One Reason to Add a Chorus to a Hymn

Zac HicksSongwriting, Worship Pastoring, Worship Theology & Thought1 Comment

The Bee Does it Again

I saw the Bee’s wonderful post today, “Federal Judge Orders Chris Tomlin to Stop Adding Choruses to Perfectly Good Hymns.” Always funny; always satirically insightful. I sympathize greatly. Though not a hymn purist (as you will see below), I am sympathetic to the hymn purists’ arguments. Sometimes, when choruses are added to perfectly good hymns, they are added in a careless manner, insensitive to the hymn text, theology, poetry, and authorial intent. Sometimes, it feels like choruses are just tacked on to make it “feel modern,” because twenty first century worshipers, awash in verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-chorus pop sensibilities, have no stomach for singing strophic, through-composed hymn texts. Yes, yes. All that’s very lame.

Still, over the course of my ministry of worship leading and songwriting, I have more than once found a particular value to the “chorused” hymn. There are other values, I think, but this comes to mind because its idea is a present reality in my current context.

Liturgical Onslaught & Anthropology

I have had several recent conversations with worship leaders in more liturgical Protestant contexts like mine (Presbyterian, Reformed, Anglican, Lutheran, etc.) who resonated with me articulating this general principle: the more verbose the liturgy, the more there is a pastoral need for the liturgy to “breathe.” Here’s what I mean. Usually, a conversation with another liturgical worship leader begins like this: “Hey Zac, what songs do you lead in your context?” They’re always a bit surprised that a hymn-loving guy like me answers by saying, “We do our fair share of hymns and liturgical music, but we’ve lately actually been singing more simple and repetitive (but still good) modern worship music.” I then go on to share why.

In highly liturgical contexts, if I put my pastoral eyes on the people in the middle of the service, I notice that for many, a kind of “conceptual fatigue” begins to set in. In Anglican contexts like mine, there are words, propositions, and concepts flying at you at lightning speed. It is a persistent barrage of verbal content, including language that isn’t colloquial and takes a bit more concentration and brain-power to engage. Though rewarding and rich, liturgy is a taxing enterprise. Part of the reason I’ve chosen to lead more simple songs in this kind of worship environment is out of a pastoral motivation to give people a chance to digest and process these liturgical moments, rather than adding to the onslaught of words. I’d rather the (wonderful) words they’ve already received have time to marinate.

I believe in this because I believe in a biblical anthropology: we are whole creatures, designed to worship mind, body, will, emotions. Thick liturgy, being for many a very mind-heavy exercise, needs anthropological counterbalance. And, I might add, the kind of counterbalance I’ve been proposing actually helps the mind to more deeply engage the subject-matter, or, in the words of Jonathan Edwards, helps us to “see the truth in its proper colors.” Simple songs allow for processing of and response to the liturgy. Its pastoral effects in my congregation (at least as far as I can observe) is the net gain of people’s deeper experience of the liturgy itself. Instead of “dumbing down” the worship service, the simpler songs, when paired with the beauty and complexity of the liturgy, allow for a greater, more holistic experiential depth.

On “Chorusing” Hymns, Therefore

Okay, so what about adding choruses to hymns? Well, what I’ve said above I’ve found to be a very transferrable concept for songs with thick verbal content. Sometimes, adding a chorus to a hymn allows the hymn a chance to breathe and aids and abets a deeper apprehension of its concepts. One could argue that a “chorused” hymn might just possibly allow twenty first century Christians a deeper, fuller, richer experience of that hymn. Now is this a license to butcher every last hymn out there? Not at all. I’m not even sure I necessarily want to be a strong advocate for “chorusing” hymns. But I do want to say that I’ve seen “chorused” hymns do a pastoral work such that I can’t line up with the purists who say that a hymn mustn’t be touched.

Worship is living, breathing, and incredibly contextual. To think pastorally about these kinds of issues means to think like a missionary–some anthropology here, some sociology there, coupled with a whole lot of prayerful, biblical reflection and relying on the real-time work of the Holy Spirit. If you’ve read my book, you can hear how I’m trying to apply concepts from two particular chapters–“Theological Dietician” and “Emotional Shepherd.” I think this kind of reflection is the mark of a pastorally-oriented worship leader. You may not agree with me, but hopefully you’ll agree that such reflection is an honest attempt to think pastorally about these issues.

Too often, we criticize things like “chorusing” hymns from a black-and-white, binary perspective. But, as always, the gray between the black and the white is the pastor’s context. We don’t have the luxury of ministering in the solid, unblended color palette.

One Comment on “One Reason to Add a Chorus to a Hymn”

  1. Such a great post, Zac. Thanks.

    I’d add that in some rare cases hymns need some addition. For instance, I think Alex Nifong’s update to “Jesus Paid It All” is a necessary one. When we only sing “Jesus paid it all – all to Him I owe” we’re proclaiming that there’s some part of a debt that was paid that we still owe…that still needs to be paid. While we do sing “…He washed it white as snow” in the next line, it’s not completely clear that what we’ve gotten out of anything we owe at that point. It’s just a bit awkward that right after we proclaim that Jesus paid it all, we imply that we still owe something.

    With the bridge adding, “Oh praise the One who paid my debt and raised this life up from the dead” it’s crystal clear that what we owe has been paid – not by us, but by Him.

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