I had a fantastic time in July 2014 co-leading a track at the LST Summer School with Geraldine (Latty) Luce. We spent six sessions with a great group of guests, discussing how we could intentionally bring the themes, words and emotions of the Psalms into our contemporary times of gathered worship. We were blessed to have LST's Miriam Hinksman unpack the Bible's hymnbook in a scholarly fashion each morning, which gave us freedom to attempt to apply this learning to our practice of leading worship.

Some really exciting themes bubbled up during the week, so here is a summary and I'll let you comment below with further ideas.

1) Using a psalm to shape a 'flow' or structure of worship

We spent a session talking about how we could choose one psalm and let its structure, themes and words shape a complete time of sung worship. If you are anything like me, sometimes you'll find it hard to know where to start when planning worship (especially if the preacher or service leader have been less than informative...) and so using a psalm can be a really helpful starting point. Another useful thing is that that the psalm will point you in directions you might not instictively go - for example, the text might lead you to confess sin, or lament for your country, or shout for joy, or any number of other things. This can get you out of your default 'rut' and direct you into a fresh aspect of worship.

I have posted the example I used of a Psalm 103 worship flow. At the Summer School we asked the groups to come up with their own worship flows based on different psalms, and these turned out to be really creative, diverse and worshipful. I'd encourage you to try it for yourself. A simple process would include:

  • reading the psalm through and working out its structure (what kinds of worship are present?);
  • finding songs based on parts of the psalm, or related to its themes or emotions;
  • picking up multi-sensory ideas present in the psalm (such as drinking water, holding rocks, etc);
  • considering appropriate ways different parts of the psalm can be read (by the leader, or the group, or individuals?), or reflected on (silently, with music, with sound effects, writing parts down, with visual art or graphics...);
  • bringing in Jesus or a New Testament perspective.

It is really up to you how you then bring all of these things together. The possibilities are literally endless! (Note - Graham Kendrick does this kind of thing entirely spontanously, a way of leading worship he calls 'Psalm Surfing'. Check out this page and video).

2) Singing the Psalms

This is perhaps a simpler way to include a psalm in your time of worship, but it is one we often forget. The Book of Psalms is often studied as an academic text, or read as poetry, but we miss so much of its power when we forget that these were texts originally sung be congregations and individuals. Of course, we have no idea what the original music sounded like (and if we did, we'd probably think it was very strange!) We also have the problem that, unlike modern songs and hymns, Hebrew songs did not rhyme or have equal line lengths. This can make it quite difficult to sing them straight from the page.

We looked briefly at some chants, which were early attempts to sing psalms using a free approach to line-length (people still do this, using Anglican, Gregorian and even electronic music). However, it was the Reformers such as Calvin and Luther who really revolutionised psalm singing by re-writing them in a 'metrical' form; ie. with equal line lengths and rhyming (perhaps the most famous example is Psalm 100 as the hymn "All People That On Earth Do Dwell" - we worked at arranging this for worship band). This has opened the floodgates for future Christians to adapt and paraphrase the psalms in ways which works with any kind of music.

There are some great contemporary examples of psalm settings and paraphrases - take a look for example at Stuart Townend's Psalm 23, Joel Payne's Psalm 139, Judy Gresham's Psalm 121, or delve into the riches of the book Psalms for all Seasons. You could also look at the back of most song and hymn books to the Bible index and see the songs which take short passages of psalms - for example, Tomlin's "Give thanks to the Lord", or 70's/80's choruses such as "I lift my eyes up". When you are using a psalms setting in sung worship, it can be really fruitful to read the actual psalm to get a sense of the context. You can then draw the congregation's attention to specific things - for example, when singing "Give thanks to the Lord" you can point out that Psalm 136 speaks of actual historical events in Israel's history. You could get the congregation to speak out things in their own lives they are grateful for, and then sing the refrain 'His love endures forever".

3) Worshipping with lament

The third thing which came out really strongly from the week is the amount of honesty in the psalmists' cries to God. Miriam pointed out that perhaps one third to a half of the Psalms could be called "lament" - or psalms of "dis-orientation" where the singer is struggling to understand where God is in their experience. These psalms can be much harder to include in our worship, because we tend to push "difficult" emotions (doubt, anger, disappointment, confusion, worry, dispair etc) away in corporate contemporary worship. However, it seems that in the Bible we have many examples of people bringing these hard emotions to God in the presence of his people - entrusting them to him, and then eventually moving beyond them into an attitude of trust, hope and even a new beginning.

Geraldine and I agreed that these can be tough things to raise in corporate worship, and yet it is not impossible. "Lament" doesn't need to mean wailing and crying. It could simply be acknowledging that some people in the congregation are struggling, and giving some space for them to be honest to God about this. Or it may be corporately acknowledging some of the pain, darkness and sin in the world. Or it might be leading some worship which reflects on tougher subjects such as a death, or tragedy, or struggle in the congregation. If we fail to give space for these things then worship can come across as an escape from reality, or it can give the impression that God is not interested in the more difficult sides of human experience.

So, getting practical, we looked at hymns which touch on themes of mortality such as Abide With Me and the Iona book When Grief is Raw. Geraldine talked about using African American Spirituals, and how they point to hope beyond painful experience. She demonstrated taking a song with perhaps just one line about painful emotions (eg "Though the darkness hide Thee" in "Holy, holy, holy", or "Over all my dreams, in my darkest hour" in "Over all the earth") and then creating space for the congregation to reflect on and respond to that line. I led Sunil Chandy's Psalm 88 paraphrase, and demonstrated the "Blessed Be Your Name" introductory prayer/reflection, which helps people think about which image from the Matt Redman song applies to them. We also talked about tying sung worship into intercession, which gives the opportunity to cry out to God for difficult situations, using songs like O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

These three points are just some highlights - I'd encourage you to open the Book of Psalms and let them inspire the way you lead worship. And feel free to post your own thoughts and experiences below.