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Thursday, January 02, 2020

Meaningless Repetition

What is worship? According to the dictionary the word (in the sense that we're examining) means "The reverent love and devotion accorded a deity, an idol, or a sacred object." It is an outward look at God in reverence, love, and devotion. This isn't hard to figure out. So when we talk about a "worship service" we generally talk about singing songs of reverence, love, and devotion to God.

Now, of course, you can immediately see that, while it's very common, it's also very shortsighted. Surely, for instance, giving back to God in time and offerings is also worship. Certainly the reverent attention to the Word of God preached is worship. And, look, Scripture itself is not ambiguous when it says, "I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship" (Rom 12:1). That is, sacrificing our bodies and ourselves itself is worship. So the idea that a song service is (can be) worship is all well and good, but there's so much more.

But it's that "can be" that I'm wondering about. Jesus warned His disciples, "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). Now, I listen to much of what passes for "worship songs" these days and I hear a lot of what seems like "meaningless repetition." You know, the "7-11" songs that say the same 7 words 11 times. No, not literally, but it just seems like it. And I'm trying to figure out if or when these qualify as "meaningless repetition."

I am trying to figure it out, meaning I don't know. Perhaps you can help me. We know that repetition in worship is not automatically bad. The Psalms have plenty. One psalm includes, "Sing praises to God, sing praises; Sing praises to our King, sing praises" (Psa 47:6). In Both Psalm 118 and Psalm 136 the psalm repeats the phrase "His steadfast love endures forever" over and over. And we all know that the basic structure of most songs includes a chorus or refrain that gets repeated after (or before) every verse. No one is complaining about that. Not all repetition is meaningless.

So what constitutes meaningless repetition? All the repeated stuff in the modern worship songs has meaning. That is, there are words with definitions. Well, usually. (I can think of one song that repeats "la la la la la la la la" over and over, for instance.) But take a song like King of my Heart where the chorus repeats the phrase "You are good" 8 times. Nothing more (except an "oh" in places). Then there's the phrase, "You're never gonna let me down" repeated in another repeated chorus. And they always like "Sing it again." God is good, but at some point does the phrase become meaningless due to repetition?

Maybe it's just me. Maybe I'm alone in this. Maybe everyone else thinks, "Repeat away!" Maybe it's just that if someone came to me and said, "You are good, you are good, you are good, you are good, you are good, you are good, you are good," I might become bored or even perturbed. And since worship is not about us, but about an outward look at God in reverence, love, and devotion, I'm wondering if we couldn't do something better than that. I'm wondering if God doesn't deserve something better. Or maybe I'm just too sensitive here.


Craig said...

It's a good question, especially given the Biblical concept of repeating things that are important.

My best guess, is that it probably becomes a problem when repeating things causes your mind to disengage from focusing and you just go on auto pilot.

Anonymous said...

The past week two thick volumes of Beatles songs have been on my piano. One of the aspects of their songwriting that make them still sound fresh to my ears is the avoidance of repetition... not counting 'Hey Jude'. :-)

I habitually examine the harmonic content of songs, and I see their song 'You Know My Name' uses ten different major and minor chords, and that is not counting variations like 7s separately!

Stan said...

Autopilot. Yes. That might qualify.

Craig said...

It’s the difference between meditating and repeating a mantra to empty your mind, and repeating something that focuses you on God.