Steadfast in Worship: Why Doesn’t Contemporary Worship Sing the Psalms?

psalmChristian worship has always made significant use of the Psalms, which have always been meant to be sung.  No matter what your approach to Biblical instruction in the area of music in worship, from strict “regulative-ist” to libertine “normative-ist,” there is no getting away from the fact that of all the directives to the New Testament church regarding worship, this one specific instruction is repeated (Ephesians 5:18-19, Colossians 3:16):  Sing the Psalms!  (The meaning of “hymns” and “spiritual songs” aside, it is clear enough that the actual Psalms are to be part of our musical vocabulary.)  They are quoted constantly throughout the New Testament by authors who no doubt had a strong familiarity with them due to the place of prominence they had in the Jewish and emerging Christian spirituality of the time.  Paul commends this to all Christians everywhere.

As does the example of Christ.  The Psalms are the answer to the question “What would Jesus sing?”  Indeed, they are not only the songs that Christ did sing as an observant Jew, they are the song of Christ Himself!  As the living Word, these poems, like all Scripture, testify to Him, and are dripping with Christo-centricity.  They are essential to the formation of our understanding of what praise, thankfulness, repentance, lament, and trust during hardship look like.  As Bonhoeffer says:

“It does not depend, therefore, on whether the Psalms express adequately that which we feel at a given moment in our heart. If we are to pray aright, perhaps it is quite necessary that we pray contrary to our own heart.”

The Psalms teach us the heart of Christ.  There is no better way to solidify these texts as anchors of our spirituality than to sing them.  Doing so more deeply engrains them in our memories.  They challenge all faux spirituality and pretentious piety by their unfiltered bluntness and relentless honesty.  No negative emotions are hidden in their depths, as 69% of them are in the genre of lament.  In singing the Psalms, we remove the mask of the “good Christians” that organized religion pressures us to be, and confess who we truly are in light of the goodness of who God is.  And through this often painful journey of self discovery, we come to delight in and rejoice over who God is for us and what He has done for us, in Christ.  They confront us with sentiments and emotions we prefer to hide from, that make us uncomfortable, and bring them into the light of God’s grace.  When you begin to sing the Psalms, you will find yourself singing things about yourself and about God that you have never sung before.  That there are churches who do not avail themselves of this spiritual boon at all is plain insanity for those who claim to be disciples of Christ.

Throughout the centuries, various expressions of Christendom have found diverse means of carrying this out, from the antiphonal chanting of Augustine’s time to the metrical paraphrases of the Reformers, Anglican chant to polyphonic motets and anthems, modern responsorial settings or brief versicles and suffrages.  You will find these expressions core to the doxological anthologies of Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, and Presbyterian/Reformed church bodies.  The number of resources available to assist congregations seeking to sing the Psalms in worship is tremendous.  Most churches following a lectionary sing a whole chapter or pericope from the Psalms weekly, some even more if the introit is sung.


The one exception from this is where traditional lectionary based churches do “contemporary” services.  Even if they retain the other readings, the Psalm is never sung.  There is no tradition common to the current demographic of global Christianity that makes less use of the Psalms than contemporary worship.  Walk into any generic Evangelical contemporary service and you will find no evidence of the concept that the church ever even used to sing the Psalms.  In LCMS churches who mimic their iconoclast leadership, where the “new worship plan” looks remarkably similar to what was trending in Evangelicalism 15 years ago with music led by guitar and band, the Psalms are rarely present.  In both cases, when they do appear at all, they are usually read responsively, or as a brief snippet in between songs with ambient underscore, or as a simple Scripture reading.  Contemporary congregations that go even that far are a minority.  And yet they tout their equivalence to the tradition of Divine Service as a mere difference in style and not in substance.  If you’re not singing the Psalms, there is a significant substantive difference in your worship, in addition to a harmful selective reading of the New Testament.

A common defense used by the proponents of contemporary worship is that they do, in fact, sing the psalms, because of the many praise songs that pull words, phrases, or ideas from the Psalms, in a sort of “the Message” paraphrase (plenty of examples can be found in this handy resource).  But borrowing a few lines or phrases is not the equivalent of singing the whole text, as if singing “Praise the Lord” and “God is holy,” was the same singing the Psalms just because they also include those phrases.  Chris Tomlin’s “Forever” is commendable for it’s direct quotes to and allusions from Psalm 136 (better contemporary songwriting sticks as close to the words of Scripture as possible), but let’s not kid ourselves:  It’s not the same thing as actually singing Psalm 136.  Not even close.  This Psalm recounts the history of God leading the Israelites out of slavery.  It doesn’t merely say a few nice things about God.  It proclaims his mighty works on behalf of his people in detail.  The “Psalm-ish” sentiments populating contemporary Christian music hardly do this.  On rare occasion, a real gem will come through that actually deals fairly with a significant portion of a pericope, but for the most part it is safe to say that contemporary Christian music lacks a serious engagement with the practice of singing the Psalms congregationally, especially as it is practiced in congregations of the LCMS.

You actually can find, without having to look too hard, plenty of resources for singing the Psalms in contemporary worship (starting with this handy index).  A lot of it makes wonderful ear candy, even if it isn’t accessible enough for congregational singing or easily achievable by your volunteer musicians.  I find much of it very useful for meditation on God’s Word, and it’s been the stuff of my iPod for years.  You won’t be hearing much of it on Christian radio anytime soon, or see it at the top of CCLI popularity charts, even though I think it is more artistic, creative, and engaging than anything on Christian radio by leaps and bounds.

It all kind of makes me wonder.  If the Scriptures are relatively clear on this and the benefits are easily discernible, why the lack of Psalm singing?  I almost looks like a disregard for the Bible’s instruction on worship.  If your congregation does contemporary worship or has a contemporary service, does it include the singing of Psalms?  Why not?

Most of the resources I’ve linked here come from the broader Reformed community.  Kudos to their many musicians who are laboring to develop the singing of Psalms in their congregations.  It is time for us to take the fingers out of our ears, follow their lead in pursuing biblical fidelity, and check our blind alliance to the commercial driven industries of explicitly charismatic Integrity and Hillsong music.  Sing the Psalms, or quit pretending your worship is either Biblical or faithfully Lutheran.

Congregations of the LCMS using contemporary worship are without excuse for their neglect of congregational Psalmody.  For those so inclined to work towards recovering the practice, here are a few additional resources:

Index of congregational Psalms:

Contemporary Psalm recordings (great listening!):

Example of an excellent contemporary Psalm setting:

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