Traditional worship (of which I am a big fan) does a great job pointing out the blind spots of contemporary worship—self-centeredness, low view of God, shallow theology, biblical illiteracy, etc. Modern worship, for the most part, does not return the favor, so I’d like to point out a blind spot in traditional worship that modern worship has exposed.
As I’ve talked about before, traditional worship has often criticized contemporary worship for their “7-11 songs”–songs which have seven words, sung eleven times (see In Defense of 7-11 Songs Part 1 and Part 2). Though I understand the sentiment (it can lead to vain repetition and a mindless, stupefying worship), I actually think the criticism is born out of a discomfort that exposes the blind spot.
One of the values of repetition in songs for worship is that it gives us an opportunity to corporately meditate on one idea, one aspect of God, one reality of Christian living, or one small portion of Scripture. Personally, as I’ve worshiped in 7-11 contexts or led songs which have sections repeated multiple times, when done and led well, a deeper knowledge or understanding has emerged from the topic of meditation, which the Spirit used to minister to my heart.
While the traditionalist complaints about 7-11 songs have some validity, I also sense that they are simply not used to the concept of corporate meditation in song (I say “in song” because in some traditional contexts there exist responsive readings that function as repetitive meditation). One of the down-sides to through-composed, non-repetitive hymnody is that, apart from a repeated refrain, there is very little room to meditate and ruminate. I often find that I need to prepare to sing a hymn by reading it or studying it ahead of time. This is a great thing for many reasons, but it is not conducive to meditation in the corporate worship context…and it is inherent in the very structure of traditional hymnody.
And, in case any are thinking that meditation is meant only for private devotion, not corporate expression, take a look at the meditation language and practices in the Psalms. Psalm 1 opens the Psalter (the only fully inspired worship book) by pronouncing blessing upon the one “meditates day and night” on the law of God. Other Psalms (like 136) carry repeated refrains which function as meditations on aspects of God. The book of Revelation records the 7-11 song of the heavenly hosts around God’s throne, incessantly chanting,
Holy, holy, holy
Is the Lord God Almighty,
Who was, and is, and is to come (Rev. 4:8)
I am convinced that at least part of the purpose is for the meditative value on ruminating on God’s holiness. In a sense, as the heavenly beings sing without ceasing, they come to a deeper and deeper understanding and adoration of God’s holiness and infinitude.
I wonder, then, if traditional worshipers who abhor 7-11 worship have ever experienced the joy and fulfillment that comes from extended meditation on a small idea. I wonder if they’ve ever felt the formative benefits of resting in a thought. We must remember it’s an American notion (not a biblical one) to rush, rush, rush through things.
Part of what itches the traditionalist about 7-11 songs, then, is their own discomfort with the practice of corporate meditation. A blind spot has been exposed…and we now have reason #2,562 why traditional worship and contemporary worship desperately need each other as we strive to honor God and be faithful to the Scriptures in our worship.