Hymns or Choruses?

Featuring Paul Baloche Posted on February 1, 2010

Worship songs and hymns generally serve two different purposes. A worship chorus, with its more frequent repetition and built-in cries, has little room for more than one or two thoughts, and serves as a prolonged emotional expression of a moment’s devotion. The great hymns, with their four or more verses, each treating a different aspect of the theme, are full of richness, sublime thoughts and doctrine. A century or more ago it was common for a Christian to own a Bible and a hymnbook, which he used not only in church, but as private devotional reading. Many a Christian owed much of his knowledge of doctrine to the hymns, which hammered the great truths metrically into his memory. This practice is rare today, and congregations that are served only a steady diet of short choruses sung over and over are being malnourished and robbedof a rich part of their heritage.

Matt Redman: The Big Picture
In many of the hymn books there are songs on so many aspects of the nature and character of God. Songs which embrace every season of the soul. Hymns which give the people of God a voice to express worship in so many different circumstances of the Christian life. Collected together these hymns paint a big and colorful picture of God and His kingdom. Let us too take us this call—for one thing, let us begin to ‘mind the gaps’—to attend to some of the areas of theology and life of which the church does not have many songs to sing. This is not a task we can take on alone. We need to seek help from theologians, preachers and pastors—people who can help us identify some of these gaps, and even suggest ways we might go about filling them. There is a heightened call on all of us to bring honour to God, edification to the church and truth to the world by painting as big and as full a picture of our God in worship as we possibly can.

Bob Kauflin, Sovereign Grace Ministries:
Sometimes songwriters start to write songs before they have very much to say.  We assume that an outpouring of emotion is all that’s needed to write a great song. The best congregational songs contain biblical truths and then give us words to properly respond to those truths.  Truth without emotion is dead orthodoxy. Emotion without truth is fanaticism and potentially idolatrous.

Sometimes, when I begin to get complacent and think my lyrics are pretty good, I need to be jarred back to reality by an encounter with true greatness. This old hymn does it for me every time. Its glorious, ever-changing imagery makes my hair stand up, and its sheer craftsmanship makes me hang my head:

O worship the King, all glorious above
And gratefully sing His wonderful love;
Our Shield and Defender, the Ancient of Days,
Pavilioned in splendor, and girded with praise.

O tell of His might, O sing of His grace,
Whose robe is the light, whose canopy space!
His chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form,
And dark is His path on the wings of the storm.

Thy bountiful care what tongue can recite?
It breathes in the air, it shines in the light,
It streams from the hills, It descends to the plain,
And sweetly distills in the dew and the rain.

Frail children of dust, and feeble as frail,
In Thee do we trust, nor find Thee to fail:
Thy mercies how tender, how firm to the end,
Our Maker, Defender, Redeemer and Friend.

O Worship the King, Lyrics by Robert Grant, Music:
William Gardiner’s Sacred Melodies, 1815

(Note in the above song how the ever changing feeling of the message dictates how we arrange, interpret and perform a song. You wouldn’t sing verse 2 and verse 3 in the same tone of voice, would you?  And do any of the lyrics suggest some chord substitutions? Constantly consider these things when you’re working out your team’s arrangements.)

Since worship songs have replaced the hymns in many churches, couldn’t we write some more worship songs that are deeper and richer in spiritual content?  Consider some of the great old hymns, such as “Fairest Lord Jesus” or “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” Each consists of three to five verses full of rich, meditative imagery and doctrine. Three or four minutes of repetition of a simple thought in a worship chorus may make us feel reverent, or nostalgic, or worshipful, but may not feed our spirits on the truths of the faith as the hymns do. In our opinion both are needed, but in balance.

We’re not suggesting necessarily that you write in the hymn format, but maybe there is an alternative. Today there seems to be a trend toward three-section worship songs, which may be AABBCC, or ABCABC, or some such combination. We particularly like ABABCC— Verse 1, Chorus, Verse 2, Chorus, followed by a different chorus, higher and repeated, that celebrates what the first sections have sung about. This still serves the purpose of a worship chorus but gives room for a lot more content.

Martin Smith’s “Shout to the North” (ABABCB) has three thoughtful verses interspersed with its celebratory choruses, plus a bridge that adds more food for thought. Delirious?’s recording of it stretches the form to ABABBCBBABBBB and three tags. (A tag is a repeated final line.) As a refreshing surprise, the first of that last string of B’s is sung by children. See also Martin Smith’s “Did You Feel the Mountains Tremble?”
Lots of great content here. The church could use more songs like these.  Ask the Lord if He wants you to write some.

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