Using Psalms in Worship

September 5th, 2012

Psalms in worship can be an awkward thing, particularly when the format changes from week to week (some readers will have the congregation read the whole psalm; some alternate verses; some weeks the choir sings the psalm, with or without congregational participation). Variety is indeed the spice of life (and worship, often), so changing psalm format from week to week is not necessarily problematic—just make sure your congregation knows what is coming. Spoken instructions before a psalm are never a bad thing—remember that most psalms begin with just such instructions.

More problematic, though, is when psalms in worship become part of an unexamined routine, and congregation members find the psalms tiresome or no longer pay much attention to the words. What follows, then, are a few suggestions for new ways to approach the psalms in worship, to keep the songs of God’s poets fresh and to help your congregants hear them with new ears.

Sing, sing, sing

The psalms were written to be sung. If your church does not have a culture of singing when it comes to the psalms, develop one. This is a great opportunity for collaboration among clergy and music staff, planning psalms for each week. Many hymnals have extensive sections for the psalms, and psalm settings abound in almost all liturgical musical forms—chant, Taizé, hymns, spirituals, gospel songs, and so on. Singing the psalms is an excellent way to get your congregation back into experiencing the psalms as poetry, particularly when they are called on to sing along (with the psalm refrain, at a minimum). If you already sing the psalms, experiment with new forms and settings.

Explore intertextuality

There are many references to the psalms throughout the Bible, and particularly in the New Testament. Play with that fact. For example, Psalm 2:9 is referenced three times in the book of Revelation; maybe that verse could serve as a sung refrain during a reading from Revelation. If it is Good Friday and your text includes Matthew 27:46—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (a reference to Psalm 22:1)—think about reading or singing Psalm 22 in its entirety at some point in the service. Psalms are also referenced in many popular prayers and hymns, so bring out those references liturgically. Surprise your congregation with a joyous singing of Psalm 100 in place of the Doxology one week (the Doxology = “Old 100th” = Psalm 100, originally). The psalms are the heart and soul of biblical and liturgical traditions, and that is worth emphasizing liturgically.

Revise and surprise

One of the most engaging and worshipful psalms I ever heard was not in the Bible, strictly speaking. It was the beginning of the school year at Yale Divinity School, and Professor Margot Fassler rose to read Psalm 150, perhaps the most celebratory psalm of all. She began with the normal verses: “Praise the Lord! Praise God in the sanctuary, praise God in the mighty firmament!” But before we knew it, it was, “Praise God for teachers, praise God for students!” The psalm became specific to our community and was all the more powerful. Some people might shy away from changing the words to scripture; but done well and faithfully, it can be powerful. And this could be true not just for celebratory psalms, but for psalms of lament or contrition as well. How could a psalm speak differently to your community if some of the words—the letter, but not the spirit—were changed?

Combine a psalm reading or singing with visual media

The imagery in many psalms calls out for visual representation, particularly visual representation that may extend or broaden the meaning of the psalm. Consider combining the psalm with a slideshow of artwork, a dance (if it is done well), or a serious pantomime. Bobby McFerrin’s setting of Psalm 23 (which uses female language for God) combined with projected photographs of mothers nurturing their children could be a powerful liturgical element for Mother’s Day, for instance. Or imagine a communal reading of Psalm 51 during Lent joined to a video of a person walking through the desert. The possibilities are endless here and merely require imagination.

Examine the complete works

Monastic traditions often work their way through all 150 psalms in a single week or month, given the multiple services they have each day. And although you are probably not going to convince your congregation to meet for worship seven times a day each day for a week, you do have fifty-two Sundays each year with which to work. Spend a calendar year making your way through the psalms one by one (or three by three, to fit them in). Preach on the psalms during the year or offer a small group studying them and signing them. Attention to the entire collection of psalms will make congregations attentive to the psalms in new ways, as well as open their eyes to the shape of the book of psalms itself.

These suggestions can help revitalize the use of psalms in your worship, and they are merely the tip of the iceberg. Using the psalms in worship in innovative ways is only limited by your imagination. Consider these and other possibilities, and then make a joyful noise to God!

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