How we Secretly Switched to Psalms Only

At our church, we are fairly liturgical. We are not Book-of-Common-Order-high-church, but we have a liturgy, we have all the elements, and we sing Scripture, we confess the faith, we fight the good fight. Nevertheless, our session ran into this pastoral problem: people like certain styles of music and they want them in worship even if they do not fit in with the liturgical cycles let alone the regulative principle. Most people ask, “Why may we not have Chris Tomlin songs in our worship?” and when we answer with the RPW they say, “The what now?” We explain it to them, and they usually accept that it makes Biblical sense. They then leave because they do not prefer the music style. Musical style and preference is more divisive than the gospel. The heart of man is desperately wicked, and desperately wants to rock. But on the other side, some people will not let go of their favorite hymns because they were saved at Billy Graham Crusade where they sang In the Garden.  The democratization of American Christianity of which Nathan Hatch wrote has become such a part of the warp and woof of the wider culture that Presbyterian and Reformed pastors can hardly swim against the tide. What is a session of elders to do, especially if they hold the regulative principle of worship in this world me-time, my music, my subculture, my worship style, my kind of church, my kind of pastor, my kind of God?

“Worship wars” is a term with which Presbyterian and Reformed Christians may not be familiar. In the Southwest Baptist General Conference in the 1990s, this term was the subject which took the center stage in most theological debate. There were two positions. Some were for traditional worship, others for contemporary. The method of argument was generally to side with one or the other based on preference. Neither gave Biblical argumentation. Traditionalists, guided by nostalgic feelings and conservative values, clung to the old hymns- which sounded like a clown playing the organ at a circus fair upon which sat a trained monkey banging cymbals together. Stodgy and gaudy they reminded of the good old days of revivals and crusades. The young by and large forged ahead to bravely sample the musical style of U2 to create contemporary Christian music for the contemporary generation. The church in which I was brought up and baptized eventually split into two services, a traditional and a contemporary one. As attendance by attrition and death allowed for it, the traditional service went away and one contemporary service emerged the victor. As Bradley Nowell said, “Can’t fight against the youth.” That is the way of things, and I was brought along with the irresistible tide of my generation. I assumed that there was not a better way.

The answer came to me first from a debate between a minister of the Reformed Presbyterian and a Baptist on the subject of worship. The Reformed Presbyterian articulated what he called the regulative principle of worship. That was the answer I was looking for. That day the hermeneutic of Biblical worship defeated my democratized preference based presuppositions. I never looked back. That scripture commands and guides our worship and that God blesses it with the blessings of Christ accomplished for us and reserved in the heavenly places and distributed by the means of worship was enough for me.

Along with this comes the difficult issue of singing. The reason for my long introduction of the Baptist Worship Wars is to show that we are not immune to the same root sickness within Presbyterian and reformed circles. Preference guides our worship as much as it does the Baptists’. I am not advocating traditionalism as the reason for the singing of scripture, nor saying that we need to reject all tradition for the sake of acceptance by the contemporary culture and its musical preferences. What is at issue here is the pastoral problem of the sinful hearts of Christians still stuck in the cycle of desire for musical style and material that suits their own preference. The usual way to reform the theology and practice of a church is for the Elders to come to a conclusion, hold a church meeting to tell the congregation what is happening, and the next Sunday the new practice begins. This is often followed by a church split. I believe it stems from not having the pastoral sensitivity to disciple the congregation into gladly following the lead of the session. Below is our approach to move from singing uninspired songs and hymns to scripture alone. We did it is such a way that while leading the flock we could look back and see that they were gladly still following. The following is how we secretly switched to singing Psalms only.

The pilgrim session spent a long time studying the issue of music in the church and came to the conclusion that we agreed heartily with John Murray’s position that the church ought to sing scripture. He also argued that to sing the Psalms only is safer and also permissible, and we agreed. But how would we implement this without splitting the church? We were going to have to take away people’s precious hymns and songs. After our study was done we made no motion to suddenly move to scripture only, but we did something else. We spent more time strategizing on how to transition to singing scripture only.

Several strategies were key to transitioning to singing scripture. First, on the first Sunday of the month for one year I took a break from my lectio continua preaching series and instead preached on a Psalm from the Trinity Psalter.  We would then sing the Psalm every week and call it our Psalm of the month. Many people memorized these Psalms and now sing them without the Psalter in worship. I chose the popular Psalms and ones with good tunes.

Second, we continued to use the Trinity Hymnal, but only sang the scripture songs from it. We also made it explicit that we were singing Scripture and even singing the words of Christ through the Holy Spirit inspiring the Psalmist. Christ himself was teaching us how to pray by praying to the Father through us. The Trinity Psalter and Trinity Hymnal were designed to go together. The tunes are easily interchangeable. There are some stinker tunes that reminisce of the clown and monkey whom we mentioned earlier, but these are easy to avoid because the meter makes them interchangeable with sing-able tunes. Just a note here: more visitors steal the Trinity Psalter than the Trinity Hymnal. That seems strange to say, and perhaps the reason is its novelty to them. Either way, we took it as encouragement that the Psalter was so impressive to them that they broke the eighth commandment.

Third, we already were liturgical. We are not really high church, but we are liturgical. You have to think of this as in opposition to a revivalist or seeker sensitive church service. We are like extra-terrestrials to most people who walk through our doors anyway. Why not just go all the way and sing only scripture as we proceed through the liturgy? The Psalms and scripture songs we chose fit in with the liturgical mode or cycle in which we were at the moment of the service. For example, Psalm 51 in Trinity Hymnal 486 is our regular confession of sin. Psalm 32 in the Trinity Psalter also serves this purpose. We sing Trinity Hymnal 30 often to prepare for the prayer of the church. Go ahead and take a break and sing Psalter 67 to the tune of Thaxed from Gustav Holst’s The Planets  and you will burn your Matt Redman MP3s on the bonfire of vanities the moment you finish.  It will purge all of your contemporaneous concupiscence. You may find the tune to Trinity Hymnal 660, O God beyond all Praising. As we slowly learn one Psalm a month I classify it into fitting with a certain cycle and put it in a regular rotation for singing. If the Psalm is a Psalm of rejoicing, it goes into the call to worship cycle rotation. If the Psalm is for petition for providence, it goes into the Prayer of the Church cycle rotation, and so forth.

Fourth, we avoided attracting religious sociopaths. When it comes to this and many other subjects some people do not care about worshiping God, they care about worshipping perfectly. They are obsessed with the perfect form of worship. It becomes an obsession, and if they get wind that you do things “their way” then you are well on you way to becoming part of their list of worship perfectionists, like them. Beware the flatterer, dear pastor, they only have poison in their tongues. Also you may end up in a deep freezer chopped into tiny pieces one day. I kept praying, “Lord help us not end up on someone’s blog who is going to show the whole world what we are doing, because we don’t even know if it is the right way to approach this! The last thing we need is to become the center of some internet controversy.” The Lord answered the prayer.

Really, if you showed up to Pilgrim Presbyterian on Sunday you would not mistake us for covenanters, and probably would not pick up for a few months that we were scripture only in our singing. We have even had OPC and PCA members and ministers worship with us regularly and have not noticed this. The URC guys notice, though. You would find right away that we are liturgical, guided by a Gospel logic, direct, serious, reverent, emotional, and centered on the Word. We use the creeds and confessions for teaching the congregation, and we pray the Lord’s Prayer and recite the Ten Commandments. Singing is only one part of the worship service. Our services are only one hour anyway, so how could we spend the first half hour singing revivalist hymns or contemporary choruses? That just would not fit the complex and healthy diet of word and prayer we get from the liturgy. Modernist Californians are not use to any of these elements. So we just shovel it down their throats in one hour-long gulp. We are from California so sometimes I accidentally call people in the Bible “dude” or “hombre” but that is only every once in a while. It does seems to keep the modernists at ease, but that is about all the acculturation we do. I sometimes wish we had more contemporary tunes, but then again the problem comes up of contemporary accompaniment, V-neck T-shirts, and all the other accomodations we would be led to make. These things would not fit with the liturgical nature of our church’s worship. Welcome to Pilgrim, here is the fire-hose, take and drink. Singing scripture is just variable of the liturgical equation.

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I should also mention that we are not a strong singing church. We are getting better. Therefore, if this worked for us, it will work for you. I lead the singing, but I am almost deaf in my left ear and it sounds to me like there is a cardboard box on my head at all times. We meet in a school with poor acoustics. I am confident of better things for you, though we speak in this way.

There have been so many benefits to this approach. The main one is because we did it so smoothly and secretly we never had any resistance. Also, people memorize scripture. I memorize scripture. How about this: The Lord Jesus sings through us to the Father in the Psalms by the presence of the Spirit speaking in Scripture. That one convinces most people when they catch on to it even if they are initially against the idea. The Psalms make sense of everything in the Bible. God’s word is its own interpreter so I am able to choose a Psalm for the singing which ties into the text for the preaching, yet it will still fit in its proper liturgical cycle. People pick up and read a Psalter as scripture, not as uninspired commentary. Christians cannot do that with the non-inspired hymns and songs. These have been such a blessing to us, we heartily commend them to you.

When we approached this matter in the furtive way that we did, it was not intended to be manipulative, but rather to ease the flock into the material. It was born out of orthodox conviction and pastoral sensitivity. In a culture so democratized and accommodating to all preferences, we hope to rise above the idolatry of musical style which divides the churches. That may be an ambitious aim, but we have found a combination of being liturgical, word-centered, and culturally self-aware will help us navigate the problems that rise.

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