We have all seen jokes about the lack in lyrical content in modern day contemporary worship music or the repetition that often runs throughout songs and the genre as a whole.
Repetition is often used as a divisive wedge between the “contemporary” and the “traditional” songs.
In fact, the repetition often found in the lyrical content of contemporary worship songs is framed as a negative thing and used as a weapon in the “worship wars” that still wage in many churches around the country today.
I find it interesting though that many of the most popular “traditional” hymns that have been sung for centuries in the church deploy the tactic of repetition in them as well.
Lets take “The Old Rugged Cross” for example. We all know how it goes… this particular song uses the phrase “the old rugged cross” twelve times. Twelve!
Or… we can look at one of my favorite hymns, “To God Be The Glory.” This particular hymn uses the phrase “Praise the Lord!” in the refrain four times. That means if you sing the song straight through, you will have sung “Praise the Lord!” twelve times.
Or we can do the Baptist “fight” song, “Onward Christian Soldiers.” The phrase “Onward Christian soldiers” is used seven times throughout the song. This song even uses the same structure as many contemporary songs with the refrain coming in after every verse just like our modern day choruses.
But… we aren’t here to compare “new” and “old” because ultimately they are both great when used for the correct purpose. We are here talking about repetition.
We see repetition in Scripture! Psalm 136 uses the phrase “His love endures forever” twenty six times, and Psalm 119 refers to “The Word” over one hundred times.
We even see repetition in the worship found in Isaiah 6:3 where we see the creatures in God’s throne room. It says,
And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”
In fact, we find this phrase repeated again in Revelation. So… what is with the repetition, and what purpose does it serve? Let’s think together below.
Many argue that the lines used repeating phrases are just a “cop out” for poor writing or a lack of deep lyrical content or theology. I would say that sometimes this is true.
But… on the other hand I am a firm believer that repetition can be used to effectively convey beautiful Scriptural truths. The reason that I say this is because, I will be the first to admit that, it is far too easy for me to sing over a line in a song without ever thinking about it at all. I see the words ion the screen, I read them, and they flow out of my mouth. The end. No thought required.
The repetition instead provides more opportunities for me to read and recognize. Deep lyrical content doesn’t mean a lot if our congregations are breezing by the words and not even recognizing what they are saying or singing.
Bob Kauflin has this to say about repetition,
When someone has a problem with repeating lyrics, I’m reminded of my daughter’s response when I suggested she read a certain book of the Bible. “I’ve already read that,” she replied confidently. I had to help her see that reading something once doesn’t mean we’ve fully grasped all God has for us in it. Besides, we’re dull. Our minds aren’t always engaged with the words we’re reading. We need to hear them again.
As a Worship Pastor that holds an undergraduate degree in English the problem many have with repetition perplexes me. In fact, I’d suggest that some of the greatest moments in literature, and even history, came riding in on the wings of the repetition of key phrases being reinforced over and over again. In Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, he repeats “I have a dream” eight sentences in a row. Eight!
Sound like a familiar technique used in many songs today?
We see that each time Dr. King repeats the phrase it gains power until his audience is completely swept up in his dream of racial equality and love for one another.
Repetition can be a powerful tactic to really create impact in certain lines of speeches, poems, or songs. This doesn’t mean that repeating one line a thousand times makes it acceptable or “rich” in the sense of what makes a song good for corporate worship. It just means that using it intentionally as a device to reinforce a key theme is valid, and we actually see this employed in songs across the ages.
Do you struggle to remember the words to songs that you sing weekly in church?
How about memorizing Scripture?
I don’t know about you… but I can’t memorize something after only reading or hearing it once. But, that is where repetition can come in to play. Repetition is a time tested and useful tactic in songwriting that when used properly can create a sing-able and memorable expression of worship and/or Biblical truth that serves our congregations well.
What better way to disciple your congregations than equipping them with memorable words and phrases that they can sing or preach to themselves throughout the week when we aren’t there to spur them on or encourage them in the Lord.
Nick Roen says,
We often bristle at repetition in our corporate worship. We think it breeds superficiality, or creates a false emotional frenzy, or is just plain boring. We have to remember, though, that our hearts are slow to feel. We need to remember that, even in our believing, we suffer from unbelief (Mark 9:24). We need to remember to remember. Dwelling on a simple and weighty truth for an extended period of time will, at times, be the only way to break through spiritual forgetfulness.
This reality is why we come together for corporate worship. Every week, we rehearse the same realities to one another over and over so that our rhythms of forgetfulness fade (again and again), while our faith rises. We remind each other of the familiar old story through song and through preaching, so that we might begin to remember. We continue to admonish, encourage, and strengthen each other, not with novelty, but with repeated refrains, “God is holy, we are sinful, Jesus saves!” Or, “his steadfast love endures forever.”
How could we ever sing that too many times?
We already mentioned the instance found in Revelation 4:8 where we are given a glimpse into the heavenly throne room. In that passage we see the four living creatures, in all their terrible beauty, falling before God and singing over and over one single song.
Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!
It’s not vain repetition. It’s not empty emotionalism. This is the never-ending, increasingly satisfying worship of a God who is worthy of the infinite reprise of his attributes. It is a declaration.
I believe that there is nothing more worthy of my declaration than the gospel… and that is what we do with repetition. We declare to ourselves, our brothers and sisters in Christ, and to the world that we serve the almighty God and He alone can save and is worthy of our praise.
So… what are you repeating, recognizing, reinforcing, memorizing, and declaring?