Meditation: A Blind Spot in Traditional Worship

Zac HicksWorship Style, Worship Theology & Thought3 Comments

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.

3 Comments on “Meditation: A Blind Spot in Traditional Worship”

  1. The word "traditional" is tricky here. So if you mean songs written and universally accepted in protestantism for the past 350 years, then I think I agree with you. But I would argue for traditions that span back to the first century. There you will find hundreds of hymns conducive to meditative worship through repetition. Hymns and plainsong chants that repeat over and over: Agnus dei, qui tollis peccata munid, or kyrie eleison, or dona nobis pacem, or the sanctus, etc. . . . . Some modern Taize touches on these earlier traditions.

    I see a definite place for all of these forms. It was exciting to play ASCENT because not only did we play contemporary songs with guitars, soaring bridges, and energetic choruses, we sang accapella hymns, modern interpretations of hymns, and even folk hymns.

    It is a great time to be an artist and a Christian. There is a openness to exploring the past as it was, while at the same time drawing it into the unfolding kingdom of God in contemporary culture.

  2. As someone who grew up singing the "traditional" hymns, I especially appreciate the New Hymns movement as an aid to corporate meditation. Most of the texts (and tunes) for traditional hymns have become rooted in memory by continual use over the years. So when those texts are used in worship, as complex as they may be, I and many of my generation can enter into corporate meditation – whatever the musical setting.

    I take your point about simple texts inducing meditation, but familiar complex texts can do the same. to develop among God’s people a shared memory of great texts to aid meditation not only immediately

  3. I agree wholeheartedly that we benefit from singing both (longer) hymns and (shorter) contemporary songs as you’ve described them in your post. Recently in corporate worship, we repeatedly sang the refrain, "Greater things are yet to come, greater things are still to be done in this city" from Tomlin et al’s "God of This City." It became something like a crowd cheering at a football game, "Push ’em back, push ’em back, way back" until we all got the message, "Yeah, God CAN do greater things in OUR city!" I was also reminded of stories I’ve heard of past generations who regulary carried both their Bible AND their hymnal with them throughout the day as sources for meditation. As a result, I’ll bet many of them had memorized the texts of the hymns and were able to meditate on shorter passages or phrases from those hymns in private. For example, I was recently meditating on a phrase from Luther’s "A Mighty Fortress" that says, "Did [if] we in our own strength confide [trust or depend], our striving [attempts] would be losing [fruitless]." However, as you write above, it’s difficult to chew on one phrase while singing the whole hymn in corporate worship. Similarly, it’s difficult to chew on one phrase of, for example, "The Lord’s Prayer" or "The Apostles’ Creed" as we recite them together. However, the more we repeat them to one another, the more we are likely to memorize them and meditate on portions of them in private worship. Thank God for such variety in corporate and private worship!

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