Saturday, September 01, 2007

Is Repetition a Help or a Hindrance?

From Bob Kauflin @

Will sent me this question:

Is there an objective standard by which to gauge the effectiveness of repetition in contemporary worship hymnody?…What are some helpful ideas to bear in mind for incorporating effectively repetitive worship songs while not neglecting great hymns and songs that are not so characterized, and when do we as…worship leaders cross the line in leading the congregation in ineffective or mindless praise (apart from their own distractions and heart idols brought into worship) via 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.

Likewise, there’s benefit in singing the same words again. I can think of at least three ways to repeat songs. Some songs already contain repetition, like “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever,” or “It is Well.” A second kind is what a leader does in a meeting when he repeats a phrase, verse, or entire song. A third way songs can be repeated is from week to week. I’m not aware of any “objective standard” to measure whether repetition is effective or not, but here are some of principles I use to help determine what’s appropriate.

1. Have a reason for repeating.
Don’t just repeat a verse or a line because “that’s what you’re supposed to do.” That line of thought leads people to sing mindlessly and pursue emotionalism. There are good reasons to repeat lyrics when we sing. You might want to give the church time to meditate on an significant truth. That’s why I’ll sometimes repeat a phrase or the last line of a song. I’ll often go back to a verse of a song that proclaims the Gospel, like verse 2 of How Great Thou Art. Repetition from week to week can help people remember songs. Repetition can also enable people to sing the same words from different perspectives. It’s what we experience when we sing the same song before and after a message. Once we’re heard God’s Word preached, our hearts are full and every word we sing seems to jump off the screen (or page, as the case may be).

2. Be careful about repeating repetition.
A number of choruses to modern worship songs already contain the same line three or four times. Do we really need to sing them 9, 12, or 15 times? That’s not necessarily wrong or unhelpful. I just want to be sure that people are singing in faith and not out of rote.

3. Choruses aren’t the only part of a song we can repeat.
It’s natural to sing a chorus twice in a row, but often the choruses are the more subjective part of a song. Our aim isn’t simply to sing over and over about what we want to do for God, but what he’s done for us. Verses often, though not always, contain the rich doctrinal truths that inspire our heartfelt response.

4. Be aware of the difference between repeating objective truth and subjective response.
It can be very moving to sing “Fire, fall down” for two minutes, but that tends to produce an experience in the moment rather than sowing the word of Christ into our hearts ( Col. 3:16

). If I’m going to repeat a phrase for any length of time, I want it to be eternal truth that builds people’s faith, not simply an expression of our needs and desires.

5. Don’t end every song by singing the last line three times.
The first time you do this in a meeting it’s moving. The second time it might sound predictable. The third time, it’s distracting, and doubtful that anyone is singing with faith. We should only repeat the last line of the chorus when we still have more to say. Also, we can repeat lines other than the last line. In “How Deep the Father’s Love,” I’ll sometimes repeat the next to the last line, “But this I know with all my heart,” to emphasize that we really know, “His wounds have paid my ransom.”

6. Repetition can include musical variety.
When we repeat a verse we can affect how people hear it by changing the accompaniment. Use just a guitar or piano, just percussion, or sing a cappella. When repeating a line at the end the musicians can vary what they play, maybe leaving one instrument to accompany the last line.

7. Repetition is helped by explanation.
If you’re in a church where people would faint if you sang anything more than once, it might help to tell your church ways repetition can help us (see point #1). I’ll sometimes say something like, “Let’s sing verse 3 of ‘In Christ Alone’ again reminding ourselves that EVERY sin has lost its grip on our lives.”

Repetition isn’t wrong in itself. Like most practices, it can be used or abused. I pray these few thoughts are a help towards using it to serve people more effectively for the Savior’s glory.

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