"I started working at St Mark’s Church, Tunbridge Wells a few years ago, a little bit by surprise! Up until then I had been a freelance opera singer and singing teacher and was not considering working in ministry at all. Then I was offered a part-time job as Music Director at a church that I had never even heard of, and felt strongly that it was the place God wanted me to be at that time. I’m a classically trained musician with an academic music degree and a Master’s degree in Opera, but it was still intimidating to take on the music for a church. I am not the best pianist in the world, and knew little about building, directing and encouraging a music group, and yet find myself two years later playing both the piano and organ in church every week.

I’ve entered a whole new world of knowledge with fascinating avenues of future potential study

A year ago, I started working full-time for the church and my job title was expanded to the rather lengthy ‘Music Director and Ministry Assistant’; in short I do a bit of everything around the church. Alongside that came the opportunity to study with Union School of Theology on the Graduate Diploma course at the Tunbridge Wells Learning Community hosted by my church. As someone who had never even been encouraged to pick up a bible commentary before, the training is much more rigorous than I could have hoped to expect. Whilst I am learning lots about the bible and church history as I study, predominantly I feel like I’ve entered a whole new world of knowledge with fascinating avenues of future potential study: my ‘post-Union reading list’ keeps getting longer! 

The area that I am most eager to look further into is the Psalms, largely inspired by a few of our Old Testament lectures. Modern worship rarely features the Psalms (apart from endless variations of Psalm 23) and yet I was struck that Martin Luther referred to the Psalter as a “Little Bible, wherein everything contained in the entire Bible is beautifully and briefly comprehended.[i] I do not feel that much contemporary Christian music reflects the sentiments of the Psalms. Recently, many music leaders and song-writers are turning their attention to the Psalter, but – as yet – the majority of what has been produced is for personal reflection rather than for congregational worship. In our lectures we looked at viewing the Psalms canonically, but once again contemporary practice of singing Psalms does not even reflect the structure of a single Psalm let alone the whole Psalter. Generally worship songs, even from the best songwriters, are ‘inspired’ by the Psalms, cherry-picking their favourite verses. This isn’t good practice when we study the bible, nor in sermons, so why should it be acceptable in our singing?

When we simplify worship music to considering which songs people like best, or what musical or performance style draws in a particular crowd, we fail to seek God and we fail to care properly for our congregations.

As a church musician, I am very aware of how much theology we learn from the music in church. How many people leave church humming a tune, or discussing their favourite (or most despised) hymn? Alarmingly, many music leaders in churches are not well equipped to evaluate the theology in our songs. Much discussion time is given to the style of music, or the method and techniques of execution, but how can we possibly tackle these issues adequately without first addressing the theology behind our music? Why do we sing in church? What is the music for? What is our goal? When we simplify worship music to considering which songs people like best, or what musical or performance style draws in a particular crowd, we fail to seek God and we fail to care properly for our congregations. 

My suspicion is that even churches which pride themselves on being biblical in their song choices may not necessarily reflect what the bible has to say about singing together. For example, I have often heard songs written in the first person being critiqued for being too self-centred, too focused on our feelings rather than on God, and not reflecting the way we minister to each other in worship. A lyric like ‘All have is Christ’ is then changed to become ‘All we have is Christ’. Yet so many of the Psalms are written in the first person (for example Psalm 62:5 – “Find rest, O my soul, in God alone”). Perhaps, then, congregational singing should make some provision for people to respond on a personal, individual level to Christ as well as on a corporate one. Indeed, the more I look at the Psalms, the more I start to consider them the ‘application manual’ for the bible. They give us a model of how to respond both to doctrine and situations in life, on both a corporate and an individual level. 

One of my goals for the next few years is to experiment with singing Psalms in services. We have already begun at our church. Usually we sing a portion of a Psalm from a Psalter, ideally related either directly or thematically to the sermon passage, set to a familiar hymn tune to make it easy to sing. This method is not ideal; there are many good, valid reasons why the Psalms have fallen out of our pattern of regular worship. Using a famous melody is possibly the easiest way to reintroduce the Psalms, but I doubt it has longevity. Psalms often contain hugely contrasting emotions as the Psalmist seeks to resolve issues, and there is little scope to express this in our traditional stanza-based hymns, nor in the modern pattern of verses and choruses. Another problem is that the Psalms are often much longer than the songs we are used to singing, and yet if we do not retain some semblance of the structure of the Psalm, we cheat ourselves out of much of its richness. My classical music background has given me some ideas for combatting these problems. We have started singing a new setting of Psalm 51 in church, and early feedback is encouraging. But for now, I am focusing on finishing my GDip with Union School of Theology, and getting a good theological grounding from which I can work in the future.

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