In my last blog post I was reflecting upon my experience of worshipping at the Free Church of Scotland and the huge cultural (and theological) gap between psalm singing congregations and churches which practice the more common contemporary worship model.
One of the reasons why many modern Christians struggle with psalm singing is the lack of emphasis on the ‘feel good factor’. In our modern approach to worship, as soon as we begin to worship, the whole experience is geared towards leading the worshipper to engage at an emotional level. I am not saying that feelings are bad, but I am saying that the modern method narrowly focus on certain emotions to the neglect of others: in effect worship is geared towards good emotions. The beat and rhythm of praise songs are stirring and designed to stimulate exuberant and joyful praise.
Not only is the music designed to stir nice feelings, but the content of most of our modern worship songs is narrowly focused too. The staple diet of the contemporary worshipper is songs of victory, celebration and declaration. It is not wrong to sing these types of songs (it is very right!) but the problem emerges when these are the only songs that we sing. Singing with great enthusiasm, ‘Oh I feel like dancing’ is great when you are actually in that place and your heart is bursting with the joy of salvation. Yet the reality is, this is not where Christians live most of the time.
Modern praise and worship leaders recognise this, hence one of the difficulties they face in a Sunday morning is when they are trying to shift a downcast (or even just tired) congregation from a place of sombreness to place of exuberance. Often it takes about three of four songs to ‘crank them up.’ Often the congregation will hear the words of exhortation ‘Don’t focus on your feelings, focus on God and his promises, and make a joyful noise’. The message is clear: sing joyfully until you feel good.
The reality is we don’t always feel good, and this is another reason why the psalms are so rich. The psalms engage with the totality of human emotions. Modern worship tends to be one-dimensional, it focuses on joyful expression; the psalms on the other hand meet the worshipper where he/she is at. If our worship does not allow for the expression of ‘Why are you downcast, oh my soul?’ and instead focuses on a constant diet of ‘It was there by faith, I received my sight, and now I am happy all the day‘, our worship will become inauthentic. Failure to incorporate the fullness of human experience (grief, anger, depression, disappointment etc) into our worship because we only sing about joy and victory is artificial and is not worshipping in ‘Spirit and truth‘. This doesn’t mean that we don’t praise God when we are in the storm: it just means that we don’t pretend that there isn’t storm. It doesn’t mean that we don’t declare that God is the God who delivers us from the pit: it just means that we don’t lie about the fact that we are in a pit.
Michael Lefebvre nails it when he compares the psalms to contemporary worship songs:
“Unlike modern church songs which are primarily about ‘getting right to the point’ and declaring praise, the Psalms are designed to help people who don’t always feel like praising begin by meditating on the mess the world is in, and only through a full and robust process of meditation, to come out with praise.”
Again, I’m not saying contemporary praise songs are wrong, neither am I saying that declarations of praise are not fitting and right, I am just reflecting on another reason why I have found the singing of psalms to be incredibly refreshing.