Worshiping like the Psalms
by Matthew W. Bassford
The other day, I saw an article by a professor of Old Testament studies in which he compared the content of the book of Psalms to the content of Top 25 Christian contemporary music. He observed that many of the most prominent themes of the Psalms, like God's help for the poor, justice, enemies, and questioning God, are barely present in contemporary music.
I agree with that.
However, lots of people found lots of reasons to disagree with the article. Prominently, many pointed out that exactly the same charges could be made against our repertoire of traditional hymns.
I agree with that too, and I think it points out a serious problem with our song worship. Our hymns don’t engage with reality the way the Psalms do.
These days, I tend to understand the Psalms through the lens of Psalm 1. In it, the psalmist makes a bold claim about reality. He predicts that God will bless the righteous while punishing the wicked.
The rest of the Psalms put this claim to the test. Does our experience of life under the sun show God's favor toward the obedient and His condemnation of the sinner? Sometimes, the claim checks out. There are many psalms that praise God for His goodness toward His people.
Frequently, though, the Psalms address the times when God's goodness is not apparent. What about when the Israelites lose a battle despite their faithfulness? What about when the righteous are poor and oppressed by powerful enemies? What about when the sacred musicians who served in the temple are carried off into captivity alongside the disobedient? What about when the godly have failed God? There are nearly as many such questions as there are psalms.
Our hymn repertoire does a great job covering the content of Psalm 1. We often sing about how wonderful it is that God has solved our problems. However, it does a horrible job of covering the content of much of the rest of the book. We know that the life of the Christian is not always blue skies and rainbows and sunbeams from heaven, but you generally couldn't tell it from our song worship!
Consequently, our singing reinforces that pretense of perfection during our assemblies that so many brethren complain about. We know that we're going to have to paste on a smile and pretend like everything is fine when we are supposedly pouring out our hearts to God, so we might as well paste on the smile before and after services too.
Our American inability to address suffering and sorrow is part of the problem. We get super uncomfortable when a brother tells us that actually, his life is terrible. We don't know how to handle that. In the same way, many Christians get uncomfortable with singing about trial and suffering. Aren't we supposed to be putting aside the worries and cares of the world?
I think the result is tragic. Too often, hurting Christians come to worship and find that putting on a happy façade for their brethren and God is another source of stress. It feels dishonest, and it keeps them from finding comfort and authenticity in the one place where they should be able to be authentic and comforted.
We begin to solve the problem by singing psalms of every kind, not just the upbeat ones. Since we started singing through the Psalms at Jackson Heights, I've had multiple Christians thank me tearfully for giving them the chance to finally express their feelings in worship. Sometimes, they have been so deeply moved that they couldn't even get the words out.
Second, I think all of us need to get comfortable with singing hymns about unpleasant topics whether we ourselves are suffering or not. We require rejoicing with those who rejoice, but what about weeping with those who weep? Maybe I don't want to sing about how hard life is, but it's nearly certain that somebody in the congregation does.
I recognize that this calls for a sea change in the way that we worship. We do little lamenting, and we do no questioning or imprecating. However, it's a change well worth making. Worship like this is true at last to our lived experience.
Also, I think it is more attractive to outsiders than worship that is inright-outright-upright-downright happy all the time. Strangers don't visit a congregation because everything is going great in their lives. Instead, they come because their lives are in tatters. When they see and hear us bringing the hard things before God, they will recognize that they are in the midst of people like them.