When I tell other worship leaders that I serve at Church of the Servant, they often reply, “That’s the church that holds an annual Psalm contest, right?” COS’s New Psalm Contest has become an important part of the congregational song landscape in recent years—something of an annual pilgrimage for writers of many denominations, music styles, and parts of the world. But the contest doesn’t enjoy as much awareness within the walls of COS. Let’s change that!
The idea for the contest began in 2008 when a donation was made in memory of Ben Fackler. Ben loved music, so it seemed appropriate use the money to let his memory live on through the creation of new songs. And since COS sings the lectionary Psalm each week, it seemed a good fit to center the contest on new musical settings of the Psalms.
The contest is free to enter and the submission guidelines are relatively simple:
- A congregational song based on a Psalm or a significant portion of a Psalm.
- Any musical style or lyrical form. Creativity is encouraged.
- Settings may include solo, choir, readers, and instrumentalists, as long as the congregation is given a significant role. Available musicians include piano (no organ), choir, cantors/vocal soloists, a variety of advanced instrumentalists, string ensemble, Joyful Noise Orchestra (small orchestra), Guitarchestra (folk ensemble of guitars, fiddle, accordion, etc), and hand percussion.
- Settings of less frequently sung Psalms are always encouraged.
- Music submissions should be at minimum in lead sheet (melody, lyrics, chord symbols) or hymn (two staves, four parts) format. Fully notated accompaniment parts are encouraged, and MP3 demos can be helpful. Multi-page full scores are acceptable, but please include in your submission a version that is no longer than two pages.
- Texts without music will be considered, but should include tune suggestions. New music for old texts (“re-tuned hymns”) will be considered, but the text must be public domain or include statement of author’s permission.
This year, our call for submissions was answered with 108 Psalm songs from as far away as Latvia. Five COS members are currently busy with the first round of judging. By Monday morning we will have whittled the pile down to a half dozen songs that deserve more attention. Though the judging is time consuming, it is also rewarding. It is interesting to see how different people approach Psalm songwriting and to learn what other judges value in worship songs. (We’ve never had to break a tie with an arm-wrestling match; in fact, our meetings can be quite worshipful.) On December 1 we will announce a winner and write them a check for $500. The winning song will be premiered at COS on Sunday, January 31, 2016.
Past winners include:
- 2014 Kimberly Williams’ “Clean Heart” (Psalm 51) and Wendell Kimbrough’s “Oh Rejoice in All Your Works” (Psalm 104)
- 2013 Kathy McGrath and Carol Browning’s “Psalm 139: Search Me, O God” and Bruce Benedict and Wendell Kimbrough’s “Psalm 113: Who Is Like Our God?”
- 2012 David Ward “God of the Ages” (Psalm 90)
- 2011 Carol Browning “Help Me Have the Faith of a Child” (Psalm 131)
- 2010 Zac Hicks “All People That On Earth Do Dwell” (Psalm 100)
Most of these are still used regularly at COS. Many have also circulated widely outside of the church. It makes me proud to go to a conference reading session and see a song published with the inscription “Winner of the Church of the Servant 2015 New Psalm Contest, in memory of Ben Fackler.” And it makes me proud that Church of the Servant plays an important role in fostering songwriters and encouraging Psalm singing.