Faithful or Faddish? Weighing the strengths and weaknesses of praise choruses

The psalmist encourages us, "O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things!" (Ps. 98:1). In recent years, more and more Christians have been taking this encouragement to heart. Their "new song" often takes the form of the praise choruses that are taking many congregations by storm.

Some musicians dismiss praise choruses as a passing fad. They insist that most of these choruses will not have the lasting value of a classic hymn such as "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty." Others, however, feel that this form of energized, up-tempo, body-involved worship expression is precisely what the church has needed, and that aspects of this form of worship will be around for years to come. Only time will tell.

As a church of the Reformation, we take seriously both the Word of God and the integrity of music and harmony in our hymns and responses. Therefore, as we attempt to judge the appropriateness of this new music style for our worship, we must ask ourselves this question: "Do praise choruses contribute substantively to the expression of our worship of God?"

Strengths

Focuses on Scripture.
While the early praise choruses did not always focus directly on Scripture, many of the more recent ones do.

One of the earlier choruses that I find trite in its reference to God is "Heavenly Father, We Appreciate You." The oft-repeated word "appreciate" strikes me as a rather weak and pathetic way to address the Lord of the Universe. Words like "adoration," "glory," and "power" seem more fitting when describing the Lord who creates, sustains, and redeems all of life.

In contrast, the more current chorus "O Lord, Our Lord, How Majestic Is Your Name in All the Earth" very closely and meaningfully reflects the words of Psalm 8. Reinforcing the Word through song is an effective teaching device within the context of worship.

Expresses praise.
Second, many of the choruses ascribe praise to God rather than describe who God is. We sing, "I Love You, Lord," rather than "O Worship the King, All Glorious Above." Such choruses give people the opportunity to address God personally, as they would in prayer, rather than to sing about God's attributes descriptively.

Encourages movement.
Third, this type of worship music seems to lend itself to physical movement. Clapping, raising hands, lifting heads, closing eyes, and even tapping toes seems to help some worshipers celebrate better or focus more introspec-tively upon God.

If at first such movement seems strange within the context of Reformed worship, it is probably because we Calvinists have been rather one-dimensional in our worship, worshiping God essentially with our minds. Some people find sitting quietly and merely talking and thinking about God too restrictive, and prefer to involve the body in real and symbolic ways to experience a fuller, deeper expression of praise. In more liturgical settings, this desire to worship God with body, mind, and spirit is sometimes expressed through interpretative dance.

When we look to the psalms for worship instruction, we find that we are encouraged to praise God with a variety of instruments, dance, clapping, lifting hands, and bowing down. No wonder some chorus enthusiasts believe that this body-involving genre of songs is more in keeping with the psalmists encouragement.

Weaknesses

Trite tunes.
Just as there are strengths, there are most certainly weaknesses in the use of choruses within the context of Reformed worship. One of the most obvious is that many of the melodies and harmonies of these songs are rather trite, reminiscent of some of the predictable melodies of nineteenth-century hymnody (such as "Wonderful Words of Life"). Often in such tunes, both the style of the musical setting and the progression of chords is very predictable and is soon found wanting.

Certainly, choruses such as "Jesus, We Just Want to Thank You" will never stand up against hymns such as "Now Thank We All Our God" in terms of depth of intellectual and musical expression. That's probably why some worshipers refer to these choruses as "ditties."

Odd words.
Another objection worshipers have to these choruses—even those with good melodies—is that their words are sometimes either mundane or, in some cases, downright strange. For example, Jack Hayford's popular chorus, "Majesty" is musically rather interesting, but the progression of the text is awkward:

Majesty, worship His majesty.
Unto Jesus be all glory, honor, and praise
Majesty, kingdom authority flow from
His throne, unto His own; His anthem
raise.

Although the phrases "worship his majesty" and "kingdom authority" fill the musical space, they are odd expressions.

As worship planners and leaders, we are encouraged to use music and words that are in harmony with the standards of the Reformed tradition. That means both the music and the written text must have an internal integrity. Neither text nor melody should be trite or simplistic. Nor should the melody be unduly complicated, making the chorus so difficult to sing that it becomes the particular province of the praise team leading that portion of the service.

Limits congregational participation.
My third concern with praise singing is that it often becomes the only way in which the congregation participates in the service. In some churches, congregational participation has been reduced to singing six to ten praise choruses, followed by the preacher reading and teaching the Word and leading in prayer. Corporate prayers, litanies, confessions of faith, and prayers of confession have been removed from the liturgy. So someone who does not find great meaning in singing is left with a meager plate of participation in the service.

The heart of Reformed worship is participation by the people of God gathered around the Word of God. Early in this century most of our churches had pulpit-led worship, initiated and accomplished primarily by the preacher while people listened. Now we run a similar danger of limiting people to participating only through song. We continually need to promote a form of worship in which people participate in prayer, confession, litanies, and affirmation of faith, as well as singing.

Violent themes.
My final reservation about using praise choruses has to do with the abundance of battle themes in the texts. Many of the texts come out of the book of Joshua and have titles like "The Battle Belongs to the Lord" and "They Run on the City, They Run on the Walls, Great is the Army. . . ." The perspective that we receive is one of the God who sides with us against evil and the power of the evil one. Add to this a preoccupation with the end times, and our musical witness can become too one-sided.

Contending with the power of the evil one is certainly an issue in the Christian life, but there are other issues that must be addressed as well: justice, mercy peace, hope, and joy. Worship planners need to exercise decisive leadership when choosing music and texts. They need to provide God's people with musical literature that speaks to the greatness of our God and to the breadth and depth of God's call upon our lives.

Mark Lemmenes is senior pastor for El Dorado Park Community Church in Long Beach, California.