Choruses - a reconsideration

by Malcolm Bowden (September 2005)

The use of choruses in Church worship and other meetings has grown extensively over recent years. In some churches, they seemed to have virtually replaced the usual hymns. Is this a change for the better? Do choruses give congregations all the benefits of the hymns together with an even wider range of expression available for worship?
I would suggest that many of the choruses are deficient in various ways, and would make the following observations. In making them, it is admitted at certain hymns could also be charged with the same criticisms, but I would nevertheless maintain that they apply far more frequently to choruses.
The choruses quoted are taken from "Mission Praise" and "Songs of Fellowship - I and II" and comparing them with "Hymns of Faith".

(1) Poor theology.
Several examples could be given of inadequate attention to this aspect.
(A) "Father we love you.." The last verse, "Spirit, we love you, we worship and adore you; Glorify your name in all the earth."
However, the spirit is not to be glorified in this earth; it is his intention of glorifying the Lord Jesus Christ, not himself - John 14:26.

(B) "How can you love the spirit?" Last line of chorus-
"so you can love the Lord now in me".
However, we should not ask people would love us because the Lord is in us. This is drawing attention to ourselves, and in addition, it implies that if the Lord is not in us we need not be loved. We are commanded to love ALL others, even though they may be our enemies.
Whilst such an interpretation would be strongly denied, nevertheless, this is what the line suggests.
In addition, in this same chorus, the first two lines of the second verse read-
"It's easy to say we'd love the father,
For He ain't hard to live with day-by-day..."
Not only is the English phraseology appalling, but the theology is similarly suspect.
The last verse claims that if you seem out of touch with Jesus, the way to meet God is to touch the brother sitting next to you!
No comment is required. Other examples of poor theology could be quoted.

(2) Word fit.
In several choruses, the metre of the words simply does not fit the tune in a natural way, as most hymns do. They have had to be learned by continual repetition, and the chorus is not sung with any conviction. As most of the congregation are too unsure of the word/tune relationship to sing out confidently, lame singing is the result.

(3) Complex tunes.
Some choruses, apart from the words, have tunes that seemed to have little obvious melody. A natural pleasing tune is one that can usually be appreciated from the sequence of harmonies. In some choruses, it is difficult to know what the next note might be as there is no natural cadence to the melody. Such tunes make learning difficult. I cannot help feeling that such tunes are artificially contrived by the composer simply to sound "interesting" and "different" to others.
As a result of the difficulties of learning some choruses due to 2 and 3 above, they are learnt by constant repetition usually when all the members are present during the Sunday services. Thus, what should be a meeting devoted to the worship of God, becomes for a time, a learning of choruses by frequent repetition.

4. Repetition.
This is a feature of very many choruses. One has only to glance through a chorus book to be struck by the number of times one line is repeated within one verse. To quote only two examples out of many that could be cited-
"Break forth and sing for joy" - six times within the chorus.
"City, O City, O City of God, glorious things are spoken of you" - repeat three times.
In addition to repetition in a chorus, there is a strong a tendency in some churches to sing choruses several times over that are being sung well. The effect is wearing, and numbing of the mind from thinking objectively. In such a condition, the mind is far more likely to uncritically accept statements made in the singing. Whilst charges of brainwashing in many activities are at times exaggerated, nevertheless, the susceptibility of the mind to absorb by continual repetition is obvious. In so doing, the critical faculties are bypassed and the concepts accepted. In no way can such an approach be defended on a Biblical basis. Paul frequently stresses the use of the mind.

5. Introduction by psychological pressure.
Choruses may be brought into a Church service in a very small way to begin with, often through the young people's group, who have heard them and have enjoyed them at another Fellowship. However, with the liveliness of the tunes, and the noticeable change they effect in worship which is liked by many, they begin to be used with increasing frequency.
The Minister is then facing a dilemma; lose his young people to the charismatic church down the road, or use choruses and keep his young people. Invariably, the latter is chosen!
Those who sense, sometimes in an indefinable way at first, the inadequacies of the content and form refrain from criticising out of pure Christian forbearance, and therefore there is a continual pressure for their use to increase. Rarely do churches discuss the subject or seek thoughts and opinions. When adverse comments may eventually be made, they may be described as old fashioned, prejudiced, fearful of change or divisive.

6. Serious omissions.
With the major emphasis being upon praise and a worship, there are several aspects of the full Christian life which are almost entirely absent. Amongst them are -
(A) The admission that there are many problems in life even for Christians;
(B) The acceptance of rebukes and corrections from God (through the Bible) or our fellow Christians;
(C) The absence of a true sense of awe. The atmosphere is entirely one of familiarity with a benevolent God; (This could be one of the most seriously detrimental aspects of the whole of charismatic worship.)
(D) The need to strictly follow the Biblical guidelines in our conduct.
This is significant, for there is hardly any mention of the important part that the Bible should play in our lives, as daily reading and study, as the sole source of information on the Christian faith and as the final authority in the life of the Christian. In view of such a serious omission, there can be no doubt that the Bible has quite obviously been downgraded, just as it was in Spurgeon's day, but now it is in a far more subtle way. It is not specifically referred to, but attention is simply focused upon worship and praise.
That the Bible has been downgraded will be strongly objected to. Yet if they claim that they hold the Bible in higher regard, why is this not reflected in their songs, as it certainly is in the hymns?
Why should this be? Is it because there is at least one other source of "authority" to which charismatic give great heed, i.e. the "prophesies" or "words of knowledge" that are "uttered" at many meetings?
(E) There is however an even more serious omission, which is the almost complete absence of the word "sin". On parallel lines, there is little reference to sorrow or repentance. I found only one use of the word "sin" (there may be others, however) and this is in the ORIGINAL version of the chorus "How lovely are the feet of Him..." In the popular version printed above it, this entire verse is omitted which is perhaps not only significant but symbolic.
If singing is a very important part of charismatic worship then their failure to use this word is, again, particularly significant.
It is all part of the emphasis upon encouragement and uplift, not just in the singing but in the whole outlook of the movement. To be negative (actually, to be truly humble) in any way is condemned as being "unhelpful". With such an approach to the Christian life, one must question the way in which newcomers to the faith have the Gospel presented to them. Are they told that they simply have to have faith in Jesus to become a Christian with little emphasis upon real repentance for their former godless life? Is this a way of bypassing the "offence of the Cross"?
No wonder charismatic churches are so popular!!!

As important as these points are, there is however an underlying approach which the use of choruses expresses. This aspect is barely mentioned, yet it is far more serious than any of the subjects are raised above. There are four fairly subtle characteristics of choruses.

1. MOOD.
If one reads (or better still, sings) a number of hymns and then immediately follows this with its several choruses, it quickly becomes clear that there is a totally different atmosphere between the two types. In describing choruses, in contrast to hymns, one might say that they are in general more lively, uplifting, quicker tempo etc. It is for this reason that they are more popular with many congregations. Consequently, they are chosen in order to encourage a more lively atmosphere in Church worship, which they do very effectively.
However, it is here that they create a very dangerous approach to worship in a church, and one at that cannot be too strongly emphasised, for it can ultimately destroy true worship that would be acceptable to God.
Most leaders of worship want to feel at the end of a service that the congregation has been deeply moved and uplifted. Where a leader's ability to grip the interest of his congregation by the presentation of the great truths of the faith in the sermon is inadequate, some alternative means of achieving "success" is sought. Hearing of the liveliness of other churches using choruses, there is a natural temptation to use them so that the congregation is able to express its worship. Eventually, however, far from using them to express a sense of joy in the meeting, the choruses are used to generate a suitable mood. Thus, what are presented simply as a vehicle for a freer worship, can result in them dominating the whole meeting. By their continual abuse, meetings can become just as rigid as the much maligned "hymn-prayer sandwich".
When one has a series of choruses chosen with the obvious intention of deliberately livening a meeting and freeing members from their inhibitions about the form of worship, then such activity can only be described as little more than group manipulation. The more thoughtful and mature members would resent such an approach as being unworthy of, and unacceptable to, the majestic God they seek to worship.
This whole sense of the difference in the "atmosphere" between choruses and hymns puzzled me for some time. Eventually, it was pointed out that choruses were characterised by one word which clarified the whole matter -

We can observe or comment on something in either an objective or subjective way. An objective comment about, say, a painting, would describe the size of the frame, the range of colours used, the layout of the picture, the type of oil used etc. These would be matters that would be generally agreed to by most people - they are independent of the person describing the picture.
However, a subjective view would be the personal viewpoint of the person looking at the picture. He may like what the artist has drawn or not. He is saying "This is what I personally think about this picture" - he is very much concerned about how it affects HIM.
Examination of many choruses shows that they are VERY subjective - much is sung about how "I" am affected by God, what God has done for ME.
Now all this is very true, but it is once again the emotional, self-centredness of the attitude that should be noted. Thus, worship is less of a communal act, but a reinforcement of the SELF that is taking place.
A simple way of checking this point is to examine the number of hymns that begin with "I" against those of a chorus book. Taking "Hymns of Faith" (659 hymns), there are 28 (4%) beginning with "I". In "Mission Praise" (798 hymns and choruses) there are 73 (9%); in "Songs of Fellowship" (only 330 choruses) there are 40 (12%)!
Even those that do not begin with "I" are often written from the personal point of view. To examine this further, I checked all the first lines in the indexes with the words "I, me, mine, my". The result was Hymns of Faith 26%, Mission Praise 24% and Songs of Fellowship 31%. This is much less clear cut but the high percentage in SF is indicative again.

Thus, choruses significantly concentrate on the person themselves and much less on being a vehicle for a corporate act of worship by the whole congregation acting as a unit. One can begin to sense the self-centredness, the emotional background to an "ego trip" that is at times so evident in charismatic worship.
It may seem unrelated to some, but to me, this approach is closely linked to the Arminian theology ("I chose to follow Jesus") that most charismatic churches hold to. Basically, this theology is also centred on the self - "what I decided to do.."

A large percentage of choruses are aimed at "uplifting" the congregation. The accent is upon praise, joy, encouraging each other, glorifying the members of the Trinity, and, in general, creating an air of excitement and thrill in the Christian life. This is strongly reinforced by the catchy, upbeat music. All these aspects are right if held in reasonable proportion, but when they are used to the exclusion of much else, the meetings become unbalanced to an unhealthy degree. For example, the acknowledgement that even Christians are still sinners who need to humbly come before God and seek His forgiveness finds little place in charismatic worship. Examples are -

(MP 151) For I'm building a people of power/ and I'm making a people of praise.... Build your church Lord/ make us strong Lord....

(MP 718) We are marching in the great procession.... / (Verse 2) It's a march of victory, it's a march of triumph....

(MP 681) There's a sound on the wind like a victory song/... We shall rise witha shout, we shall fly!

The main subject of attention is Jesus and His sacrificial death, which is right and proper, but there are few that reflect on the Awe and majesty of God. However, even with this focus on Jesus, there is an air of unreality. The picture that emerges is of a gentle Jesus meek and mild, a kindly figure who would not dream of rebuking a Christian when he falls into sin. Certainly, Christ has all the features of kindness, gentleness, compassion etc., which are noticeable attributes of a woman. But he also had the strong personality, determination and character of a man who can withstand the buffeting of life's hazards and still be resolute, and inspire confidence in the widely differing men who followed him.
I am hesitant to quote examples, as it will seem that I am undermining the position of Christ which I most certainly am not. In addition, sentimentalilty is extremely difficult to define and a very personal assessment. Having said all this, however, I give a few examples in the hope that the reader will see what I am trying to express.

1. (MP 364) Jesus, I worship You/ worship, honour and adore Your lovely name/ Jesus, I worship You, Lord of lords and King of kings/ I worship You;/ from a thankful heart I sing/ I worship you.

2. (MP 235) Hold me, Lord, in Your arms/ fill me Lord with your Spirit;/ touch my heart with your love./ let my life glorify Your name./ Singing alleluia (8 times!)
[Comment - instructing God to bless the singer!]

3. (MP 239) [Holy, holy, holy is the Lord/ holy is the Lord God almighty!/] x 2 / Who was and is and is to come!/Holy, holy is the Lord. Then Jesus... Worthy... Glory...

4. (MP 462) May the fragrance of Jesus fill this place (x 3)/ lovely fragrance of Jesus,/ rising form the sacrifice of lives laid down in adoration.

5. (MP 344 - John Wimber) Isn't He beautiful/beautiful, isn't He/.... [isn't He (x 5)] / Verse 2 - Yes you are beautiful.... [yes You are ( x 5)]

Many more could be quoted.
One might ask whether this omission of the strong, manly side of Christ's personality might be a reflection of the dependency of many charismatics to be easily led along strange paths of doctrine and worship?
Where is the presentation of the complete Christ who can bring out from his people not only gentleness but the manly strength, wisdom and clear sighted resolution, which the Christian Church so badly needs today?

After a period (50 years?) most artistic works are free of copyright and can be used by anyone without charge. However, if a person changes a few words or notes, he can claim a copyright fee for "his" version of the tune/words.
It is most noticeable in "Mission Praise" that the editors, Horrobin and Leavers, have "altered" no less than 14 hymns and then claimed copyright. Some of these hymns are very well known - 39 (As with gladness), 152, 257 (I am not skilled), 468 (My God how wonderful you are), 485 (now I have found the ground wherein), 491 (O come all you faithful), 539 (Once in Royal David's city), 732 (We plough the fields and scatter), 740 (We three kings of orient are). The remaining are 210, 253, 538, 733, 789.
One would assume that they would receive the full copyright fees for these 14 hymns as though they had composed the original work! A number are popular Christmas hymns.
In addition, 39 further hymns have the words "Copyright control" - some with just that wording, some with just the name of the author above. A further 9 have "Anon" above. If a hymn is anonymous, has anyone the right to claim the copyright? Thus, some 62 items are under the copyright control of the editors.
One hymn they have altered is my second favourite hymn - "My God how wonderful thou art". I give the three central verses that have been greatly altered; notice the how the fear and dread of God have been deliberately eradicated and replaced by more sentimental (and banal) wording.

Hymns of Faith - (Mission Praise)
v2; How dread are thine eternal years, O everlasting Lord. By prostrate spirits day and night incessantly adored.
(v2; In awe I glimpse eternity, O everlasting Lord; by angels worshipped day and night, incessantly adored!)

v3; O how I fear thee living God, with deepest tenderest fears, And worship the with trembling hope and penitential tears.
(v3; O how I love you living God, who my heart's longing hears, and worship you with certain hope and penitential tears.)

v4; Yet I may love the too, O Lord, almighty as thou art, for thou hast stooped to ask of me, the love of my poor heart.
(v4; Yes, I may love you, O my Lord, almighty King of Kings, for you have stooped to live in me, with joy my heart now sings.)

Those using Mission Praise might like to reflect where some of their money is going every time they sing their hymns and choruses!

In what is written above, it might be thought that I condemn ALL choruses. This is not so. There are a modest number that I think are excellent, others that are very acceptable. I note that they are all hymns with several verses. Many (all?) of the hymns by Timothy Dudley-Smith and Christopher Idle are very good. However, far too many of the choruses, short and long, suffer from one or more of the various inadequacies listed above such that they are sung with some degree of reluctance, and I know that I am not alone in this view.

The well-known preacher, Dick Lucas, once said in a sermon;
"The church is not primarily a building for worship. The world is the place in which we worship God - that is in our lives. The church is a school and it really ought to be built more like one.... So the church is really an adult Sunday School.... We are here to work which is why we open the Bible and study it on a Sunday morning, and I want you to study it with me at this "Sunday School", which is what the church is meant to be.... [Later] It would not really matter if we never sang another hymn in our lives."
M. Bowden.
September 2005