What follows is an excerpt from a letter to a fellow pastor who asked me for some help with the discussions on worship that are happening in his church.
In my first pastorate, I had to build the foundation for church music from the ground up, because they didn’t sing at all. So just getting to the point where we sang anything required some teaching.
When talking about standards for worship, I have discovered the hard way that a preface is required. Our worship is accepted before God’s throne for the same reason that we are accepted before God’s throne: because of Christ. So sing off-key in your shower or in the living room with all the kids beating rhythm instruments out of sync, and know that God accepts your worship. When we talk about improving our worship, it is important that no note of condemnation creep in, as though God rejects what we’re doing now, but if we’ll just work a little harder, then we will be accepted. No indeed. We are fully accepted in the Beloved already. But we are not all grown up yet. Standards in worship are about growing in maturity, blossoming into walking worthy of the acceptance God has already lavished on us.
That said, I approach worship music from two basic angles of attack. The first one is just straightforward obedience to New Testament commands. In other words, we need to stop asking “What do I want to sing?” and start asking “What does God want to hear?” Since Abel, the determining factor in all worship is what God wants to receive, and since Cain, we’ve been insisting on offering what we want to give instead. (I find this shift is key to getting the congregation to discuss worship well. Without it, the whole discussion is just a battle about whose preferences should win out, and that’s useless and divisive.)
But what does God want to hear?
One of the answers to that is “the Psalms.” We are told that we should sing Psalms in the NT (Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16, Jam. 5:13). Of the three passages, only one is a direct command. The other two are descriptions of a Spirit-filled life — but one presumes that the traits characterizing a Spirit-filled life are desirable and should be cultivated. We are not told that we should sing only psalms (in fact, the Psalms themselves tell us to sing a new song). The range of meaning of the word “psalms” may be broader than just the 150 biblical psalms — but it certainly doesn’t mean less than that. So the 150 furnish us a starting place, a primer for what God-honoring worship music can be.
I had someone bring this home to me about 12 years ago, and I set about in earnest to learn some singable version of each psalm. I’m not there yet, but I’m a long way down the road, and it’s been life-changing. Along the way, I’ve partnered up with musicians to create singable versions of the Psalms; to date I can sing about 40 psalms and an assortment of other biblical songs (Song of Moses, Song of the Bow, etc.)
Some implications quickly become apparent when you really try to do this. The first one is that musical style preferences are very secondary. God gave us the lyrics; what the music must do, above all, is match the lyric God gave. For Psalm 150, there really should be cymbals; the music had better be loud and boisterous. For Psalm 51, it had better not be. Psalm 23 can be sung as a march (as in the Genevan setting) or as a lullaby (as the setting in Sing Psalms has it) — both are accurate representations of major themes in the psalm. In fact, I started a sermon on Psalm 23 last year by singing both versions back to back and then asking, “Which one of those is true?” and going from there.
A serious effort to sing the psalms also means leaving a lot of your prejudices behind when it comes to what constitutes good worship. If you come from a sing-all-10-verses-of-the-hymn background, you’re going to hate Psalm 136 (so much repetition!). If you come from a sing-the-chorus-15-times background, you’re not going to know what to do with Psalm 18, because the information load is just huge. (A musician working with us made Psalm 18 into a cycle of 5 songs that can be sung as stand-alone pieces, or all together as a single unit. It takes 23 minutes to sing the whole thing, and it took him nearly 6 weeks to write.)
Of course, we are not Hebrews, so we don’t speak Hebrew; we translate the language. We also don’t sing Hebrew music; we do a culturally appropriate translation in terms of ethnomusicology as well. But we ought not to mangle the psalm text in order to try to make a 3-minute pop song (or a 4-verse Common Meter hymn) out of it. In other words, it needs to be good translation, and that means that it will be musically different from what we’re used to. God means to transform our music, and the Psalms are one of the tools that He will use to do it. (By the way, Matt Jacoby, the founder of Sons of Korah, talks about this process in an interview that’s on one of their CDs. It’s worth hearing.) As we submit ourselves to the demands of rendering each psalm well, we will become better composers, better musicians, better worshippers.
I should warn you that my own personal revolution regarding worship started exactly here, with seeking to obey the NT instruction on singing psalms. I had no idea what I was getting into; I was just trying to do what God said I should do. As always, when you write God a blank check, He’ll take you places you never dreamed….
I said there were two angles of attack. The second one is the book of Hebrews. The
basic orientation I take is outlined in the paper I presented at a plenary session for GES National Conference back in 2010, called The Forgotten Sanctuary.
In a nutshell, I believe that Hebrews tells us that in our gathered worship, we are before God’s throne in the heavenly tabernacle. I believe that gives us a good set of guidelines for choosing what’s appropriate in worship, and what is not. I can say it better now than I did back then, and in simpler terms: “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” That’s what we’re seeking to do, in worship as in all else. So when we see what His will is like for heavenly worship, that tells us what earthly worship should aspire to.
This has gotten long enough, so I’ll stop here. Of course I can recommend bibliography and all that kind of thing if you like — I didn’t come up with all the above all by myself. Happy to do so, but I know you’re busy. Let me know what you want. If you got as far as this, thanks for indulging my longwindedness. I certainly hope it was helpful.