Ask Granny Susie, who’s led the church choir longer than you’ve been alive, and you might hear, “Well, it’s Sunday mornin’ praise, baby!”
Ask Steven, the church band’s guitarist, and you might hear, “It’s the surge of God’s presence that I lead people into.”
The question of course is, What is true worship? Many in our churches define worship however they please.
But does God’s Word grant such freedom? Does it define worship, and if so, how? These are the questions Vaughan Roberts, rector of St Ebbe’s Church in Oxford, answers in his short book True Worship. He wrote it out of concern “that much of our thinking about worship is confused and often unbiblical” (Loc. 46).
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There’s not much analytical precision or hard data in Bottum’s portrait of the post-Protestants. Instead, much like a work of fiction, the trustworthiness of this book rests on the author’s close personal observations, and on what you might call the self-attesting resonance of his descriptions—whether the character development is believable, whether you recognize from experience who he’s talking about.
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Millar emphasizes two key elements in his definition of expository preaching: the text and the heart. True expository preaching is bringing the text of God’s Word to bear upon the hearts of people. Millar writes, “Expository preaching happens when the message of the text = the message of the sermon. Or perhaps better, expository preaching happens when the vibe of the passage = the vibe of the sermon” (31). Every text possesses a message and an ethos. The preacher’s task is to craft and communicate his sermon so that the main point and ethos of the text is main point and ethos of the sermon.
Expository preaching is not simply the relaying of knowledge or a download of information. The goal is that we both understand and feel the message of the text. So, authentic expository preaching includes the mind and the heart, the intellect and the affections. As you read the authors' definition of preaching, you might want to stand up and preach. I did.
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That’s why I’m a little skeptical of my own bias toward a book like Cornelius Plantinga’s Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists. “Of course!” says the writer. “Preachers should read more! And more widely!” But should they really?
Yes, says Plantinga, president emeritus of Calvin Theological Seminary. Why? To sum up the book with a phrase borrowed from it, a preacher should be the kind of person on whom nothing is lost, and reading widely helps (72).
“Helps” reflects the book’s refreshing modesty. Plantinga wants preachers to read widely—that is, outside the fields of Bible and theology—for a number of reasons: to find illustrations, yes, but also to tune their ears to the power of well-chosen words, and to meet wisdom in street clothes (chs. 2-6). Yet his recommended yoke is light: one novel, one biography, and a fifth of a book of poetry each year, with a weekly visit to the Arts & Letters Daily website thrown in (42).
In Chapter 3, “Tuning the Preacher’s Ear,” Plantinga covers “clarity and her best children” and four aspects of diction: rhetorical pitch, narrative movement, economy, and evocativeness. In his analysis of one model sermon’s rhetorical pitch, Plantinga commends a register that “is neither tuxedo formal nor tank top casual. We might call it ‘upscale colloquial’ or ‘business casual,’ and add that it will engage a great many listeners.” This pitch “makes the sermon formal enough to be serious and casual enough to be comfortable to wear” (49).
This is sound advice elegantly stated—which I could say of just about the whole book. But my point in drawing attention to rhetorical pitch is that this is an issue more preachers could afford to critically consider. The same goes for the other stylistic tools Plantinga probes. Words are the preacher’s raw material, and most preachers could use help learning how to mine their potential.
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Brian and Cara Croft co-wrote The Pastor’s Family: Shepherding Your Family through the Challenges of Pastoral Ministry. Brian has been the senior pastor of Auburndale Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky since 2003. He is also the founder of Practical Shepherding, a website dedicated to being “a Gospel-driven resource center for pastors and church leaders to equip them in the practical matters of pastoral ministry,” and the author of numerous books in the “Ministering the Master’s Way” series. Brian and Cara have four children. Cara serves alongside Brian by teaching and discipling the women of Auburndale.
The book is divided into three parts that encourage pastors and church leaders to faithfully serve the church while faithfully serving their families. Brian and Cara’s twenty years of ministry qualify them to address balancing the “demands of the ministry with the demands of being a father and husband” and wife and mother (13).
In part one, Brian analyzes problems and offers practical solutions for the pressures of pastoral ministry that might lead to family neglect. Church and home are a constant swirl of expectations and scheduling demands. Some of these expectations and demands expose fears (and weaknesses) that tempt a pastor to neglect to shepherd at home.
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How interested would you be if archaeologists unearthed a hymnbook embossed with the name, “Jesus of Nazareth?” Overlooking the anachronism for a moment, wouldn’t “Jesus’ hymnbook” be immediately republished and rocket to the best-seller lists? Wouldn’t those songs find instantaneous popularity in worship services across the globe?
We have that hymnbook. We do know what songs Jesus sang: he sang the psalms.
So a question arises: if you’d be excited about singing the hymns from our fictional archaeological find, then why aren’t you more excited about singing the psalms? Two events in my life significantly nudged me into answering that question.
The first event was a dumbfounded stare in the seminary bookstore when I was a first year M.Div. student. I stood looking at the required reading for New Testament Greek and saw the Trinity Psalter as a required purchase. Why was I being asked to purchase an Old Testament book in English for a New Testament Greek course? It turns out my professor had a habit of beginning each class by requiring his students to sing a psalm together. So I become a psalm singer by requisite.
The second event happened in the Peruvian mountains. I led a group of students on a short-term mission trip. Our task was to dig a ditch around a church under construction. Our Peruvian host was a minister in the Peruvian Presbyterian Church and they mainly sang psalms.
We had a long conversation about why this was their practice, but one reason stood out to me. He was fighting heresy in the churches he pastored. False teaching slipped into his churches through folk songs adjusted for worship. Psalm singing was his attempt to guard his people from heresy sung to a familiar tune. Psalms served that growing community of churches as a biblical bulwark against encroaching syncretism. Reflecting on that conversation, I realized that I had become a psalm singer through missions.
You don’t have to be a seminary student or a missionary to Peru to step into the world of psalm singing. You only need to do two things. First, consider the benefits that God attaches to worship in psalm. Second, decide practically how you will begin singing the psalms.
SIX BENEFITS OF PSALM SINGING
Here then are six benefits of congregational psalm singing.
1. When you sing psalms you literally sing the Bible.
Good hymns are theologically deep, artistically sound, and biblical in content, but they are not the actual words of Scripture. However, when we sing the psalms we are actually singing the Bible. The poetic structure, themes, and content of the psalms are the inspired Word of God for his church in every age.
2. When you sing the psalms you interact with a wealth of theology.
Martin Luther said of the Psalter, “It might well be entitled a Little Bible, wherein everything contained in the entire Bible is beautifully and briefly comprehended.” The 150 psalms cover the waterfront of theology. Psalm singing is theological study.
3. When you sing the psalms you are memorizing Scripture.
An important part of Christian maturity is the ability to recall passages of Scripture at need. Educational circles have long recognized how music aids memorization. This is no accident; it reflects the providential hand of our Creator God. He wants you to memorize his Word and has provided a mnemonic for easy memory—the Psalter as Scripture that was, and should be, set to music.
4. When you sing the psalms you guard against heresy.
Andrew Fletcher said, “Let me write a country’s songs, and I care not who writes its laws.” He was onto something. Songs drive information deep into our hearts. However, this power can be used for ill means. As long as the church has existed, songs have been used to inculcate heresy. Psalms are counter-heresy measures.
5. When you sing the psalms you sing with the full range of human emotion.
Godly anger, heart-wrenching sorrow, dark depression, effulgent joy, honest questioning, and exuberant praise are just a sampling of the emotional range covered by the psalms. Most churches sense the burden of teaching their people how to think. Very few consider their responsibility to teach their people how to feel. The psalms serve as the tutors of our affections.
6. When you sing the psalms you praise the person and work of Jesus Christ.
One of the most misinformed statements a Christian can make against psalm singing is, “I don't sing psalms because they aren't about Jesus.” When the earliest Christians wanted to sing about Jesus’ atoning death and glorious resurrection they turned to the psalms. A little stroll through the cross-references in the New Testament should be enough to convince even the staunchest critic that to sing the psalms is to sing of the person and work of Christ.
FOUR STEPS TO BEGIN SINGING PSALMS
If these benefits have piqued your interest, then these four steps should help you begin singing the psalms.
1. Find a Psalter you can sing.
Notice I didn’t simply say, “Find a Psalter.” The best Psalter is the one you actually sing. Different Psalters are suited to different musical abilities. Some set each psalm to a particular tune while others simply provide the suggested meter, allowing you to choose the tune.
Here are a few options:
- The Trinity Psalter (Crown and Covenant) provides a single suggested tune for each psalm and breaks long psalms up into suggested portions.
- The Book of Psalms for Singing or The Book of Psalms for Worship (Crown and Covenant) also suggests tunes for each psalm but provides multiple settings and smaller portions for each psalm taken from different historic Psalters.
- The psalter I use most is The Psalms of David in Metre (Trinitarian Bible Society) developed from the 1650 Scottish Psalter. It provides each psalm in the common meter. While lacking in musical sophistication, this version is immediately singable if you know a handful of common meter tunes like “Crimond” or “Amazing Grace.”
2. Know your Bible.
Devote special study to the background of the psalms. Devote some public teaching and preaching to the psalms. Purchase a Bible with cross-references and note where psalms are quoted in the New Testament.
Let me also add the suggestion that you read a good book on redemptive history, like Vaughn Roberts’ God’s Big Picture or T.D. Alexander’s From Eden to the New Jerusalem. A good foundation in the Bible’s overarching plan of redemption and how it culminates in Jesus Christ is essential to singing the psalms well.
3. To sing the psalms well you must understand how the psalms direct us to the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Many psalms are directly fulfilled in the life and ministry of Jesus. The authors of the New Testament regularly draw on the psalms to describe what was accomplished on the cross. The beauty of the psalms is magnified as they are placed in the setting of God's redemptive work in Jesus Christ.
4. The fourth thing you and your congregation will need is the willingness to try something new.
Psalm singing can be difficult for someone who has never been exposed to it. Psalm singing can be downright alien for someone who has only known modern praise songs. But the potential benefits are immense. It is not easy work but it is good work. It is not quick work but it provides long-term, lasting joys. And the question really is, “Why wouldn’t you want to sing the psalms?”
Joe Holland is the pastor of Christ Covenant Presbyterian Church in Culpeper, Virginia.
Christians are a singing people.
Muslims don’t gather to sing. Neither do Hindus, Buddhists, or Rastafarians. Christians do. Also, while not everyone preaches, or leads in prayer, or publicly reads Scripture, we all sing.
But what can we say about the nature of a corporate Christian song? What should it be like? Can we sing any kind of song when gathered together?
WHAT A CONGREGATIONAL SONG SHOULD BE
Whether our corporate worship is subject to the regulative principle or simply the principle of conscience, the exercise of singing ought to be seriously considered in light of Scripture. And Psalm 96 offers some crucial perspectives regarding the nature of a right song and its effects. Originally written for the covenant people of God for the entry of the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem (see 1 Chr. 16), this Psalm offers us much regarding the practice of singing today.
A Congregational Song Should Focus on God
God is at the center of a Christian song. When God calls his people to sing, it is a qualified type of song. In Psalm 96:1, God says, “Sing to the Lord.”
When the church is gathered together in the name of God, the glory of God is the aim of our melody making. We are to sing to him, about him, and for him. We don’t sing merely as the world sings of created things, our song is elevated to the Uncreated One. The songs of the church proclaim the character, attributes, and ways of the God of our salvation.
For those who choose songs for corporate worship, this is a task to be carried out with sobriety. Mark Dever and Paul Alexander give this advice to pastors: “As the main teaching pastor, it is your responsibility to shepherd the congregation into the green pastures of God-centered, gospel-centered songs, and away from the arid plains of theological vacuity, meditations on human experience, and emotional frenzy.” If our songs are never set above vacuity, human experience, and emotions, we have fallen short of our goal. God must be the center of our worship; therefore God must be the center of our songs.
A Congregational Song Should Be Biblical
The songs of the church ought to be built on, shaped by, and saturated with the word of God. Singing is a unique way to let the word of Christ dwell richly in us (Col. 3:16).
In Psalm 96:2, we see that we are to bless his name. Apart from God’s revelation, we would not know his name, or how to bless his name. Our singing and the whole of our worship must be biblically informed in order to carry out these commands. The songs of the church should be intentionally biblical.
We might think of singing as a form of exposition that uses poetry to teach the word of God. When Isaac Watts published Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs, this was his intention. His goal was not to sing Scripture line by line, but to create poetic and emotive renditions of Scripture that allow a church to sing the truths of Scripture.
Songs are sermons. They don’t work like homiletical exegesis, but they articulate, exegete, and pronounce biblical truths. Our hymns teach and shape the way people view God, man, Christ, and how we are to live in light of the gospel.
One way to ensure our singing is biblical is to comb through our songs to see if we cover the breadth of themes presented throughout the canon. Our songs should be held up to the light of God’s word to ensure we are singing the glories of its truth.
A Congregational Song Should Point to the Gospel
The contours of the gospel should shape our hymnal. We should “tell of his salvation” (v. 2), so that the gospel rings forth as the theme of our songs. If we are convinced of the primacy of gospel-centered ministry, we should surely practice gospel-centered singing. The songs of our churches must be fluent in the gospel.
One approach toward gospel-centered singing is to build on the framework of God, man, Christ, response.
- We sing to God as the holy creator of all things, who is worthy of worship.
- We sing of man and our sinful nature, our alienation from God, and our need of forgiveness.
- We sing of Christ who is fully God and fully man, who lived a sinless life and died on the cross to bear the wrath of God.
- We sing a response. In these songs of consecration and repentance, faith and praise, we joyfully respond to the good news of Jesus.
A Congregational Song Should Be Congregational
The preface to this Psalm says it is to be sung by both Asaph and his sons (1 Chr. 16:7). Christian singing is congregational at its core.
The song of redemption is not meant for one, but for many. In the torrent of individualism and self-help, the people of God don’t sing as a collection of individuals, but as one people united to Christ. Christian singing is not meant to highlight the talented few, but to include the voice of the many. Congregational participation protects the gathering from pageantry and pomp, and provides an environment for an exultant, grace-infused response to the revelation of God.
This choir of the redeemed lift a collective voice of praise as a testimony that we have been reconciled to God and to one another. Singing together in worship is a mark of unity within a church. The song of the redeemed is to be sung by young and old, rich and poor, strong and weak. Verse 7 reminds us that families of peoples will ascribe praise to God: peoples from every tribe, tongue, and nation on the earth.
A Congregational Song Should be Evangelistic
While worship is theocentric, it is also declarative. Our singing is aimed at God, but it also rings in the ear of our neighbor. God-centered worship is proclamation. As we sing of the glory of God we understand that all have not seen his glory. As we sing of the goodness of the gospel, we realize that it is not good news to all.
Spurgeon called this Psalm the “Missionary Psalm,” and for good reason. In verses 10 to 13, we see that God-centered singing intrinsically works as a declaration to the lost. God-centeredness and evangelism are not two competing targets but one inside of the other. The worship of God is the aim of evangelism.
In the same breath, we sing of the love and wrath of God. In the same melodies, we declare his holiness and the grave effect of sin. Christ is the king who will come to judge the world in his righteousness and the peoples in his faithfulness. We say among the nations “The Lord reigns!” in the hope that men and women will repent of sin and trust in Christ.
A HOLY PRACTICE
The church has been given a song to sing, and Christ is its author, its substance, and its aim.
A church’s songs are not a mere preamble to the sermon. Singing is not filler time to warm up a congregation. Singing is a holy practice. We sing because God has commanded us, and our songs should fill our hearts with delight.
Matt Boswell is pastor of ministries and worship at Providence Church in Frisco, Texas.
 Thanks to Collin Hansen for articulating this idea in a conversation.
 Mark Dever and Paul Alexander, The Deliberate Church: Building Your Ministry on the Gospel (Wheaton: Crossway, 2005), 85.
It appears to be biblical theology month here at 9Marks, with 9Marks at Southern starting February 28 and Logos giveaway of an eBook version of Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church. In that spirit, we asked Michael Lawrence, senior pastor of Hinson Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon, a few questions about biblical theology.
9M: Why is it important for Christians to understand biblical theology?
ML: Whether they realize it or not, Christians are doing biblical theology all the time. They are relating the Old Testament to the New Testament, Israel to Jesus and the church, the law to the gospel. That’s the work of biblical theology.
So if you're going to be doing something anyway, if it’s inescapable every time you pick up your Bible, then I think you should know what you’re doing. If you don’t know what you’re doing, then it’s not that you won't do biblical theology. It’s simply that you’ll do it badly.
The Scriptures are the power of God for salvation. Therefore, we don’t want to misinterpret or misapply them. Biblical theology is essential if we are to faithfully do both.
9M: Jim Hamilton defines biblical theology as learning to read the Bible like the apostles did. What do you think of that definition?
ML: I like Jim’s definition a lot, because I think biblical theology is essentially a reading strategy. For over two centuries now, the academic community has taught us to read the Bible in increasingly atomized parts, like pearls on a string. Certainly paying attention to the distinct voice of John or Jeremiah has had many benefits. It has taught us to pay attention to context, and has kept us from flattening the Bible out into a simplistic univocal message.
But there’s no doubt that this strategy, particularly in the hands of skeptical unbelief, has also done a lot of damage. Not least it has obscured the single voice of God, speaking through the multiplicity of human voices and yet telling a single story of judgment and redemption. In other words, in rediscovering the individual trees of the Bible in their unique beauty we’ve lost the biblical forest in its majestic grandeur.
When we talk about biblical theology as the reading strategy of the apostles, we’re talking about a perspective on the canon that the apostles learned from Jesus himself (Luke 24:27). But it’s not just their reading strategy for the Old Testament; it was their writing strategy for the New Testament as well. Again and again, they wrote to show that what happened in and through Jesus was the fulfillment of what had already been written (e.g., Matt. 1:22, 2:15; John 12:38; Acts 1:16). But it wasn’t just Jesus that the OT pointed forward to. They also wrote about the identity and nature of the church in the same way (e.g., Acts 2:16, 1 Cor. 10:11ff., Heb. 12:18-24).
So biblical theology is not just an apostolic reading strategy for the Old Testament, it’s an apostolic reading strategy for the whole Bible. And we read it that way, not only because the apostles told us to read it that way, but because it’s the way the Holy Spirit inspired it from first to last.
9M: What are you planning to talk about at the upcoming 9Marks at Southern conference on biblical theology?
ML: What I’m hoping to speak on is the way in which biblical theology is necessary for the formation of Christian identity. There are several favorite and well-known phrases from the New Testament that we use to describe ourselves: we’re aliens and strangers, sons and daughters, the bride of Christ. I want to show that we can’t understand any of those crucial identity markers without biblical theology, and that with biblical theology they become profoundly rich in ways beyond what we typically attach to them.
That’s my goal anyway. In the process, I hope to show just how useful biblical theology is to our work of counseling and discipling, which is the ministry context in which we typically lean most heavily on those identity images.
Interested in reading Michael’s book? Check out our bookstore.