When a church embarks on a new sermon series, pastors often involve the congregation by pairing the sermon text with thoughtful, relevant worship music. When Christ the King Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, N.C., ventured into the Psalms of Ascents last fall, it not only taught from the pulpit, but also brought in scholars, engaged songwriters and artists, developed a devotional journal, involved community groups, and even produced an audio recording of Bible teacher Steve Brown reading each psalm.
This 15-week pilgrimage through the Psalms of Ascents, which began in the fall of 2009 and concluded this Easter, was the result of a $10,000 grant from the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship in Grand Rapids, Mich. The Calvin Institute for Christian Worship provides annual grants of $5,000 to $15,000, made possible through the support of Lilly Endowment, Inc., to a vast ecumenical section of the North American church. The Institute’s aim with these grants is to “stimulate thoughtful and energetic work for worship that exhibits renewed creativity, theological integrity, and relevance.”
The idea to apply for the Calvin grant originated with Christ the King’s worship and community life director, Bruce Benedict, who has long been interested in the Psalms, particularly the Psalms of Ascents. While getting his MDiv from Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Fla., Benedict began asking himself, “How does Scripture inform our worship?” It is a question that has stuck with him, and eventually prompted him to seek the Calvin grant: “Our curiosity has been to see if we can capture the imagination of a modern congregation with an ancient set of texts, focused on the idea of spiritual pilgrimage.”
Benedict met with Christ the King’s pastor, Elliot Grudem, and together they explored ways the church could more fully engage in the poetry of the psalms. “The book of Psalms is intimidating. Where do we start?” Benedict asked. He then answered his own question. “We start with the Psalms of Ascents.”
The Psalms of Ascents are a compact collection of short poems ranging from Psalm 120 through Psalm 134 and include several well-known passages, such as Psalm 121:1, “I lift my eyes up to the hills—where does my help come from?” Traditionally, these were songs the Israelites sang while on pilgrimage to a sacred feast, such as Passover.
Each week, the church focused on one of the 15 Psalms of Ascents, utilizing everything from sermons and songs, to community group study and personal meditation. To help members personalize their worship experience, the church developed a “Sojournal,” a combination devotional guide and journal that led the congregation through each psalm week by week. The journal allowed space for sermon notes as well as personal and community group reflections. The church also developed a children’s version of the journal to help families participate in the journey together.
The church asked artist Aaron Collier, an art professor from Tulane University and friend of Grudem’s, to complete a series of paintings based on the Psalms of Ascents, providing the audience with another medium to help facilitate their worship. Each painting represents a specific psalm. Other visual artists contributed pieces as well. “Images can be a source of guidance and a way to further engage with the psalms,” Benedict said.
Additionally, the Calvin grant enabled the church to invite 15 musicians to compose music for use in worship. “Psalms are rarely used much in worship anymore,” Benedict said, a fact he laments. “Original music helps the congregation see the Scripture in a new way.”
The congregation also had audio of the text at their disposal with the click of a mouse. Bible teacher Steve Brown contributed to the endeavor by lending his deep, rich voice to an audio recording of each of the 15 psalms. The congregation could access the recordings at any time by visiting the church’s website.
Benedict admits that Christ the King’s approach to this season of worship was unique in that it was an experience of total immersion in a body of Scripture. “People didn’t just hear a sermon and walk away and forget, because they got the message in so many forms.” Benedict said. “It really helped unify the congregation.”
For more information on Christ the King’s journey through the Psalms of Ascents, visit www.ctkraleigh.org.