A while back I offered a post, giving reasons why the use of so-called “7-11 songs” is valid. The phrase “7-11 songs” is usually used as a pejorative to encapsulate what many traditionalists criticize as the shallow, mundane, and overly repetitious singing of a song. “Seven words, sung eleven times,” so they say. My previous post stuck to mostly biblical argumentation, hoping to keep the door open to the concept of singing minimal words multiple times. We certainly need to be careful rather than careless and haphazard in our employment of such congregational singing techniques, but what I was arguing against was the outright dismissal people often render to 7-11-ized worship.
The 7-11 criticism arose again for me recently, on the first Sunday of Advent, when we did a combined, blended Lessons & Carols service. That means that we incorporated hymnody and songs from both our modern worship strain and our classical worship strain (we have two services of two different styles at our church). I tried to be sensitive to the folks who I know absolutely abhor all things about modern worship, so the main song I chose was my resetting of “Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending.” If you’ve heard it, you know that we repeat the phrase “Come, Lord Jesus, quickly come” twelve times in the song (so, “Lo He Comes” should be called, more precisely, a “5-12 song”). The following week, rumblings came back to me about how pointless and repetitious that was. In fact, the person who voiced the criticism to me said something to the effect of:
“After about the fourth time singing that, I checked out. It felt like vain repetition.”
So not only did the person put it in personal terms, they attempted to marshal a biblical argument. “Vain repetition” is a quote from Matthew 6:7 (KJV):
“But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.”
They, in a sense, were saying that the song I had led crossed the line into the type of offense to which Jesus was referring here in the Sermon on the Mount. Ultimately, they were making a claim that this type of repetition was not just unhelpful or distracting–it was wrong. My first response is that this person was using the phrase incorrectly, without understanding what Jesus was teaching. Even glancing at other English-language translations of this verse shows that Jesus had much more in mind than merely the concept of repetition. It contains the idea of “babbling” or a pointless “going on and on.” Also important is Christ’s context. He was speaking to Pharisees and was probably aiming at how such babbling exposes the state of one’s heart.
Needless to say, this got me thinking through the whole concept of repetition in worship again, and I have an additional thought to proffer. Rather than a biblical argument, it’s an anthropological argument–an argument from human nature.
Human beings are by nature rather dense in understanding. It is part of our fallenness. Our ability to comprehend something important which is said or sung is often hampered by various barriers that are part of our physical and spiritual makeup as homo sapiens. Enough evidence is amassed for me by the simple litmus test of asking a person who has just sung a new, through-composed hymn (a hymn that moves from stanza to stanza with no repeated words or phrases), to tell me what that hymn was about. Nine out of ten people probably couldn’t tell me much, and even that tenth person would probably give me some good ideas but not the fullness intended by the author. We, as human beings, simply need more time to let it “sink in.” That’s often why more diligent worshipers I know take the hymn-texts home and study them devotionally over the week. We’re dense and slow to understand concepts.
Enter in the 7-11 song. Now worshipers are afforded the opportunity in the context of worship to not just quickly scarf something down, but to chew it slowly and digest it properly. The Bible calls this “meditation.” Is there a place for such repetitive meditation in worship? Given the anthropological reflections above, I think so. There should be room in the corporate worship setting to mull over a concept…even a simple concept, like, “Come, Lord Jesus, quickly come.” I would hope that singing that phrase twelve times would allow us enough time to dive into the thought and emotion of what that phrase truly entails. Twelve times just might foster the longing that biblical phrase intends to engender. Twelve times just might stir in us a new and profound sense of what it means to be an alien people of God.
Though I bristle at its over-use, the late 90s brought us the repeated phrase “I could sing of Your love forever.” From personal experience, when I’ve let that phrase roll around in my head, heart, and soul, it actually helped me at times, to gain a richer, deeper sense of God’s love for me. It seems as though this is precisely the reason God has prescribed meditation as an important habitual spiritual practice of a mature follower of Jesus. So, while I’m willing to admit that modern worship has gone overboard in the 7-11 department, let’s not be totally dismissive and throw the baby out with the bathwater. We’ll miss a vital way we can engage in the important spiritual discipline of meditation in the act of singing.