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Gently Introducing Psalm Singing at College

The following post is a guest article by Anna (Pulliam) Carini, a senior at Wheaton College studying cello performance and philosophy.  It offers ideas and serves as an example of how gently to bring to others the means of grace of singing God’s Word.

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Psalm singers are rare outside the Reformed Presbyterian Church.

As a senior at Wheaton College, I’ve learned a lot from my fellow believers on the subject of worship and psalm singing. I was blessed to grow up at Second Reformed Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, and though I despised a cappella psalm singing when I was younger (especially being a cellist), I grew to love and appreciate it greatly. However, in a campus of a couple thousand believers, I am one of only a few Wheaton students who believe that psalm singing is best, and I have had a great desire to see the practice grow.

The main point I’ve learned in encouraging others to sing psalms is that conviction of exclusive psalmody should not always be the ultimate goal. When I went away to college, I felt lonely as a psalm singer. I was overly concerned with people understanding a correct theology of worship. But my parents wisely advised me to just start singing with friends and not worry about convincing people of exclusive psalmody. Now, I am thankful to be able to sing psalms with a group of friends every Sunday night, with new people often joining us.

Lessons I have learned:

1) Many people do not know you can sing the psalms (at least, other than Psalm 23, 62, and 100). “The psalter” is a foreign term, and even after people are introduced to singing psalms, they find it incredibly awkward to actually sing when they can hear themselves singing. It’s similar to how uncomfortable I feel when I sing with a worship band playing so loudly I can’t hear myself sing. We are used to the way we worshipped growing up, and we must be sensitive to how others might feel.

2) It is only by grace that I am blessed to have grown up singing psalms, not because of my convictions or intellect. Just as the doctrines of grace are true for salvation, they are true for every other blessing God gives me, including a theology of worship. I Corinthians 4:7 says, “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” Thus, it is not my gift to keep but one to share with others.

3) The psalms can be very difficult to understand. The Book of Psalms is often treated as a treasure chest of unidentified objects with a few pieces of gold in it. There are treasured psalms that have gem-like verses, but if the harder ones are never sung, there’s not as much incentive to understand them. Without growing up doing it, singing the imprecatory psalms could be as strange as speaking the curses of Deuteronomy 27 or of some other Old Testament passage.

4) We must recognize how difficult it is for people to start singing psalms. Four-part harmony and a cappella singing is almost unheard of in worship today. And while melodies can be learned and practiced with a piano, understanding some of the texts and appreciating the depth is another obstacle.

5) We must introduce psalms to others, especially by singing with them! I have lost count of how many psalters I have shown and given to people at Wheaton because I have just asked people to sing with me. They become so excited to sing them (if they have gotten over the awkwardness of hearing themselves sing).

The gift of psalm singing should be shared, regardless of someone’s convictions of what should happen in worship. The bottom line is that we are commanded to sing them, and the more we encourage that to happen, rather than just debating fine points of Scripture, the more psalms will be sung.

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. joankhartley #

    How would you suggest practicing this in a small church?

    December 13, 2013
    • Good question! Here are some tips:

      First, familiarize yourself and your own family with the practice of psalm singing. Crown & Covenant Publications have a wide variety of psalm books, CD’s, and other aids to help. You can find them at http://www.crownandcovenant.com/Psalters_s/31.htm. Also, the tunes are available to listen to at psalter.org.

      Next, as you are blessed in learning to sing the songs Jesus sang, pray as Anna did for opportunities to share them with your church. You might have some others join you in your home.

      Third, ask to speak to your pastor and others in leadership about singing the psalms. Be sure to be respectful. Ask if they are familiar with this practice, recognizing that many pastors have not been exposed to this tradition or have encountered those who are caustic in their promotion of it. Show them some of the resources you are using. Ask if they would be willing to have the church learn some of the more accessible psalms you are learning.

      Finally, you may want to read about why the psalms are important in worship. Two good introductory works are 1) a short book at http://www.crownandcovenant.com/Singing_the_Songs_of_Jesus_Revisiting_the_Psalms_p/ds216.htm and 2) this pamphlet at http://www.crownandcovenant.com/product_p/pm170.htm.

      Hope this is helpful. Let us know how it goes!

      December 13, 2013
  2. joankhartley #

    Wow! Thanks for this very thorough answer!

    December 14, 2013
  3. Lisa #

    The problem I have with elevating psalm singing is that it minimizes the fullness of the gospel. We do not live in the Old testament era. We live in times when we know the fuller revelation of God through Jesus Christ. This should fill our hearts with glad music! Jesus has come to redeem us… Sing about Him! Adore Him through our worship. He should be the central message of our songs. God is not looking for the outward form of worship, but for the inner spirit of true worship and adoration. When we sing about the person and work of Jesus Christ, it gives us opportunity to reflect on Him, and to offer Him a true sacrifice of praise, that will be acceptable to God.
    Blessings!

    December 14, 2013
    • Dear Lisa,

      I understand and sympathize with your concern.

      However, according to Jesus, the Psalms are about Him (Luke 24:27,44-47). By the Spirit of God, the beautiful thing I have found about singing them is that the more I do, the more I see Him.

      You might also look at an article I wrote that helps you see this a bit more. Look here.

      December 14, 2013
      • Rut Etheridge III #

        Hello Lisa!

        If I may add to my brother Barry’s comments: I’m the chaplain of a college which, though sponsored by a Psalm singing denomination, is composed predominantly of wonderful Christian folks for whom the Psalms are not the regular, let alone dominant form of praise music. Formerly, I taught at a non-denominational Christian high school, and I grew up in a theological environment almost totally bereft of the Psalms, especially as songs, because of their apparent inapplicability to the church in this age. All of that to say, I also well understand and sympathize with your point!

        Part of the beauty of the Psalms as God’s people discover them is their ability to unite His people, from all eras of history and from all corners of the world, by way of a quick connection to Christ. Consider this quote from theologian Geerhardus Vos: “…our Lord himself found his inner life portrayed in the Psalter and in some of the highest moments of his ministry borrowed from it the language in which his soul spoke to God…”

        The essence of being a Christian is our union with Christ; what more beautiful and powerful way to experience that union than by singing Christ’s life experience …and often in the first person! We New Testament-era believers can say with Paul: “I am crucified with Christ; therefore I no longer live…” and sing with David in Psalm 22 the very words our Savior cried out (sung?) from the cross. And then to sing with and about Christ of His resurrection and kingly reign, from Psalms such as 2 and 110, and really, from the whole Psalter because it is infused with Christ-centered eschatology. That’s certainly how the Apostles and other church leaders understood the Psalms, as we see from their preaching in Acts and their writings in the NT epistles, including especially Hebrews. The Psalms are referenced not just as prophecy fulfilled, but as praise which comes into its full capacity in the NT era and which anticipates the end of the age with Jesus’ return in power and glory (see the ending verses of Psalm 22).

        As one of my seminary students once noted: In a very real sense, the Psalms are more appropriate as praise for New Testament believers than for Old Testament believers. They express the fullness and closeness of a relationship with Christ so far ahead of the time when the church would experience those blessings with a new, fuller intensity. What a joy to sing Jesus’ songs during our pilgrimage in this world, in longing anticipation of His return!

        Thank you for reading GenRef!!

        December 16, 2013
  4. joankhartley #

    Nancy Guthrie writes on seeing Jesus throughout the Old Testament. Her book on seeing him in the Psalms and wisdom books can be viewed here: http://www.amazon.com/Wisdom-God-10-week-Bible-Study/dp/1433526328

    December 14, 2013
  5. Dan #

    I’ve never been an RP or other Reformed/Presbyterian church member, but I’ve really enjoyed the Book of Psalms for Worship app. It’s available for Android and iPhone; I’ve had it for about a year after I became aware of the RPCNA (hint: hope to also see it in the Kindle Store!).

    December 14, 2013
  6. Ron #

    We sing psalms at home and church, and in the past have been members of an “exclusive psalmody” congregation, but this is the first time I have encountered in written form the idea that somehow God is more gracious to the exclusive psalmodist than those who sing “manmade” hymns: “It is only by grace that I am blessed to have grown up singing psalms, not because of my convictions or intellect.”
    First of all, to grow up singing psalms or not is certainly tied to the doctrine of Providence (WCF 3), but how is it tied to the Covenant of Grace (WCF 7)?
    Second, the statement implies that those who are not convinced of exclusive psalmody are somehow less the recipients of God’s grace: is this scriptural, or confessional? I found the insinuation arrogant when I came into contact with people who believed it, but until now have never seen it in print.
    Hopeful you will not have me in mind when singing imprecatorily,
    Ron

    December 16, 2013
    • joankhartley #

      I have no dog in this fight as I have never nor do I now practice exclusive psalmody, but saying one is blessed by doing something does not carry the inverse implication that someone not doing the same is not blessed. The logic does not lead here. Ex: Person X is nourished by eating oranges. Person Y is nourished by eating apples. Neither person’s nourishment was negated by what the other person ate. Now, while some folks (and perhaps even the author) may assert that those who do not practice exclusive psalmody are less the recipient of God’s grace, that is not stated in this article. Rather, it appeared to me that the article was written to introduce the topic for consideration – and I must say, in a non-threatening and winsome way.

      December 17, 2013
    • Rut Etheridge III #

      Dear Ron,
      I don’t think Anna was implying anything salvific in her mentioning of grace. She is humbly expressing her gratitude to the Lord for her having grown up surrounded by the Psalms. I wish the Psalms had been much more formative in my own spiritual upbringing. I leave a reply primarily to testify to Anna’s heart. I know her and she is one of the sweetest young ladies I’ve ever met. I can assure you that no offense was meant in her comments. Thank you for reading!

      December 17, 2013
  7. Ron #

    Friends,
    No aspersions are cast on Anna.
    My comments were directed to the language used, and to a very clear (as I see it) implication.
    We do not have to agree–it is MY assessment.
    Peace
    Ron

    December 17, 2013

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