Whole Worship from the Whole Psalter

Four Ideas for a Holistic Approach to Incorporating Psalms in Worship

Several years ago, our church made a deliberate decision to incorporate more of the psalms in worship. For some congregations this would be a new practice, but in our case, it’s a return to our roots, and there is no doubt that it has been good for us. We have learned again to address God with the language of scripture. We have rediscovered lament—and how appropriate that was during the pandemic! We have led even our most sober and sullen worshipers in praise so exuberant they would have thought it inappropriate if it weren’t on the pages of their Bibles. We have preached imprecatory texts so violent we sometimes wish they had been left out of the psalter, and yet they have helped us wrestle with the horrors shown on the evening news.

But even the best practices need a little tune-up along the way, especially when the newness wears off, and they risk becoming just another element of worship that happens more by rote than conscious choice. My denominational responsibilities and ministry roles have given me the opportunity to observe corporate worship in dozens of churches from varying traditions, so I’ve had a bird’s-eye view of the new psalm settings rolling out. I’ve come away with a few pointers that have been helpful as I minister in my home congregation, and they just might give the psalms a boost in your own ministry setting.

1. Be more intentional about using the psalms in worship

Many congregations that have incorporated more psalms in worship have either received pushback or experienced something less than the hoped-for effect because they weren’t clear and intentional about what they were doing. In many worship services I attend, I see quotes from the psalms fly by in a prayer or call to worship—or even an entire psalm used as a congregational song—without mentioning where the words come from. As a preacher, I want my people to connect with the text of scripture at every opportunity, and when they do encounter the text, I want them to recognize it as the voice of God in their context. We may not use only psalms in our worship, as some of our sister Reformed churches do, but we do believe that there is something uniquely inspired about the words of scripture that sets them apart from lyrics written by Newton, Toplady, the Gettys, the Gaithers, or the Watts brothers, as good as those hymnwriters are.

As you incorporate more of the psalms in your liturgy and in your preaching, tell your congregation what you are doing and why. When a psalm appears in worship, take an extra moment to highlight the words of scripture. It can be as simple as including the reference after a biblical text.

In each of our Sunday services, morning and evening, at least one psalm features prominently, either as a responsive reading, a song, a call to worship, or the anchoring structure of the pastoral prayer. While admittedly I don’t give the psalm the full exegetical study reserved for the text I will preach that day, I do take the time to dig into it a bit (see sidebar on p. 37). Providing just a few lines of background before the psalm is read or sung will make the worship experience that much more meaningful.



When was it written?
What is its purpose?
What does the psalm’s structure and progression suggest about the psalmist’s relationship with God?
Is it a psalm of lament or a wisdom psalm?
Does the psalm’s historical, cultural, or situational context make it particularly relevant at this point in the life of our congregation?
• What literary elements stand out—a repeated phrase, perhaps, or a play on words in the original Hebrew?


2. Explore outside the box of your traditional worship habits

Buried deep in the past of most denominations are one or two old habits surrounding the psalms. I have visited many Presbyterian congregations that have responded to the psalms’ resurgence by dusting off their old psalters and reviving the responsive psalm with a refrain. Many hymnbooks include a selection of several dozen metrical psalms, often grouped in one section. For many of us seeking to return the psalms to our worship, these resources are low-hanging fruit—the easiest first step. A corporate memory of using the psalms in this way often means a congregation can resurrect them without too much pushback.

But refreshing one or two old habits from the past will only take your congregation so far. People will be on board as long as the recovered practice feels new, but it may quickly fade into just another rote practice. And  having just one or two methods of incorporating psalms into worship doesn’t expose your congregation to the full range of emotion and thought they contain. Some of the psalms are to be exuberantly sung aloud in public with full choir and musical accompaniment as a hearty anthem of praise. A good half dozen of the psalms were written to be whispered by a contrite worshiper drawing near to God with less-than-clean hands and confessing the deep secrets of the heart. Vary your congregation’s experience of the psalms by using approaches appropriate to the content.

On any given Sunday, a psalm might appear as:

  • a call to worship (Psalm 95:1–7; 124:8)
  • a responsive reading, with or without a sung refrain (Psalm 107; 136)
  • a dramatized reading with two or more voices (Psalm 2 and Psalm 89 work well because they contain dialogue) 
  • a quiet chorus leading hearts to worship as the service begins (Psalm 8:1; 28:1–2; 34:8)
  • a rousing congregational song to end the service
    • Psalm 136: “Give to Our God Immortal Praise” Watts
    • Psalm 146: “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah” Kirkpatrick
    • Psalm 150: “Praise the Lord! His Glories Show” Lyte
  • a printed confessional reading that congregants are invited to silently pray before receiving communion (Psalm 51:7–12; 139:23–24)

There are about a dozen special-occasion Sundays during the year where the celebratory portion of the service can be anchored by a psalm that speaks to the topic:

  • Memorial Day: Psalm 46
  • Thanksgiving Sunday: Psalm 7, 69, 95, 107
  • Mother’s Day / Father’s Day: Psalm 91, 103
  • The church’s anniversary: Psalm 100, 150
  • The first Sunday of the year: Psalm 65
  • Child dedication/baptism: Psalm 127, 139

The psalms also prepare us for and support us during difficult seasons of life. In fact, nearly half of the psalms are psalms of lament, including Psalms 13, 63, 71, 90, 121, and 130. 

3. Preach regularly from Psalms

Ensuring that your people really connect with the psalms requires more than reading and singing portions of the psalter on Sunday mornings with a quick commentary. There should also regularly be Sundays where a psalm serves as the preached text for the day—opened, exposited, commented, and applied. Because reading a psalm is different from reading the epistles or reading a narrative text, as you preach from a psalm you want to reach both the hearts and the minds of your congregation. Your immediate goal should be to lead the congregation in the emotion of the text, joining in the lament or the praise, but you also want to equip them to open and apply the psalms in their own devotional reading.

The next question is which psalm to preach—and when. You can’t really handle the 150 psalms like you would a continuous six-week series through Galatians or Malachi. Can you imagine taking more than three years’ worth of Sunday mornings to preach through the psalms?

Those who preach from the lectionary might simply choose to occasionally opt for the week’s assigned psalm. Compared to a parable from the gospels or a well-known Old Testament narrative, the psalm is not always the easiest choice for preaching, but it is well worth the extra effort.

When planning your preaching calendar for the year, or at least several months ahead, try including a psalm as the preaching focus for unique Sundays such as the first Sunday of the year, Thanksgiving, or Mother’s Day. In addition to those standalone “Psalm Sundays,” I also regularly craft a five- or six-week series around particular themes in the psalms. 

There are a number of books about psalms that are helpful in preaching and worship planning. I used the bilingual book En la escuela de los Salmos / At Psalms School (see the Resources sidebar on p. 39) as the basis of a multimedia series introducing the congregation to the elements of worship. And because the important task of teaching our congregations to worship is never complete, I am already planning my next series on worship that will expand on Rhett P. Dodson’s Marching to Zion, a book about the Psalms of Ascent. To spice up the summer Sunday evening preaching schedule, I am preparing a series on the imprecatory psalms.

Psalms have also featured prominently in our worship and preaching in the aftermath of tragedies, when the meticulously planned preaching and worship grid must be set aside. On the first Sundays following 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing, the Sandy Hook tragedy, and more recently the invasion of Ukraine, the psalms became the outlet for our fears and brought the comfort and solace the congregation needed. In weeks when those kinds of tragedies strike, your preachers and your worship leaders will likely not have time to prepare effectively, so be ready ahead of time. My preaching files include some advance work on several difficult psalms so a sermon would be nearly ready to go at a moment’s notice. Our musicians and worship team regularly practice and prepare psalms of lament and mourning that become part of a repertoire we can draw from when appropriate.


From Reformed Worship
Here are some suggestions from Reformed Worship (RW) for preaching series on the psalms. They can be found at ReformedWorship.org by searching by the article title or issue number. On the website you can also find many additional resources and service outlines for specific psalms. Subscribers have full access to the website as well as the digital library of issues after RW 120. 

“‘Come, Let Us Worship and Bow Down’: Service Plans for a Four-Week Series Based Entirely on the Psalms” (RW 52)
• “Songs for a Lifelong Journey: Service Plans for Lent Based on the Psalms of Ascent” (RW 54)
• “Worshiping with the Psalms” (RW 120)
•“Psalm 23: A Twelve-Week Series for Ordinary Time” (RW 147)

Other Ideas
An Advent or Lent series based on the messianic psalms
• A series about the highs and lows of life based on David’s descriptions of his valleys and mountaintops in his psalms
An introduction to Psalms that presents the different psalm styles and how they are to be used by working through the very different psalms that introduce each of the five divisions in Psalms 
(1, 42, 73, 90, and 107) 


4. Draw from the whole psalter

How many sermons have you heard on Psalm 23? Or 90? Or 121? How often have you heard those familiar lines about a deer panting for water? If there is the danger of overfamiliarity with the way we incorporate psalms, there is an even greater danger of overfamiliarity with our choice of psalms. Only a handful of the 150 psalms get any significant coverage. We go back to our favorites again and again. But we need to give our congregations the full scope of the psalms and the full breadth of emotion and theology they carry. Some of the least familiar or hardest to read psalms teach us important things about God and about ourselves that we don’t get anywhere else.

When I work with the musicians to plan the liturgy, we plot details about worship into a spreadsheet that includes the musical selections, calls to worship, scripture texts, preaching topics, and other elements for each week. There is a separate column to note the psalm that is featured each Sunday and how it will be used: as a responsive psalm, a congregational song, or something else. This allows us to look back at what ground we’ve covered and where we’re headed. But I still needed something a little more visual to help me track which psalms have been covered, so several years ago I picked up an inexpensive pocket psalter. It’s a press-grain paperback with wide margins that are now covered with handwritten notes. Each time we use a psalm, I note the date and how it was used next to its heading. I can now tell you for sure that over the last two years, between Sunday mornings and evenings, between the preaching, praying, singing, and calls to worship, every psalm has been covered at least once. Now we are beginning our second go-around.

Like many other portions of scripture that, regrettably, we seldom read, the neglected parts of the psalter contain valuable treasures well worth the effort to discover. Close and intentional collaboration between musicians, liturgists, and preachers can help ensure that we are indeed allowing our people to benefit from “the whole counsel of God,” including the whole of the psalter in all its breadth of emotion and wealth of teaching.



I can already hear somebody asking about Psalm 119—you know, the long one. I didn’t deal with it on a single Sunday. As I read and reread and reread this psalm, I realized that the central focus of all 176 verses was scripture. It is conveniently divided into twenty-two  sections of eight verses each. In our Presbyterian tradition, one of the important parts of the liturgy is the prayer for illumination before scripture is read and expounded. Each eight-verse unit became one of those prayers for illumination. I would offer a quick comment about what the day’s section teaches us about God’s Word, and then I would pray the eight-verse text before introducing the sermon and the text of the day.



Ash, Christopher. Teaching Psalms, vols. 1 and 2. Christian Focus Publications, 2017.
Psalms for All Seasons: A Complete Psalter for Worship. Copublished by The Calvin Institute for Christian Worship, Faith Alive, and Brazos, 2011.
Trinity Psalter Hymnal. Joint publication of the Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Psalter Hymnal Committee of the United Reformed Churches in North America, 2018.
Webber, Christopher. A New Metrical Psalter. The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1986.
Wells, C. Richard and Ray Ven Nests, eds. Forgotten Songs: Reclaiming the Psalms for Christian Worship. B&H Publishing Group, 2012.
Witvliet, John D., María Eugenia Cornou, and Joel E. Schoon-Tanis. En la escuela de los Salmos / At Psalms School. GIA Publications, Inc., 2019.


Rev. Joel Coppieters has pastored Côte-des-Neiges Presbyterian Church, a thriving multiethnic congregation in Montreal, Quebec, since 2012. He also serves as interim moderator for several other congregations in the greater Montreal area. He writes extensively, serves on several boards, and is active on Presbyterian Church of Canada committees.

Reformed Worship 152 © June 2024, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.