Psalm Singing: The Church's Punk Rock
“Corporate Rock,” is the derisive label slapped on a style of music born in the 1970s. Characterized by formulaic arrangements, shallow lyrics, and predictable chord progressions critics claim that corporate rock was engineered by record label executives, not artists, to get on the radio, move a product, fill stadiums, and make millions. For the record, I love corporate rock. My wife and I walked out of our wedding to, “Don’t Stop Believing.” Nevertheless, it wasn’t long before a musical resistance movement began known as “Punk Rock.” Bands like The Ramones and The Clash put this gritty, countercultural, unapologetically unmarketable music on the map. Their passion and authenticity earned them an enduring fanbase around the world.
The evangelical church has its own corporate rock. In March 2023, Worship Leader Research found that nearly all of most popular praise and worship songs of the last decade were produced or popularized by one of four megachurches. That could be why many of these songs sound and feel so similar. With a few notable exceptions, most of these songs are theologically shallow and fail to even mention the person, work, and name of Jesus, the very heart of saving religion. Instead, Christian corporate rock (CCR) tunes swirl around intense personal experiences and emotions. In an interview with Christian Post, Keith Getty, writer of the modern hymn, “In Christ Alone,” excoriated CCR saying, “I believe that the modern worship movement is a movement for cultural relevance. It’s a de-Christianizing of God’s people. It’s utterly dangerous. I have no quibbles saying, ‘Enough is enough.’ This can’t happen to build an authentic generation.”
Where then can the believer longing to worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness, burdened to sing songs of theological substance, intellectual depth, emotional honesty, and transcendent power turn? As more churches embrace CCR, I suggest, there’s nothing more punk rock than singing psalms. Three considerations convinced me of the value of inclusive psalmody in our Sunday worship. I hope they persuade you of the same.
Paul instructed the saints in Ephesus to “be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18). “And what,” you might ask, “does it look like when a church is filled with the Spirit and gripped by the glory of God?” Paul named only one symptom. “Be filled with the Holy Spirit,” he said, “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart…” (Ephesians 5:18-19). Similarly, Paul called the Colossians to “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16). Thus, a church in which the Spirit of God is at work, powerfully blessing the preaching of God’s word to the saving and sanctifying of the people of God will be an irrepressibly singing church. And, Paul says, they will be singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.
While “hymns” and “spiritual songs” may be a bit tricky to define, “psalms,” certainly aren’t! When this word, “psalmois,” is used in the New Testament, it is either in reference to the entire Book of Psalms (Luke 20:42, 24:44, Acts 1:20), or one psalm in particular (Acts 13:33). Either way, the meaning is clear. When the heart of a people is set ablaze by the Spirit with love for God and his word, they will sing God’s own word back to him. So, we should sing psalms in worship as a matter of obedience to the command of God. Does God not have the right to dictate the terms of his own worship? Yes. He does. Should we not gladly obey the one who made us by the word of his power and saved us from our sins by the blood of his Son? Yes. We should.
But by commanding the inclusion of psalms in our worship, has God banished us to sonic salt mines? Has he doomed us to dreary dirges? Just the opposite! The psalms are a musical Eden to be relished. Since the one who inspired the psalms knows us intimately, infinitely better than we know ourselves, these songs meet us where we are and capture the kaleidoscope of human emotions like joy (Psalm 4:7), fear (Psalm 64:1), sorrow for sin (Psalms 32 & 51), gratitude (Psalm 13:6), envy (Psalm 73), love (Psalm 26:8), depression (Psalm 42:11), wonder (Psalm 8:3-4), hate (Psalm 139:21-22), desire (Psalm 63), brokenheartedness (Psalm 34:18), and hope (Psalm 130:5).
But the Psalms aren’t just honest about who we are, they’re honest about who God is. The psalms paint a great big portrait of a great big God who is wondrously wise (Psalm 139:6), girded with might (Psalm 65:6), unimaginably holy (Psalm 22:3), impeccably just (Psalm 111:7), perfectly good (Psalm 25:8), and altogether trustworthy (Psalm 19:7-9). In the Psalms we meet an awesome, even terrifying God who, “feels indignation every day” (Psalm 7:11), who laughs in derision at the wicked (Psalm 2:4) and destroys his enemies (Psalm 73:19) but who is also “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love…[and] does not deal with us according to our sins nor repay us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:8-10).
Best of all, the psalms are beaming with the light of Jesus Christ. Centuries before our Savior’s birth, these prophetic songs promised his: divine sonship (Psalm 2:7), rejection by the Jewish leaders (Psalm 118:22-23), atoning death on the cross (Psalms 16 & 22), triumphant resurrection (Psalm 16), messianic kingship (Psalm 2 & Psalm 110), divine priesthood (Psalm 110), glorious ascension (Psalm 68:18) and session at the right hand of God (Psalm 100:1). With God as their author, the psalms are the richest, highest, deepest most powerful music the world has ever known. While many excellent hymns have blessed the church for centuries, only the psalms are “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). So, we should love singing them!
Psalms are worth singing in church because when we do, we join our hearts and voices with the mighty chorus, the great cloud of witnesses, of the church throughout the ages. We sing with the 19th century missionary, John Patton, and his converted cannibals on the beaches of the New Hebrides Islands. We sing with Richard Baxter’s flock in Kidderminster of whom the ol’ Puritan said, “As you passed along the streets on the Sabbath morning, you might hear a hundred households singing psalms at their family worship.” We sing with the Pilgrims who, upon sighting land after their transatlantic voyage, knelt down on the Mayflower’s deck and sang Psalm 100. We sing with Martin Luther, who in times of trouble would turn to his friend, Philipp Melanchthon, and say “Come, Philipp, let us sing the forty-sixth Psalm.” We sing with Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Athanasius, Chrysostom, Augustine, and the rest believers of the ancient church who, according to historian Philip Schaff, sang psalms exclusively. We sing with the exiles who returned from Babylon to rebuild the temple and, as they laid its foundations, sang Psalm 105, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel” (Ezra 3:11); the very same psalm Solomon’s people sang 500 years earlier as the ark was brought into the newly constructed temple (2 Chronicles 5); the very same psalm which David led the people in singing as the ark was brought into Jerusalem for the first time (1 Chronicles 16). When we sing Psalms, we sing with the Hebrew pilgrims who, as they made their way up to Jerusalem to observe the feasts of old, sang the songs of ascents (Psalms 120-134). We sing with Moses in the wilderness who almost certainly taught his people to sing Psalm 90, the oldest psalm and only Mosaic composition in the Psalter. And (what a precious thought!) we sing with our fairest Lord Jesus, who undoubtedly grew up singing psalms in his Nazarene synagogue; who with his disciples, almost certainly sang the Passover psalms (113-118, Mark 14:26) as he prepared his own soul for Gethsemane, Golgotha, the grave, and the glory of his own resurrection.
Considering the command to sing psalms, the content within the psalms, and the continuity of the psalms throughout the church over the last 3500 years, shouldn’t singing them be our sacred privilege and joyful duty? Well, Iggy Pop, The Stooges front man and “Godfather of Punk,” defined punk rock as “music that takes up the energies, the bodies, the hearts, the souls, the time and the minds of [those] who give everything they have to it.” But Charles Spurgeon, the “Prince of Preachers,” makes an even better case for singing the psalms: “There is a little shallow joy that goes prattling over the pebbles of the brook, and is soon gone. I invite you not to that sort of mirth, but to that deep solemn joy which godly men feel, and which can be fittingly expressed in holy song. ‘Sing unto the Lord.’ That is no frivolous music. ‘Sing unto the Lord.’ That is no ballad or ditty; it is a psalm, deep, solemn, and profound, and the joy of it is great. ‘Sing unto the Lord, O ye saints of his.’”
If you’re new to psalm singing or looking for some fresh, singable arrangements for your congregation, give these a listen:
Jim McCarthy is the Senior Pastor of Trinity PCA in Statesboro, GA.