Many a modern church-goer has been miffed by repetition in corporate worship.
The Information Age is conditioning us for new content, fresh ideas, new data. Why re-read what we’ve already read, why rehearse what we’ve already heard, when new information is available like never before?
But do we know what our unprecedented access to novelty is doing to us? All indications are that it’s threatening to make us shallower, not wiser and more mature. Running our eyes across the page and mouthing words to a song are not the same thing as experiencing the reality in our hearts. Our hearts simply don’t move as quickly as our eyes and our mouths.
Which makes corporate worship such an important elixir for what is increasingly ailing us today.
Learn to Feel the Truth
Take Psalm 136 as a flashing red light from the divine that our newfound intolerance for repetition is out of step with what it means to be human. The psalm is 26 verses, and each verse ends with “for his steadfast love endures forever.” It rehearses God’s goodness and supremacy, his wonder-working and world-creating, his delivery of his people from slavery and provision for them in a rich land.
Twenty-six times the psalm repeats this refrain — and not one of them is wasted. With each new verse, another attribute or rescue of God is celebrated, and then our souls are ushered deeper into his steadfast, ever-enduring love with each glorious repetition.
“Our hearts simply don’t move as quickly as our eyes and our mouths.”
The goal of the song is not to make his steadfast love old hat, but to help us feel it afresh and at new depth. The dance of each new verse, with each return to the refrain, is designed to bore the central truth about God’s resilient love deeper and deeper into our inner person. The psalm is not a treatise on the unwavering, persistent love of God, but what we call a meditation — less linear and more circular — crafted to help auger the reality of his love from information on our mental surface down to an experience in our hearts.
If you come away bored (unaffected), you’ve missed the point. But if you come away with God bored deeply into your soul (tasting afresh the strength and sweetness of his love), you’ve been carried by the Holy Spirit.
More Than Data
God made humans to meditate. And it is increasingly the lost art in our age. We were made to think deeply on his truth, not just be informed; to ponder reality down to the depths, not just move on to the next piece of data.
Non-Christian forms of meditation seek to empty the mind and transcend concrete specifics into the ethereal, and experience some form of meaningless enlightenment. But Christian meditation fills the mind with biblical truth, and chews on it, seeking to savor every bite.
“Meditation receives the truth into our souls and changes us in our deepest part.”
Unlike mere reading, even slow reading, where our minds and eyes keep moving at some pace, meditation slows us down, way down. We pause and ponder. Reading keeps us marching in linear fashion, while meditation moves us into a more spiral pattern by limiting the information set and seeking to press and apply the truth to our hearts, to actually experience the truth and not just let it run on through our minds on our way to the next thing.
One remarkable aspect of corporate worship is that it gives us the opportunity to meditate together. The pinnacle of a good sermon is typically a form of corporate meditation, led by the preacher, as he circles around his main point and verbally kneads its goodness into our hearts.
And the summits of our best praises together in song are essentially meditative. It’s not the discovery and delivery of an obscure stanza that binds our hearts and draws us highest together toward heaven, but returning to the chorus, which has been enriched with each additional verse. The verses provide fresh information, but the refrain we know so well bores the truth even deeper into our souls. The verses and chorus together help us to know the reality even better, as we collectively digest the truth from our heads into our hearts. They help us actually experience and be affected by the truth in our inner person, not just rehearse the data on the surface.
“God made humans to meditate. And it is increasingly the lost art in our age.”
And only once we’ve taken the truth into the heart, into the core of our soul, do we organically grow external actions and lived-out transformation. Rather than circumventing the heart, by moving from the mind to the actions, meditation receives the truth into our souls and changes us in our deepest part so that our actions aren’t whitewashed, but authentic expressions of the movement of our souls.
Purposeful repetition in corporate worship empowers us to be changed not only as individuals, but as a people. It is not only the truths we read, but the truths we sing — and sing often, and take into our hearts — that mold and shape us for lives of worship.
So, perhaps this weekend, you’ll have a chance to experience corporate repetition afresh, and instead of begrudging the worship leader for it, you may find it to be a new pathway for enjoying the grandeur and love of God.