Confessions of a Contemporary Turned Psalmist
Every Sunday I stand in church with a red book in my hands. Well, hand. Usually I’ve got one side and my husband has the other. We like to share. Every Sunday I scan the bulletin to see what psalms we’ll be singing and read the little blurb to see if I can get the tune before we start. Sometimes I recognize it right away, sometimes I don’t, but the number of psalms I know is growing, slowly, every week.
I love the psalms. Feel free to judge, I know it sounds purist or something to only sing psalms. I’ve been on the other side, the contemporary worshiper thinking how old fashioned and silly it is only to sing psalms. I’m not going to tell you that the psalms are the only way to worship; I’ve sung the contemporary songs and felt the Spirit in them. I am just going to share my experience and let you take from it what you will.
I grew up in a contemporary, evangelical church that wouldn’t stop growing. I learned early on that worship was my favorite part of any service. When I hit 6th grade and started going to the main service and youth group the songs being sung were awesome. Sure, not all of them were on point, but a lot of them were really good, God focused worship songs and I could hear Him speaking to me through them. As I grew up, though, and the music changed with the times, I started missing the songs of my earlier youth. As I approached graduation the music was less and less of what I needed and much louder than I could stand. Part of my fondness for worship is the feeling of community you get when the whole congregation sings together. That gets lost when you can’t even hear yourself over the music.
The failing of my first church didn’t turn me away from contemporary worship, however, it did start me looking for something else, something that was right for me. What I found, wasn’t what I expected. It started with Geneva. Funny how I grew up knowing that I wanted to go to Geneva and yet never realized it was associated with the Reformed Presbyterian denomination. I didn’t even know Reformed Presbyterian was a thing until I got there, and then it was everywhere. All I knew that first year was that it was a thing, apparently, and they sang only psalms and were known for being super conservative. Well, at least one of those was accurate. At any rate, I thought to myself “These people are nuts. I’ll never be RP.”
And then I met a boy.
Okay, so it wasn’t just like that. I did meet a boy, and I really liked that boy and I may have ended up marrying that boy, but it was quite a while before I succumbed to the way of the RP. Sure, I thought about it when we decided to date. I knew it could either end with us breaking up because neither of us would change, or, the more likely outcome, I would end up at his church, since I didn’t really have any roots of my own and his dad was the pastor at his home church. I was willing to accept that, the only struggle I had was the worship.
I will be the first to admit it; singing psalms is awkward at first. You have to read music and lyrics at the same time and try to keep up with all the people around you that have been singing these songs for years and probably know them all by heart. It’s intimidating and awkward and you want to sing as softly as you can so no one will notice when you mess up. I struggled with it for months while we were dating and as I was going between psalm worship and contemporary worship at my own church, you know what? The psalms won out.
It was weird, and I never saw it coming. To me, contemporary worship was something I could take with me anywhere and everywhere. The songs were modern and easy to remember, I could listen to them on the radio on my way to school, I could sing them in the shower, I could hum them as I walked to class. I could worship whenever I wanted and it was awesome. But the more I sang the psalms in church, the less I got from the songs on the radio, and the more I started to notice the flaws. That isn’t to say contemporary Christian music is bad, a lot of it is still really good, but not so much for worship. I started to notice when a song wasn’t on point with scripture or was more ‘me’ focused than ‘God’ focused. That’s fine for listening to, but for worship? To stand there and sing about yourself when you should be praising God? It began to feel… empty.
I’ve found in my almost two years now of going to an RP church that singing the psalms is a more beautiful and filling way to worship than I had expected. For starts, I can hear everyone. We sing a capella and sure, it was a little awkward without the music at first, but as I got used to it I found that listening to pure human music is awesome. In bigger RP churches the four-part harmonies are almost hauntingly beautiful. My favorite is finding recordings of the Scottish church online and listening to them sing. I can’t pick out the words, but their voices are epic. This is what I was craving at my family’s home church. The communion of the congregation joining together in song, and feeling like I belong there in the middle of them, my voice has a place in their harmony.
I also found that singing the scriptures is an awesome thing. Every word we sing in worship is God-breathed, given to us from the Bible itself. We are memorizing scripture as we worship God the way the very first Christians worshiped. These words have been carried over through centuries of church history for us to sing in praise and communion. They express joy and sorrow and fear of the Lord and anger and suffering and repentance and acknowledgement of sin. There is a psalm for everything!
My only lament about singing psalms is that you can’t find them online. I’ve looked I don’t know how many times and sometimes if you know the lyrics well enough you can find them, but my problem is always that I know the tunes that I want, but not the lyrics, hence the looking them up. So I apparently need my own Psalter. I keep thinking sometime I’ll get one for myself but I never get around to it. Maybe I will sometimes soon.
So that was my journey and what I found at the end of it. I’m a psalmist now and I don’t see myself ever going back.