A Worship Experiment: Studying the Psalms as a Guide

A Worship Experiment: Studying the Psalms as a Guide January 3, 2024
Photorealistic picture of a large auditorium full of excited worshippers encircled in the light of the character of God. The featured image for Patheos article: A Worship Experiment: Studying the Psalms as a Guide by Mark Whitlock.
The worship wars of the 2000s are over. Rock-n-Roll sounds dominate our church landscape. Gone are those who can ride the bucking bronco of a pipe organ in favor of those who can get the most out of a guitar amp and pedalboard. Choirs are for big gospel numbers and not for every Sunday. The music called “worship” now gets played on the radio, and in some markets is played on four or more radio stations (WAY-FM, K-LOVE, The Fish (Salem), Moody, Bott, etc.) [If you don’t know about the “worship wars”, Ponder Anew has some interesting reflections and thoughts here, here, and here.]
As a “child of the 1980s” who loved “Great is the Lord”, “He is Exalted”, “40”, and a ton of others, I was and am all for “singing a new song” but I wonder what we’ve lost? I spent hours listening to greater minds than mine debating the transcendence of God versus the intimacy of God as it relates to music, worship, the church, evangelism, and cultural transformation. Here we are 30 years later and I have one question:
Are we closer to Christ because of the decisions the church writ large has made?
Since that time I’ve wondered if the Psalms could help us. The Holy Spirit included 150 songs in a hymnal smack dab in the middle of the Word of God. Do the themes of these songs help us to see how to worship in “spirit and truth”? What if we looked at them more poetically and as lyrics rather than breaking down every not and tittle of their Hebrew?
For the last few years I have been kicking around in the Psalms like a man walking an old piece of family property being surprised by the flora and fauna, arrowheads in the soil, and the stories of all who’ve lived there.
For my personal growth and edification, I want to perform an experiment in the Psalms. You’re welcome to eavesdrop and more.  Please accept my invitation to the conversation.
As an experiment, here are my hypotheses:
  1. God (The Trinity) is worthy of our worship not just because of all the things He has done for us but because of His character and His status as the one true God.
  2. Worship is not a spectator activity. We are to be involved, daily, personally, and yes, musically.
  3. The Psalms as a whole hold the secret to the mix and blend of transcendence versus intimacy.
  4. We should heed their example as a whole not in one off fashion.
Each week, I intend to examine one Psalm as a piece of music. I will lean on Spurgeon, Lewis, Longman, and others, but will approach the Psalms not as a string of theological words and phrases, but as lyrics. I will also track a number of factors as a way of understanding the entire Psaltry:
  • Who is the attributed writer?
  • From whose perspective do we sing?
  • To whom are we singing?
  • What is the ultimate purpose of the Psalm?
  • What key words and phrases do we need to walk way with?
  • On a subjective scale of 1-10 with 1 being intimate and 10 being transcendent, how does the writer view God?
  • How many times are humans mentioned?
  • How many times is God mentioned?
  • How many times is God’s word mentioned
In addition to a view of one Psalm per article, I will look at one modern worship song that reflects the same theme, one that tries to and misses according to my own subjective viewpoint, and one classic hymn that deserves our consideration again. These, too, will be tracked in the same spreadsheet as the Psalms for the sake of comparison.
I have delayed beginning this experiment because I feel silly. I love the movie, “Dead Poets Society,” despite its faults and tragedies. When the boys open up J. Evans Pritchard’s fictional textbook and read about plotting the greatness of the poem along the X and Y axises, I, too, want to rip the preface from the book and figure out a way to “suck the marrow out of life.” I don’t want to repeat this error with the greatest book of poetry ever written; I just want to study it to learn how to worship better and deeper. I don’t intend to put the Word of God in a box or simmer it down to a foolish collection of marks on a page. I want to expand my understanding, and perhaps yours, of our best examples for how to worship.
I have been called a fuddyduddy, and much worse, about my prickliness on this topic. I want to approach with grace, not with judgment. Even typing that sentence makes me feel like I’m going somewhere I’m not supposed to.

Perhaps a story will help illustrate why I’m taking up this journey. In 1988, I traveled to South Korea to participate in a short term missions trip with Worldwide Discipleship Association. I spent the bulk of my time in Seoul teaching conversational English to college students using the Gospel of John as our textbook. During our eight-week stay, we traveled south from Seoul to Anmyeondo Island. The generous and warm people who live there are very poor. At the time, few homes were connected to the electrical grid, few had traveled off the island, we saw no restaurants and few businesses. There was, however, one church. For a brief weekend, we lodged with families and went door-to-door with a translator to present the gospel. One of our group stood 6’3″ with blond hair and striking features. He carried himself (and I’m sure still does) like a leader. Word spread quickly around the island that Americans were visiting and they came to marvel at the tall one. They also came out to the church services we attended.

The church was open and airy. Dust and sand from the beach had blown in for what looked like decades. The church was lit with a couple of electric lights. The wires hung from the ceilings and were connected to power cords that snaked out of the small building. When it came time for the church service, they began with music. If you’ve ever heard Korean folk music, you know it is quite atonal, lacks meter, and sounds odd to Western ears. The first two songs were Korean compositions. Our translator offered rough translations of the lyrics but there was no way to sing along. The third song, however, was a familiar hymn. I wish I could remember which one it was. Without electricity, the only instrument the church had was a small organ the size of a student’s school desk with perhaps two octaves of keys each on two keyboards, one over the other. The musician pumped a pedal on the bottom to fill the bellows. Then, when she played the keys, air escaped through some mechanism inside. (Don’t know if it is a series of holes like a wind instrument or an array of pipes. The back was covered.)
She had also played during the Korean music, but it was impossible to foretell what was coming when she played a hymn from the west. The organ was terribly out of tune and sounded like two sets of bagpipes being squished by an elephant. It was horrible to my ears. I remember I wished I could leave. I wanted to fix it. I wanted to do something.
In that moment, the Lord impressed upon me three messages. They were louder than the organ.
  • They are making a joyful noise. Look at their faces.
  • Philippians 2:10–11 (“every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord”)
  • Revelation 7:9–10 (“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!'”)
I sat there convicted. Tears rolled down my face. I promised that I would not be judgmental about worship again. After all, I’m not Isaac Watts, Andrae Crouch, or J.A.C. Redford after all. I can’t even play piano in the key of E-flat or perform a simple guitar solo. Who do I think I am, anyway?
That lasted all of about two weeks and I was back at it again.
I don’t want this experiment to be in that spirit of judgement. I want it to be a journey to self-discovery.
After all, the God we worship has saved me, inspired me, pushed me, provided for me, chided me, disciplined me, and rescued me from difficulties of my own making. The least I can do is worship Him well.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!