Like Button

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Sanctified Repetition

I don't normally do this. I don't want to be "that guy". You know, the curmudgeon that complains about small things because, well, he's a crotchety old person or some such. But I'm going to indulge myself just this once.

Jesus said, "When you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words." (Matt 6:7) And we tend to nod and "tell that to the Catholics" or some such. And then we go into church and sing ... the same repeated phrase over and over and over again. You know what I'm talking about. There's even a standard joke about it. "Modern church music is 7-11 music ... the same 7 words sung 11 times." Neither is true, of course, but you surely understand the idea. We seem to love repeating the same phrases over and over and over again in our contemporary worship.

It's not like older songs. There was, in those, a chorus or refrain. (I wonder where "refrain" came from. Turns out it comes from the Latin meaning "to repeat". Interesting. But I digress.) Sure, they repeated something, but once after each verse. It's not like today, where you sing it over and over ad nauseum.

The content matters, to be sure. We read, for instance, of the "four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say, 'Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!'" (Rev 4:8) They "never cease to say" "day and night", but what they never cease to say is of the highest importance. What about the things that our modern songs repeat? Not the same thing.

Take the Tim Hughes song, highly popularized by Chris Tomlin, titled Here I am to Worship. There is a sentence in that song:
I'll never know how much it cost
To see my sin upon that cross.
I have to be honest. I think it's a good phrase. I think it's a good thought. We need to recall what it cost Christ to take my sin. Big, big question. However, the sentence -- and I'm not questioning its accuracy -- claims that I'll never know. So, the thought is, "It cost Christ a lot ... a whole lot", and then I move on. Or, so one might think. Except you can't. That phrase is repeated again and again and again. "Um ... guys ... I get it. I've thought about it. I'm done. Can we move on?" No, no we can't.

Just as often, however, the repetition has much less value. Chris Tomlin (again ... is that significant?) is sung and played repeatedly (small joke there) with his song, Good, Good Father. Even the title is repetitive. He tells God He's a good Father and then repeats to the nth degree "It's who you are." Somewhere a little farther down the repetition road he says, "I'm loved by You" and lapses into more "It's who I am" echoes. There are lengthy circles of "You are perfect in all of your ways." None of it is saying very much. One writer I recall called it "empty calories".

I don't know why Christ said not to be repetitious in our prayers, but singers are quite sure that repetition in singing is good. Nor can I figure out how they know the right number of repeats. I'm sure they'd say, "I'm just following the leading of the Holy Spirit", but I'm equally sure they don't actually get a spiritual "tap on the shoulder" saying, "Okay, that's enough." So it would appear that there is just some feeling, some vague sense of "say it over and over again until ... I feel like stopping ... and I'll say that was the Holy Spirit." But that's okay because it's worship, right? I mean, sure, we don't want to be repetitive in our prayers, but in worship it's sanctified repetition ... right? Is this really offering God our best in worship?

Sorry. I have a blog. Sometimes I just need to say something. I'm done. End of rant.


Neil said...

Yep. I tune out after something gets repeated too many times. Not sure why they do this. Writing, recording and playing songs are premeditated acts.

Craig said...

Seems like one key could be distinguishing between "meaningless" and meaningful repetition. Or that the "Gentiles" were doing things just to be noticed or to a different god. Or that the repetition is designed to bring focus on the speaker rather than God.

Clearly, heaven will have repetitive songs. Could one assume that the choirs of angels who announced the birth of Christ didn't repeat.

I get that there can be problems with repeating a phrase over and over. I'm not always a huge fan, but isn't this more an issue of attitude of the heart and where the focus is, rather than on the act of repeating?

Stan said...

Yes, Craig. I did say that "content matters" and affirmed that "what [the 4 living creatures] never cease to say is of the highest importance." It is 1) the lighter stuff we seem to have repeated over and over and 2) the great lengths that some people go to repeat some of this stuff over and over that nags at me. It appears to be "worship without thought" in some cases. And you know I'm all about asking "Why do we do what we do?"

Craig said...

No argument, it's a good question.

Glenn E. Chatfield said...

The repetition is for manufacturing emotionalism. You get to close your eyes and sway back and forth and cry, etc.

On my blog, I do lot of criticizing these kind of songs, which have virtually no meat but lots of "feel good" nonsense.
I have a different take on whether we can know how much it cost:

I thought I did a post on "Good Good Father" but I see I've overlooked it. I heard about it earlier this year from friend who attends a church where they use it often. ARGH!

David said...

They say that these new songs are more emotion evoking, but I have never been as moved by one of those repetitive earwigs as I have of say "Amazing Grace".

Stan said...

Glenn, small point of interest. I went to the link you gave and found ... I commented on (agreed with) that entry way back in 2011.

David, I wonder. I understand that, while we can easily allow our emotions to determine what we think, for the most part how we think determines how we feel. So, if a worship song doesn't make me think, neither does it stir my emotions. If a hymn causes me to dwell on the deeper things of God, it causes me to feel that way, too. For me, at least, I agree with you.

Anonymous said...

I don't doubt for a second that black Americans can pick out flaws in how white church services are held. But I have to say that I've noticed (from Christian radio and TV broadcasts) that black churches are into heavy repetition in their songs. Years ago I watched Prophetess Juanita Bynum singing from the pulpit on her TV show. The bulk of the song's lyric was just one sentence. I don't recall what that was, but it was probably about like, "Lord, we magnify your name." She would vary the word emphasis and a pitch here and there to get some slight degree of freshness. After literally four minutes of hearing that, I only remained tuned to that channel out of curiosity to see how much longer she would continue it, and whether her congregation would continue to clap and dance to it with smiles on their faces.

Glenn E. Chatfield said...


HAH - when I searched for that link, I didn't look at the 57 comments! And there you are! Sort of on the same page with this stuff. :oD

Craig said...

A friend of mine who is an African American gospel singer told me that the repetition that you see in the African American church goes back to the old spirituals and slave chants. So it's a little different.

Craig said...

Went to the retirement service for my cousin who was the music pastor. I was struck by how much of the (not at all contemporary) music involved repetition of both musical and lyrical phrases. When I combine this with the fact that there are plenty of theologically marginal hymns, I wonder if a better approach wouldn't be to encourage the use of good music of any style while discouraging the use of poor music of any style.

Stan said...

I would think that the worship we should offer ought always to be the very best we can offer.

Craig said...

I completely agree that there's way to much emphasis on style and not enough on quality.