One More Time?

Three Ways to Worship Through Repetition

As a ninth-grader, I was baffled one Sunday morning at church by what I saw on the screen. I could read the song’s words, but was I seeing algebra as well? There, at the end of the chorus, was this mysterious sign: (4x).

My curiosity turned to horror when I discovered the truth. This symbol meant we were going to repeat this line four times. “Why,” I asked, “should I sing it so many times?” My face fell when I discovered that my worship leader planned to end this song by singing the chorus three consecutive times, which meant (I quickly did the math) we were going to sing that same, solitary line twelve times in a row.

I glanced around at my friends. Many looked down. A few closed their eyes — whether lost in wonder or resigned to defeat, I couldn’t tell. I didn’t know what to do. I already sang that part! Now what?

Why Repeat?

As I thought about what happened that morning, and many subsequent mornings like it, I had to admit something: I did not like repetition in worship. It bothered me.

It bothered me because I was no longer learning the song. I already knew the song well, and was now growing tired of it. It bothered me because I didn’t need the song explained to me — I already understood it. Singing is about learning and understanding (I thought), and because repetition did neither of these things, repeating lyrics made me uncomfortable.

And many of the people I spoke with felt the exact same way, bothered and uncomfortable. We agreed: singing repetitive songs was weird.

We’re the Weird Ones

My perspective changed when I studied the history of Western and global music. In many ways, our discomfort with repetition reveals more about us than it says about the repetitive song. Put simply, repetitive songs aren’t weird; we are.

Our discomfort is partly due to when we live: the information age. Our computer screens and smart phones deliver staggering amounts of new information to us at incredible speeds. The constant accessibility of new content trains our eyes to view repetition as old content and thus useless content. We crave novelty — new words, fresh thoughts, additional content.

Our discomfort also comes from where we live, if you live in the Western world. Western culture treasures the novelty of words. It might feel like singing many words per minute is a worldwide Christian preference. But it’s not. It’s a Western oddity. If you were to listen to indigenous music from almost anywhere else in the world, you might describe it as “rhythmic, danceable, and repetitive.” But this description of non-Western music reveals that our own musical preferences are the anomaly. Compared to the rest of the world, Western music is word-heavy and verbose.

It may feel strange to discover that our personal preferences are a cultural anomaly. Now, the point is not to say that we in the West have “gotten it wrong” musically. But we are mistaken if we think we have nothing to learn from times and places different than our own — such is modernistic pride written into worship. It is humbling to discover that we have something to learn from others, but not surprising. And it is the sort of humbling that, if we are willing to accept it, will bless us greatly in worship.

From Wander to Wonder

When we look to learn from the experience of believers in other cultures, we find that repeating lyrics does not necessarily involve mindlessness. Indeed, repetition in worship offers certain opportunities for mindfulness that are difficult to access in many of our word-heavy worship songs. Consider these three ways to engage your mind during a repetitive time of worship.

1. Choose a divine attribute to meditate upon.

Begin by praising God that this attribute describes him. Remember times when you have discovered how true this attribute is of him. Consider how the universe would be different (worse!) if he was not like this. Praise him for who he is.

2. Choose a spiritual truth to meditate upon.

Consider how your own life is affected by this truth. Contemplate what happens when you forget this truth. Mentally, what wrong thoughts result from neglecting this truth? Emotionally, what improper feelings do you experience? Ask God to help you think, feel, and live in this reality.

3. Consider why God is choosing to bring this lyric to your attention at this particular time.

To be sure, this song has come to you not by chance, but (to paraphrase the Heidelberg Catechism) by God’s fatherly hand. Is there a particular burden that you are carrying that could be lifted by embracing the lyric you are repeating? Is there a specific person in your life who would benefit from hearing about this truth from you? Ask the Spirit to give you the right opportunity and the fitting words to speak to them.

Let Our Hearts Burn

When we detect our hearts anxiously desiring to move on to the next thing, take it as a reminder that our patient God gives us the gift of time. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we are “slow of heart to believe” (Luke 24:25).

It is a great gift when our worship affords us the opportunity to dwell on the truth of what we sing. Let’s receive God’s gift of time and fan the gift of repetitive lyrics until our hearts burn within us (Luke 24:32).

(@mwesterholm) serves at Bethlehem Baptist Church as a pastor for worship and music. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and three sons.