Theories that Work: Remembering Dr. Chuck Fromm’s Legacy of Ideas

Robb Redman
  • When Chuck launched Worship Leader in the 1990s, there were only a handful of training programs and virtually nothing for worship leaders at Christian colleges or seminaries. Today there are hundreds.

Dr. Chuck Fromm was instrumental in developing the worship ministry as we know it today. By tirelessly ministering and learning as part of the Jesus Movement, Chuck redefined our modern use of the word worship and advocated for worship leaders’ education and connection. He is a voice at WLM who will be greatly missed and always revered.

Chuck Fromm’s Celebration of Life on August 7, 2020 in Franklin, TN.


Dr. Chuck Fromm needs no introduction if you’re a regular reader of Worship Leader, or if you attended a National Worship Leader Conference (NWLC) over the past 25 years. You already know Chuck was a key contributor in shaping the worship movement that we are all part of these days.  

Chuck always had something on his mind; his brain just worked that way. He thought about worship, music, the Church, the arts, theology, communication theory, ministry, markets, and musicians. But most of all, Chuck’s mind was on the Triune God; Jesus was the fixed point in the midst of a thought-world constantly in flux. “You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in you, all whose thoughts are fixed on you!” (Isaiah 26:3, NLT)  

Jesus is the heart of worship. Chuck often spoke and wrote about the mediation of Christ in worship found in the letter to the Hebrews.  Jesus is both the New Song given to the Church for its worship of the Father, and he is the true worship leader who faithfully leads his people to the Father‘s throne of grace and constantly prays for them. The big ideas that were on Chuck’s mind flowed from his life in Christ, his experience of the risen Lord Jesus, and by God’s grace they became the tools he used to help us understand worship, community, and our work in service of the Triune God.  Those tools are now the legacy he has left for us.

New Song

Even before  the beginning of Maranatha! Music and his tenure there, Chuck knew, as did everyone involved, the Jesus Movement was about far more than just new kinds of music; it was the movement of God to refresh and renew the Church in worship. To be sure, the In-church concerts  added another component to commercial concerts and festivals, which  drew large crowds, and the crowds that gathered included many young people who had never been to church or who had stopped going.  Thousands of them accepted Christ as Savior and Lord. Calvary Chapel, where Maranatha! began, erected a giant circus tent to accommodate the growing numbers while they built a bigger sanctuary.  Personally recorded cassettes from church services traversed the country along with professionally recorded albums, spreading the music and the movement. Churches grew and planted more churches. Bible studies formed in the wake of concert tours by bands. The movement was spreading, impacting established churches, and gaining national media attention. 

By the late 1970s, Chuck began speaking and writing about the worship renewal taking place in the Jesus Movement. The renewal involved new musical styles and new ways of engaging people in congregational song. He sometimes quipped that the guitar and the overhead projector were the two biggest developments in worship since the organ. He termed the musical fruit of the awakening “New Song,” based on Psalm 40:1-3 (NIV): “He has put a new song in my mouth. Praise to our God.” But New Song was more than just new musical styles and instrumentation; for Chuck, it was a renewed emphasis on the centrality of worship for the Christian life and community. He found that Ronald Allen’s pioneering work on the Psalms provided the biblical foundation for this comprehensive view of worship.

Chuck also sensed the historical significance of the Jesus Movement and New Song and its place in Christian history, in particular the history of revival. In 1983, he delivered a paper to the Oxford Reading and Research Conference entitled “New Song: The Sound of Spiritual Awakening.” Following up on insights from the church historian Edwin Orr, Chuck noted that throughout Christian history, revivals have been accompanied by a fresh outburst of worship, often in the form of new songs. “Almost without exception,” he observed, “genuine spiritual awakening has resulted in the birth of New Song.New Song is associative to God’s work, not causative, although it serves several important functions. It bears the message of renewal. It unites the people in worship. It records God’s work.”

For Chuck, New Song was a worship awakening, not just a shift in aesthetics. Chuck had in mind a different approach to understanding congregational worship. Following up on Ronald Allen’s research on worship in the Psalms, Chuck came to regard worship as a comprehensive term that includes all elements of a community’s gathering.  A worship service includes music, prayer, reading Scripture, preaching, the offering, baptism, and communion – everything. This conviction led him later into fruitful collaborations with worship scholars Robert Webber and Hughes Oliphant Old. While they differed on many matters, Webber and Old agreed that worship makes up the whole service, not just part of the service. Leaning on their scholarship, Fromm challenged several evangelical misconceptions about worship gently but firmly, including some who thought of praise and worship as different things, and others who separated worship and the word (preaching).

The Worshiping Community

Another key insight that came early in Chuck’s career at Maranatha! Music was the importance of community. New Song was a movement of God that formed community as well as evoked authentic worship. In 1984, Chuck produced the first of the Psalms Alive albums, which featured the Worship Community, a large choir made up of amateur singers from Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa and other churches, rather than featured soloists. While highly skilled musicians accompanied the Worship Community, scored and composed the “new song” version of the ancient Psalms, Chuck believed the Praise albums were spiritually significant because they captured a community of ordinary people lifting their hearts and voices to the Lord.

Chuck continued to think about worship and community, and the formation of Christian community became the focus of his graduate studies leading to his doctoral dissertation at Fuller Theological Seminary; he used the Jesus movement at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa as his case study.  His thesis was that the revival that took place there was the formation of a “textual community,” a term he borrowed from the communications theorist Brian Stock.  Chuck argued that the “charisma,” the spiritual vitality of the Jesus Movement at Calvary Chapel, was not to be found primarily in the personality of Pastor Chuck Smith or in the new music, as many supposed. Instead, Chuck found that the charisma resulted from a convergence of a profound devotion to the Word of God and a commitment to free expression of praise from the people, especially young people. In other words, the “secret sauce” of the Jesus Movement, at Calvary Chapel anyway, was the result of a shared commitment to the Word of God and the Spirit of God – a textual community. Chuck saw that convergence through those who interpreted the Text (charismatic interpreters), the education process, the symbols and rituals and the way the church’s history developed, and was kept and told, and felt that understanding these could be used to enrich, refresh, communicate, and deepen worship. Those commitments were associated with revival – creating space for God’s Word and Spirit – but they did not cause revival; God was the cause of the Jesus Movement and the resulting New Song. Based on this, Chuck warned that attempts to replicate a revival by “producing the sacred” were bound to be short-lived and superficial. 

The Worship Leader

While Chuck did not invent the term “worship leader,” he did more than anyone to define the role, to establish its significance, and to equip those who were called to this ministry. In 1992, Chuck founded Worship Leader magazine as a vehicle to connect and equip worship leaders, worship team members, and pastors, which built on the foundation of his original publication Worship Times, begun in 1986. It was immediately successful, and led to several other important ventures, including Song Discovery, the National Worship Leader Conferences, a series of books, and the Worship Leader Webinars.  And one of his personally most gratifying endeavors, The Odes Project, which remediated some of the first sung hymns of the Church in the first centuries following Jesus crucifixion, resurrection and ascent.

One of Chuck’s primary concerns was to relieve the sense of isolation that many worship leaders felt by helping them connect with other worship leaders and helping them to communicate better with their pastors and team members.  His message to worship leaders was clear:

“You are not alone, and you are not on your own.”

Dr. Chuck Fromm

Drawing on his enormous network of friends and acquaintances, Chuck enlisted an impressive variety of recording artists, working worship leaders, pastors, tech experts, and scholars to write columns and articles, give interviews, review albums and books, and report from the field. Chuck was always on the look-out for anyone with something important to say to the worship community.

One tangible result of Chuck’s promotion of the worship leader was the growth of training and educational programs for worship ministry. When Chuck launched Worship Leader in the 1990s, there were only a handful of training programs and virtually nothing for worship leaders at Christian colleges or seminaries. Today there are hundreds of programs and consultants available to worship leaders, and dozens of bachelors, graduate, and doctoral degree programs. It is not exaggerating to say that the growth of worship leader training and education is the direct result of Chuck’s tireless efforts on behalf of his “tribe.”

An Active Mind

A verbal processor is someone who talks to work out his or her thinking. Chuck was a verbal processor. He often began our calls by asking, “Do you have a minute?” Then over the next hour or so he’d explain what was on his mind and wrap it up with one of his best-known sayings, “I’m just thinking my confusion out loud.” Sometimes what Chuck had to say was confusing, but that was just because he hadn’t finished thinking about it.  More often than not, the next call or the next editorial in Worship Leader would feature another nugget or two of his insight that made worship, community, or the role of the worship leader clearer for the rest of us. 

Praise God, Chuck is now in the presence of Jesus. What was once confusing now makes sense to him. The dots are all connected, and his restlessly active mind is at rest. As Charles Wesley put it in “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” Chuck is now “lost in wonder, love and praise.” Those of us who remain behind have our work cut out for us. There is a Church that is still confused about the God she worships and why, there are new believers who are hungry for authentic community and a fresh expression of praise, and there is another generation of worship leaders to equip and train. It is a challenging time to be a worship leader. But the work should not be too difficult because Chuck left us his tools.

More from Chuck Fromm

  1. Ronald Allen, Praise: A Matter of Life and Breath. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1980.
  2. Dr. Charles E. Fromm, New Song: The Sound of Spiritual Awakening. Privately published, 1983, p. 21. Chuck meant new not in the sense of novel, but in the sense of being fresh and God-breathed; thus an old song can be New Song.
  3. Dr. Charles E. Fromm, “Textual Communities in the Multimedia Age: Rock and Routinization of Charisma in the Jesus Movement,” Ph.D. dissertation, Fuller Theological Seminary, 2005.
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