The Lord is our song and he has become our salvation. He calls us to sing praise reverently (Psa. 2:11), skillfully (Psa. 33:3, Eph 5:19) joyfully (Psa. 100:1), meaningfully (Psa. 96), loudly (Psa. 33:3), and heartily (Psa. 138:1, 2 Chron. 30:21). We sing to God (Psa. 47:6) and to one another (Col. 3:16) as part of our life and worship.
How do we grow in our praise of God? In the congregation I serve (Second Reformed Presbyterian Church), we’ve recently given attention to growing in this grace. We’re not the greatest group of singers by any means, and we welcome singers of all levels because the Lord has already welcomed them. Sometimes we’re out of tune, but we’re in touch with our Lord. Weak as we are, we love to sing together. We want to grow into the likeness of the heavenly choir we will be one day before Jesus’ throne that sounds like the road of many waters and many peals of thunder (Rev. 19:6).
Here are ten ways that we seek and have sought to improve our praise in this a cappella, Psalm-singing congregation. Not every church does things the same way, but finding a few identifiable areas on which to focus can be helpful; we have worked on these:
- Teaching about Singing. We taught a twelve-week class on singing that emphasized the theology and practice of singing. We were motivated significantly as we learned what God does in us as we sing. And we spend time on the nuts and bolts of how to sing with exercises for each person to practice. People sing more robustly and intentionally when they understand what God is actually doing in us as we sing. We hope to someday work the content of that class into a format to be published for other congregations to use. The audio recording of the class offered in the summer of 2019 can be found at the 2RP app under Adult Teaching Resources.
- Psalm Selection. The pastors carefully choose Psalm selections for content appropriate to various parts of the worship services AND for their singability/familiarity in the congregation. For instance, it is helpful for the Psalm before the sermon to anticipate the tension of the text to be preached upon, and for the selection sung after the sermon to be an act of applying the sermon. We want to wisely expand the church’s familiarity with tunes and settings. Though a church may struggle with a tune or two, singing should be a positive experience, on balance, in a given worship service.
- Sequential Singing. We sing sequentially through each section of the Psalter. Each week, we take up the next selection enabling us to sing all of the words of the 150 chapters in God’s praise book. One elder takes two or three minutes to highlight key themes in the Psalm featured that week so that we sing with understanding. Later in the service, during the collection of the offering, an ensemble at the back of the auditorium sings the Psalm to be sung the next week in our sequential singing in order to familiarize the congregation with it.
- Psalm-of-the-Month. The Psalm selected as our Psalm-of-the-Month is sung each week in worship through the month. One of the weeks in worship, an elder will take 5-7 minutes to more fully explain that Psalm. We encourage members to sing this Psalm at home each day in their family devotions. As people learn to sing at home, congregational singing becomes all the stronger.
- Favorites. We take time to allow members to choose favorite Psalms to be sung by the congregation. We do this each week in our evening service. There’s something delightful and contagious about members responding to God in selecting particular Psalms they love. We encourage people to develop an affinity for certain Psalms at home. For instance, in our home, after singing the Psalm of the month in our daily devotions, each night is either “girls’ pick” or “boys’ pick” with all of the girls or boys getting to pick on their alternating day.
- Projection, Paper, and Pixels. We project the Psalms with music on the wall and use physical books. We began projecting the words of the Psalms on the wall a few years ago when we saw how much more our developmentally disabled members could engage in praise. Parents of young children could participate more too. Our precentors found the congregation following their lead more fully. We still find the physical copies of the Psalter to be essential for the nearsighted and those seating behind taller people. The book of praise also keeps all the words of a particular selection before a person which can aid meditation. Finally, some use the electronic version in The Book of Psalms for Worship app.
- Precentor Training. In olden days before books were common, a pre-cantor would give the congregations the words to be sung and keep the congregation together musically. Today, most congregations find the precentor still necessary for good order in helping the congregation begin and stay together. Our lead precentor works to train and give feedback, as able, to those who precent. The precentors have a brief set of guidelines given to them, and they talk together for further feedback.
- Acoustics. We carefully considered acoustics for congregational singing as we renovated our auditorium for worship. Obviously, churches make wholesale renovations/changes only as they are needed due to wear and tear, expansion, or a move. In other words, usually rarely. Still, all churches can give intentional thought to their setting of worship and may be able to make helpful changes. We removed sound-absorbing carpet in our renovation. Hard surfaces can lead to soft hearts. The change in the physical auditorium has dramatically improved the praise in the true sanctuary of God’s people. As external acoustics improve, people are more motivated to sing.
- Recording. We have begun recording some of our singing. This allows our precentors to listen for ways to improve, notice trends, and so on. We post some recordings on our YouTube channel. Newer members can go back to review the selections we are singing. We hope these recordings will set God’s word before people. It also shows people who are unfamiliar with Psalm-singing what it sounds like in an ordinary congregation, warts and all.
- Resources. We promote the many great resources available from Crown & Covenant that aid singing Psalms from The Book of Psalms for Worship. The Psalter app is invaluable, as is the website psalter.org. The professionally recorded soundtracks are a great blessing to growing in familiarity of and love for the Psalms.
This list recounts some of the things we do. Anyone who listens will find that we have nothing to boast about other than Jesus. We could improve in many ways. We want to be faithful in obedience and we’re striving for it. Most of all, we’re thankful for what the Lord is doing in us as we sing together. Here's one sample of what he's doing among us in song: