Modern worship is often criticized for mindless repetition. What's your answer?

I work in a context where I am continually trying to bring together a church divided around worship styles. We have a thriving traditional service (that's not just full of old people, mind you), and a growing modern-yet-liturgical service. So in an attempt to pastor the church to seek unity for the sake of mission, I'm always dealing with both sides, attempting to answer the many criticisms that arise. One of the continual criticisms traditionalists have of modern worship is its "vain repetition" of words, over and over again. It's summarized in the phrase we've probably all heard often: "7-11 songs" (seven words, sung eleven times). Personally, a part of me sympathizes with the traditionalist argument, because I've been in many worship settings where songs have felt unnecessarily drawn out. Nevertheless, I think that there are important biblical and philosophical reasons why repetition in worship songs is important. My thoughts are laid out in detail on my blog:

In Defense of 7-11 Songs, Part 1

In Defense of 7-11 Songs, Part 2

But I'm interested in how you all have encountered the criticism and dealt with it personally, theologically, philosophically, and pragmatically.

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Cool idea!
No it's not. no it's not. No it's not. No it's not, O Lord.
No it's not. no it's not. No it's not. No it's not.
Jesus, no it's not. No it's not. no it's not. No it's not.
No it's not. No it's not. No it's not. No it's not. (repeat)

Not at all no way, no way no way (sing 8 times)

(repeat chorus till one the Deacon's head explodes)

* now that I go that out of my system I'll read the links....
ROFL :D Preach it brutha!!!
It seems to me that the accusation is not mathematical (quantity), it's a matter of substance (quality). The understood accusation - or as time has passed since it was first made far less understood - that the 7 words were barely were saying once. For "I Couls Sing" a heard a freind say once - "Well then just go ahead and DO sing his ove and quit saying your gonna'!" For me, my grief with the verses moreso than the chorus. I listen and think, "What on earth is he talking about, anyway? The lyrics are excesively poetic to the point of having no tangible meaning. And for the record, I used to really like the song also! *blush* "Trading My Sorrows" is another. Less of the poetry, a pretty solid point to make, but it could be made and repeated for emphasis inside a minute ans leave room for a couple measures of instrumental solo.

So, back to the point - it's the lack of substance that's the issue.

Brings to mind a quote I saw twittered recently: "Everytime I open my mouth some idiot starts talking." I laughed. Repetatively even.
If you're getting complaints about mindless repetition, then don't sing those kind of songs. I don't, and I don't hear those complaints anymore (or if I do, then I can ask them 'what song in particular are you talking about?).

Yes, there are times when repetition of a chorus is called for, like when the Spirit is really moving. But I tend to think those are for special occasions. It's one reason why I don't really like "live" worship albums much...there is at times endless repetition of a certain song, which is great once (especially if you happened to be at the concert), but when I'm listening to the album for the 10th time, I hit the Next Song button before it's finished.

What I hear more of is the complaint about the lack of good theology in a song. For me, a good song for congregational worship is one that says something, and can be understood by whoever comes through the church doors that morning. But then I tend to look at the church as being more evangelistic than some...:)
"If you're getting complaints about mindless repetition, then don't sing those kind of songs."

...Unless the complaints are worth combating. I think there are good reasons to engage in repetition in worship, which I outline in detail in my two blog posts.

When the complaint is issued, just because someone says it's "mindless" doesn't mean it is. In the particular instance I cited, it was very intentional. So the pastoral issue is seeking to help people understand that it ISN'T inconsequential repetition but beneficial to their spiritual formation.

My thoughts...
I should clarify...if a song is truly mindless repetion (like chanting as pointed out in another post), then I probably wouldn't make it part of my regular set lists. I come from the era where we sang choruses like "God is so good" and "Give me oil in my lamp". They were fun (and even in some instances moving) at the time, but I think there is much better music out there today.

By all means, there are times when it is very meaningful to repeat a phrase or chorus a number of times. Those are Spirit-led times, and I would think that it wouldn't be done the same way everytime the song is sung.

I guess (for me) it comes down to the song having something to say. I used to love playing Trading my Sorrows, but after a while you begin to wonder how many times you can make the congregation repeat "Yes Lord, yes Lord, yes, yes, Lord..." For me, that song wore itself out.

Just my thoughts...:)
I have been involved with music for over 30 years. I have been leading worship for the past 10. Yes there are those that have criticized different aspects of my leading. In one congregration I was repeatedly told that a "couple of people" had an issue or a problem with something that I had said or sung. Of course these people never actually materialized and I suspect that the couple of people were the two in charge.

I think that first and foremost the Pastor and worship leader have to walk in a relationship that most don't know exists. There has to be genuine trust and that means taking time to really hear each other's hearts. I submit that "submission" can only exist between equals. I must fully respect you and be capable of standing on my own two feet and you must do likewise. Then and only then can I submit under your calling or your house.

The point I'm trying to make is when there is this proper relationship then the two are speaking as one and that means a united front as you are trying to move the congregation in the direction the Lord is showing you.

As for 7-11 songs have they not read that the four living creatures continually cry out the same song over and over again - Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty who is and who was and who is to come. Is there a second verse to that song? NO! And it never gets old and it always brings a response from those gathered around and by the throne. I personally find that the single most important thing for me as worship leader is to catch the wind of the spirit and then ride the wind wherever it goes. If that means singing a chorus 7 times then so be it. I have a particular piece that I use that I usually repeat the chorus at least 5 times at the end. Surprise surprise, when the congregation finally catches what the words are saying, it results in an explosion in the worship ushering us into the presence of God. I'm more concerned with getting to where God wants us to be on a given morning then what "a couple of people" might say or feel. I am perfectly comfortable with leading an entire worship service with one or two songs. In fact the last time I led a worship service with only two songs it lasted an hour and the anointing of the Lord fell in that place.

Worship is about Him, it is only about Him, it is never to be about anyone else but Him and we should not be imposing our likes and dislikes on something that is uniquely His.
Jesus said something like vain repetitions, yes? Mindless and vain repetition isn't so spiritual. Some translations have Matthew 6:7 saying "empty words." But repetition by itself isn't bad - one look at Psalm 136 will tell you that. How many times does it say "for His mercy endures forever"? 13? 14?

I do hear a lot of people get into a song and keep chanting a phrase over and over like Buddhist monks or Hare Krishna. The pagan goal of repetition is to uncouple the mind so you can be "truly free". But God wants us to worship in spirit AND in truth. So when we do repetition, it should be with intelligence and meaning. For instance, Psalm 136 mixes in another phrase every other verse to magnify the repeated phrase. Kind of cool.

One of our good friends doesn't like repetition. But when we sing hymns, she doesn't like all the "density and lack of a chorus." We just can't win.
Matthew 6:7 has more to do with babbling or multiplying words to no purpose rather than saying the same words over and over again, so I'm not sure that verse can really be used as an argument against repeating a certain refrain in worship.

But those who instantly go to Psalm 136 to justify repetition in worship should bear in mind a couple of things:
- There are 149 other psalms that do not have that type of call-and-response structure, so zeroing in on one psalm out of 150 to try to justify a frequent practice might be a bit of a reach.
- Psalm 136 doesn't just repeat the phrase "His steadfast love endures forever" over and over again. In between the responses is the story of God's creation and His redemption of Israel, as Stevo mentioned, to flesh out and magnify the ways in which God shows His steadfast love. So simply repeating "Let it rain, let it rain, open the floodgates of heaven" or "There is nothing like, there is nothing like your love" over and over again isn't the same thing as praising God for all of His great works with a repeated refrain.

Then again, it's also not for us to try to tell the Holy Spirit how to move among His people or how not to...
I agree with your blog on this topic entirely. To respond to your query...

Personally, in response to a criticism similar to what you described, I chose to see past the surface. After all, this person is intelligent enough to realize that his biblical argument is flawed, and he's mature enough that his distaste for a particular way a song is done should not impede his ability to worship. As a pastor, my first concern is for him to know that how he feels matters to me. And, even if we can't come to complete agreement on our worship style for every song, I would ask for a little grace. If a song comes along now and then that doesn't quite do it for you, then worship with the ones that do.

Theologically, I think you've already made the case that repetition and meditation are definitely scriptural. The one reference I would add would be the festival following the Red Sea crossing in Exodus. Moses wrote a song to lead all the people in, after which Miriam and all the ladies danced around and sang the chorus over and over and over and...

Philosophically, my main thing would be that repetition, like everything else, should be done purposefully. And, though the song's a little tired, I think Trading My Sorrows is a great example. Singing the chorus ad nauseum will appeal to a few hyperemotional folks, while driving the more stoic crazy. So, don't push it. While there is value in saying "yes" to Jesus, and even value in just having a little bit of fun with it, move on. I like to defend this song for the value of the quoted scripture in the bridge, and the important aspect of putting on the garment of praise represented by the verse. So, use it and move on.

Pragmatically, one thing that I've been doing more especially with some of our slower songs with repetition is to use more musical interludes. In that case, I've been teaching my worship team and kind of modeling to our congregation that this an opportunity to continue to worship with our own words. Some people will continue to sing the words, some praise extemporaneously, and probably a few zone out. But, overall, I see it being a positive move for us anyway.
I think too it can sometimes be a matter of the heart, I try not to ever repeat a chorus more than a couple of times on any given song but have been to churches where the altar call(amazing grace, just as I am) etc have been sung over and over and over too, its all a matter of balance between old and new. I pray that for all of us we would truly have a heart of worship(no pun intended) whether its 7 verses and a chorus or seven words and a chorus


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