How we arrived at Worship Choruses

By Dr. Barry Liesch

Worship choruses are almost a “given” in Protestant churches today.  How did we arrive at this point? Here’s a very brief, thumbnail sketch of English congregational song from around 1550 to the present.  It’s a fascinating story and at times shocking!

1550—Metrical Psalms

During the first decades of the Protestant Reformation (1517 AD), music in the Lutheran and Calvinistic churches took very different directions.  Luther sought out poets, and invited them write original poems expressing Christian theology for congregational song. Because of Luther’s influence, congregational song, choirs, and instrumental music as well as the other arts flourished in Protestant Germany.  In Switzerland churches, Calvin permitted only the singing of Old Testament psalms set to music meters, with no instrumental accompaniment.  Subsequently, around 1550 after much effort and the publication of the Geneva Psalter (a huge success), the public could purchase and hold in their hands a paraphrased, metrical version of all 150 psalms.

Calvin’s ideas (not Luther’s) were exported to Britain where they became the accepted practice.  The Brits came up with their own versions of the Psalter. Since only the singing of Old Testament psalms was permitted in church services, for roughly 150 years (1550-1700), no songs about Jesus were sung in English churches! And no New Testament theology was sung!  Doesn’t that seem odd and unreasonable to us today?

1700—Original Hymns

Around the year 1700 a young man living in London effected significant change. Isaac Watts (now know as the “Father of English Hymnody”) rebelled against this state of affairs and consciously made up his mind to paraphrase the Old Testament psalms from a New Testament perspective (give them a New Testament flavor), and to write original lyrics about Jesus and New Testament theology.  His hymnbooks were staunchly resisted for about 75 years, especially in the Anglican Church.  Only gradually did pastors change their ways and begin to approve of the idea of singing original lyrics in church services.  After his death and by around the year 1800, Watts hymns became huge favorites in all British churches and in North America too. In fact pastors everywhere began to imitate Watts and to write their own hymns!  If you check the hymnal in your church, you’ll find that many of our English hymns were written by English-speaking pastors during the 19th Century.

1850—Evangelistic Gospel Songs

Around 1850, a new form came into being–the Gospel Song.  They were first used in evangelistic crusades to present the Gospel to the non-saved, but became so popular and “catchy” with the people that they gradually found their way into evangelical churches services (especially).  Fanny Crosby, who wrote Blessed Assurance and To God be The Glory, is one of the most famous gospel songwriters.  Gospel songs differed musically from hymns in that they had not only verses of text, but also a “catchy” refrain or chorus.  The refrain and the new, lilting rhythms were the new features, and the lyric often told or testified to the effect of the gospel story upon one’s life, giving them a personal touch.  Hymns and Gospel Songs continued to be sung in churches through the 1960’s when something new happened again.

1960’s—The Jesus People

During the 1960’s in Costa Mesa California, a number of hippies were saved and became known as “Jesus People.”  The Calvary Chapel church in Costa Mesa California encouraged these young people to write music and to lead worship.  Maranatha! Music, originally a ministry within the Calvary Chapel church, began to publish worship songs, and they gained in popularity.  These worship songs (really choruses) were different from Gospel songs in that they were mini-poems.  Usually they didn’t have a verse (or multiple verses) like the Gospel songs. Just a catchy chorus.

1980’s—Praise & Worship

Around the 1980’s the Pentecostal theologian and worship leader, Judson Cornwall, clearly articulated, rather comprehensively, the concept of “Praise and Worship,” or “The Journey into the Holy of Holies,” or “Worship in the Outer and Inner Court.”  All of these titles refer to the same worship style that employs a seamless sequence of worship songs.  Worship choruses were the perfect match for this style and gradually reached the prominence they hold today. Around the same time, the Vineyard movement emerged in Anaheim California, and became committed to a style of worship, quite independently, that was rather similar in form and philosophy to that of Cornwall (but I don’t believe they knew about him).

Psalms ->Hymns ->Gospel Songs->Worship Choruses

But remember this, for roughly 150 years, 1550 to 1700, English Protestants sang only the 150 psalms from the Old Testament. Their “hymnbook,” so to speak, was frozen, and there were no songs about Jesus or the cross.  The people, though, became immersed in the language, piety, and content of the psalms–which was a healthy thing.  Then in the 1700’s Watts came along and wrote classic hymns about Jesus and the cross, such as When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.  For 75 years these hymns were fiercely resisted. From 1850 to 1960 Gospel songs became the new, popular form.

I think that each of these forms–metrical psalms, hymns, gospel songs, and worship choruses–edify believers and speak to non-believers in unique ways.  Each is useful and should continue to be used and revised (as necessary) today.  The sad fact is that our youth today, however, are acquainted with only a handful of hymns and Gospel Songs. They are quickly losing contact with their magnificent past, their “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 11).  Something needs to be done about this.  In addition, I would like to see a new genre of songs arise.

If you want to learn more about this, see chapters 1, 3, and 4 of my book, The New Worship (Baker Books, 2001), and browse the Hymnology PowerPoints at this site.


8 thoughts on “How we arrived at Worship Choruses

  1. This is a great overview of how music in the church has evolved over the centuries. Having worked in churches for the past 20 years, as a traditional soloist, worship leader and music director, I have sometimes struggled with the detachment from historical tradition. I would like to discover the secret to how to meld many styles in one service, if that’s possible. Heaven will be filled with a multitude of styles and endless musical variety. I am sad to see that many churches only want the flavor of the month or some only approve of old traditions, without embracing other forms of worship with an open mind and heart. Not to mention a lack of preparedness and excellence, in favor of music just being “good enough”, as long as those who sing and play are well-intentioned. That’s not to say there’s not excellence out there. I’ve been privileged to have made music with some truly fine musicians who also loved God passionately. Pure joy, regardless of the style. I just found your blog. So glad I did. I’ll keep an eye out for more. Thanks!
    A former Biola student, from oh so many years ago!

    • Deborah, thanks for the note. Nice to know I’m helpful. You can get a lot more detail from the hymnology PowerPoints posted.


  2. Spot on with this write-up, I seriously believe that this website needs a great deal more attention. I’ll probably be back again to read through more, thanks for the information!

  3. I am so glad to see your articles, books and powerpoint. You are such a wonderful anointed of God. May the Lord continue gives you strength and use more for His Kingdom extension.

    I really need to learn more from you about the brief explanation (in chart) on the changes of Christian Worship/Music throughout centuries (1st to 21st century), if you can provide for me and others.

    I will buy two of your books as I will study with the provided powerpoint. I hope you will write more articles as you update your blog. Having a vision which is to impact the nation of Myanmar (Burma) through worship ministry, I am so much impressed by your research and worship education. May God’s best be yours!

    David Suum
    Founder/President of Grace Music Institute, Yangon, Myanmar
    Senior Pastor of Grace Assembly of God, Yangon,Myanmar
    Student at the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies, Florida

    • David, give me a couple of weeks and I’ll respond in detail. We are in the throes of a Graduate Worship program proposal that demand my attention. Also, I have a bunch of updates to post. I’m happy you’ve found material here that’s been useful. I have spent some time in Thailand. barry

      • Hello Barry,
        Greetings. I hope you have not forgotten my request. I know that it’s going to take sometime to do my request … therefore, thank you for your time.

        David Suum

  4. I must admit I am at a loss for words. I used to belong to a church that sang acapella Psalms only and I loved it. No band banging out anything heavy, just the human voice singing with harnonies the solid word of God. To remember back fills me with true glee. As an old (75) year old musician I can see youngsters getting up with their guitars and I can almost hear them saying, “Look at me, look at me!” I know this sounds like an old man groaning but I love my Lord Jesus and I really want to worship Him in truth, but these days idon’t know what it is. Help!
    Jay Dunning

    • A lot of “seniors” feel like you do. They are mystified. I have empathy for you.

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