The Use of Psalms in Contemporary Christian Worship: Perspectives and methods Essay
The Use of Psalms in Contemporary Christian Worship: Perspectives and methods
The Psalms have been a beloved, educational and spiritually uplifting part of Christian worship since its early days. For many denominations the use of the Psalms has become deeply vested in church tradition. Recitations were, and still are, a familiar ritual for many who adhere to the “traditional” formats of Christian worship.
This, interestingly, is part of the reason why Psalm usage fell into disfavor in contemporary worship formats. The language, themes and ritual usage in the traditional service did not carry the same meaningfulness to many contemporary-minded worshippers. The exploding genre of modern Christian music and writing have in one sense pushed the Psalms aside. More recently, though, these artists have reinforced the meanings and encouraged the usage of the Psalms.
In recent years the role and importance of the Psalms in contemporary worship have been reevaluated. Contemporary worshippers are being reintroduced to the Psalms in new, creative ways. Younger generations of worshippers are reconnecting with the universal themes written in the Book of Psalms. The importance of Psalms in both traditional and contemporary formats remains substantial.
Psalms in worship – a brief history
The Psalms were an important part of worship even before the Christian church came into being. Christ reinforced the notion that they were a gift of God, encouraging their study and use in Judaic worship. Kortering writes that: “Christ himself made great use of the Psalms, impressing upon his disciples that the Psalms spoke of him” (2008). The Psalms have also been a source of comfort for centuries. “The Psalms have ever been a response to these deep yearnings: cries of the soul…souls of surrender…paens of praise” (Merrill, 2007). From that context, they were incorporated into the early Christian church as songs, readings or chants.
Psalm singing is a heritage rather than a tradition. They are widely considered to be an inspired gift from God. At the same time, some contemporary worship leaders have greatly diminished their usage. Some of the Psalms speak to disturbing themes given the later context of the New Testament. As Kortering puts it: “From time to time the question is raised as to the adequacy of the Psalms for the New Testament church…Some of them are almost opposite the spirit of the gospel” (2008). Some Psalms pray for material wealth and harm to enemies among other darker themes.
Others, however, are soaring verses about the grace, generosity and forgiveness of God. The Psalms also prophesy the coming of Christ making them all the more relevant to contemporary worshippers. As a body of work, the Psalms are an eloquent and emotional reflection of the human experience. They prompt the reader or listener toward self-reflection and can lead to a growth in faith if used in meaningful, non-repetitive ways.
Psalms may be used in contemporary services in any number of ways. A responsive reading format is sometimes used to worshippers to interact with the minister. According to Rienstra, “A congregation calls forth his best gifts as a preacher when they interact with him” (2006). The Psalm chosen might relate to the Pastors’ message, church events or even world and cultural events. Along similar lines, dramatized readings, skits and video presentations can also be used to make the Psalms come to life for the worshippers.
Given that the Psalms were written for singing; they lend themselves to a wide variety of performance formats. An increasing number of contemporary worshippers are returning to the Psalms in new creative ways. Leonard notes that: “a wealth of Christian song in popular or contemporary style, a feature of the Praise and Worship movement; much of this music takes the form of Scripture songs using Psalm texts” (1997).
Contemporary Christian artists are adapting traditional melodies and rhythms associated with the Psalms to create dynamic new anthems for worship. Psalm inspired music written for soloists, vocal combos, praise bands and congregational singing are becoming more common. Many well-known contemporary artists are finding that the Psalms are a ripe source for inspiration. Their subsequent usage of the Psalms in new music has had an effect on increased acceptance of their usage in worship.
Some congregations are using the Psalms in even more creative ways. An example would be a “Psalm Festival”, held recently by a Calvinist congregation. The festival featured the performance of Psalms in a wide variety of ways, from chants to contemporary renditions to skits. The festival had a unique coming together effect on the audiences and participants. Attendees were an even mix of older and younger, traditional and contemporary worshippers.
Young people more likely to be contemporary worshippers were just as enthusiastic about the festival as older, traditional worshippers more used to the usage of Psalms in services. As one participant put it: “Young people in their busy lives as college students have just as much need to center their hearts and minds on God as older people” (Graff, 2005).
The secret to the mysterious power of the Psalms may be related to their unique poetic format. “Poetry may claim a special place in our world because it can sometimes push us beyond the simplifications we see every day” (Templeton, 2000). For reflective contemporary worshippers the beauty of the Psalms can help re-awaken spirituality and foster continued growth in faith.
Analysis and conclusion
Contemporary services are, by their nature, less bound by tradition. The Psalms have a long history of usage in the traditional Christian church. They are used musically, but also as rote, habitual readings during services. For the early generations of “contemporary” Christian worshippers some of the meaningfulness and spirituality of the Psalms had been lost along the way. Some of the Psalms also professed “un-Christian” themes, making contemporary worshippers uncomfortable with their usage. Since the overriding goal of contemporary worship organizers was to become more authentically Christ-centered, the use of the Psalms in services was de-emphasized over a number of years.
In recent years there has been a rediscovery of the power and spirituality of the Psalms. They vividly illustrate human hopes, emotions and imperfections. They also praise Gods’ forgiveness, power and mercy. They prophesy the coming of a savior while at the same time illustrating the need for him. In those ways, the Psalms relate just as much to contemporary worshippers as they do to traditional worshippers. They comprise a uniquely written statement of faith and human frailty that can be applicable to us today.
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