Thursday, July 22, 2010

A Few Thoughts on the Psalms in Worship

My good friend, Bob Bixby, has written again on worship, and his post has provoked a few thoughts that I would like to share with those of you who follow our ministry.

At the start, we need to be careful of the categorization system we are using when discussing worship music. One of the biggest factors that contributes toward confusing the discussion is a lack of distinction between individual and corporate musical expressions. When there is no distinction here, we find quite a few problems and misunderstandings are introduced on both ends of the spectrum. By way of example, many modern songs are written in a performance-based idiom that doesn't lend itself to corporate expression, and as a result, congregational participation is diminished.

We have observed this in contemporary congregations where audience participation is minimal until a song that is written to be more conducive to corporate worship is introduced. In these cases, the participation is noticeably improved. Part of the reason for this seems to be that in contemporary musical styles the congregation is viewed and treated as an audience, rather than as participants within the particular musical expression.

Bob recounts Paul Jones' outline of the purpose of worship, which is praise, prayer, or proclamation. This accords nicely with the pattern set in the Psalms, but it doesn't necessarily limit the conversation to participatory worship. This brings me back to noting that dividing Christian music between corporate and individual expressions can be helpful when we are discussing this topic.

By way of example, we write a few songs that are designed for a participatory corporate worship, but most of our music is aimed at proclamation rather than participation. So even though our Sermons in Song would be considered worship under this categorization, most of it should be excluded from a corporate expression of worship. It is true that there is room for both in our worship services, but we should at least be aware of the distinction musically. Interestingly, the pattern of the Psalms allows for a variety of individual and corporate expressions.

Perhaps our Messianic Psalms project has given me a little stronger view regarding our use of the Psalms in worship. The Psalms should, at the very least, provide a pattern for content, since it is here that we have a full representation of the worship of God. But more than this, they are a significant well of truth, and much of the New Testament draws deeply from it.

For example, the Messianic Psalms form a backbone for the entire argument of the book of Hebrews. Indeed, it would be difficult to understand this book without a good understanding of these Psalms in particular. Thus we cannot ignore the content or the pattern of the Psalms. This, by the way, is one of the motivations for Isaac Watts, who wrote a series of hymns as, "The Psalms of David imitated in the language of the New Testament."

We should at least make sure that people have a thorough understanding of Psalms place in Christian thought, due to their significance in the interpretation of the New Testament, and I would love to see the Psalms more emphasized in our worship, which is one of the reasons that we have been doing the Messianic Psalms concert. We need to regain an appreciation for the Psalms and return them to their high place of esteem in the worship of the church.