and Shane are both fine musicians and songwriters. Their talent and creativity shine on this recording, which lies somewhere between acoustic pop and jam band. Though the CD is entitled Psalms, few of the songs stay close to the original psalm texts. Most are either meditations on a psalm or songs that use psalm-like language. Having said that, some of the songs do an admirable job of expressing the deeper emotions of the Psalms, such as lament. This is a satisfying recording, but overall not well-suited to congregational singing.

Psalms: Faithfully Yours by Margaret Becker and David Edwards. Here to Him Music, 2004. (http://www.christianbook.com/Christian/Books/product/?item_no=CD36324&p=1006648)

Margaret Becker is a consistently strong but overlooked artist. Though known as a CCM singer, her entry into worship has yielded songs such as “Jesus, Draw Me Ever Nearer” co-written with Keith Getty. David Edwards is a lesser-known worship leader, but certainly makes a significant contribution to the CD. Here they have joined forces to create songs using the “actual word-for-word text of the new Holman Christian Standard translation of the Bible.” As a review in Christianity Today pointed out, this CD is not cutting-edge music. However, most of the songs are very singable. Becker and Edward make it clear that they intend this music to be sung by congregations by including PDF files of the songs on the CD. This strong collection of songs could easily become part of a church’s repertoire.

The Graham Kendrick Psalm Collection. Make Way Music, 2002. (www.makewaymusic.com)

Spanning Kendrick’s career, this collection illustrates his skill for crafting lyrics that stay close to the original psalm and pairing them with memorable, singable melodies. Lyrically, the songs are similar to metrical psalms or to the psalm-based hymns of Watts and Wesley. Musically the recordings come alive with the assistance of a tight band, sizzling horns, and spot-on backing vocals. At times the musical style is dated; because the music style is so closely wed to the “celebration” paradigm of worship popularized in the 1980s and ’90s, it is doubtful that these songs will enjoy a resurgence in popularity. We can hope that Kendrick will revisit the psalms, applying his considerable skills to writing new psalm songs with music that will wear better over time.

King of Glory: Worship from the Book of Psalms by Scott Brenner. Scott Brenner Music. (www.scottbrenner.org)

In King of Glory Scott Brenner has created a beautiful, rhapsodic tapestry of the psalms. The elastic musical forms he uses allow him to follow the peaks and valleys of the texts’ emotions. Rich melodies are supported by a tight rhythm section and tasteful electric guitar work, intertwined with emotionally moving oboe, recorder, and cello lines. The orchestral approach and the focus on the words of Scripture remind one of Michael Card, but Brenner’s project does an even better job of amplifying the emotions of the psalm text and shining new light on their meaning. Little of this music is congregational in nature, but it makes for satisfying listening.

Celtic Psalms by Eden’s Bridge. StraightWay/EMI, 1997. (http://www.edensbridge.net/)

It’s good to hear music that doesn’t fit into the narrow sound of the typical Praise and Worship genre. Though the music style is out of the mainstream, the project has enjoyed considerable success, even reaching the Top 100 Christian album charts. The songs are in light Celtic folk-pop style similar to Clannad, which fits the earthy, psalm-based lyrics well. Ethereal vocals float above mesmerizing washes of instrumental harmonies and rhythms, but a strong backbone of melody and form runs through each song. Though most praise bands don’t include these songs in their repertoire, many would work well in a congregational context.

Prayerbook, No. 1 by Brian Moss, 2005. (http://www.prayerbookproject.com/)

Moss’s ambitious goal is to write songs based on all 150 psalms. He is off to a good start with the fifteen songs on Prayerbook, No. 1 (Psalms 1-15). The music is competently composed, skillfully performed, and creatively recorded; it is equal in quality to many modern worship CDs on major labels. Moss does an excellent job of interpreting the spirit of the original psalm text into a modern context, both musically and lyrically. The result is a CD that truly feels like sung prayer. From the unbounded joy of “Your Glory on Display” (Psalm 8) to the fearful prayer of “Arise, O Lord” (Psalm 3), the songs are both faithful to the psalms and honest first-person expressions. Moss writes about the theology behind the songs and a host of other interesting topics in his blog (http://www.prayerbookproject.com/). Some of the songs could be sung in whole or in part by congregations, but most are more appropriate as performance/listening pieces. Let’s hope that in future volumes of the Prayerbook, Moss will include more songs for congregational singing—that would be a gift to the church!