The Case for Repetition in Worship
“Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever…for his steadfast love endures forever…for his steadfast love endures forever” (Psalm 136:1-3, etc., ESV)
One of the features of historic Reformed worship practice that is likely to stand out to a non-denominational evangelical Christian who visits a typical Reformed worship service is the amount of repetition that takes place within the Reformed liturgy.
For example, at Lake Church we regularly recite either the Apostles’ or the Nicene Creed during public worship. Every Lord’s Day after the prayers of intercession we pray the Lord’s Prayer together in unison as a congregation. In addition, while we sing a variety of different hymns in our practice of praise, most of our worship song is taken from a standard, church-sanctioned hymn book which includes many hymns that the church has been singing for years, in some cases for multiple centuries.
Furthermore, we tend to follow a set order of service in our worship practice, so the flow of our worship service is pretty predictable. Our services begin with a salutation and call to worship taken from Scripture, followed by an opening hymn of praise, prayer of praise, and recitation of a creed. This is followed by a pastoral prayer of confession of sin and declaration of pardon, Scripture readings, a hymn of faith, prayers of intercession & the Lord’s Prayer, the offering and a hymn of preparation for the sermon. The final section of a typical service includes the reading and preaching of God’s Word, followed by a hymn of commitment and the benediction. The service is dismissed with the singing of the doxology. (The order of service varies slightly on those Lord’s Days when we celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.)
I suspect that for many of our nondenominational evangelical brothers and sisters in Christ this repetition in our worship practice smacks of a dead formalism, perhaps even a quenching of the Holy Spirit. In the mindset of much of the contemporary church the sign of genuine “authenticity” and of the work of the Holy Spirit in the worship practice of the church is an unscripted spontaneity that just “goes with the flow”. One suspects that to many of our nondenominational brethren the idea of carefully planning and crafting a worship service, including perhaps even the preparation of pre-planned, written out prayers by the minister and the use of centuries-old hymns sung by long-dead saints, is tantamount to trying to put the Holy Spirit in a box.
Of course, those of us who advocate a more “traditional” form of worship practice would point out that the so-called “spontaneity” of your typical contemporary worship service is anything but authentically spontaneous. Most likely the worship band has practiced their Sunday song set for hours, carefully planning their worship performance in such a way that it comes across as spontaneous and Spirit-led (and thus “authentic”), when in reality it has been rehearsed down to the very last breathy note sung by the worship leader. (I might also make the case that much of contemporary worship practice is actually an exercise in the extreme emotional and psychological manipulation of the congregation through an excessive emotionalism in the content and presentation of many contemporary worship songs, but that is perhaps a subject best left to a future blog post.)
But the planned “spontaneity” of contemporary worship practice aside, what should we say to those fellow believers who think that repetition in worship is unspiritual, and that the Holy Spirit only works through that which is spontaneous?
First of all, I would challenge the idea that the Holy Spirit only works through that which is spontaneous and unscripted. I would argue that the Bible teaches the opposite. In fact, the Bible contains a whole book of written-out, set-form prayers and hymns, known to us today as the Book of Psalms. And many of those psalms are filled with repetition. For example, read Psalm 136. It is quite possible that this psalm was composed to be sung antiphonally (i.e., responsively) by different segments of the levitical choir for worship in the Temple. One of the major features of this psalm is the multiple repetition of the phrase, “for his steadfast love endures forever” (ESV). Now, all Bible-believing Christians believe that the Holy Spirit inspired the words of Psalm 136, just as He inspired the rest of the Scriptures (Second Timothy 3:16-17). Therefore, in Psalm 136 we have an example of the Holy Spirit inspiring a Scripture passage which is extremely repetitious and which was likely composed for use in a formal worship setting. One of the things that Psalm 136 teaches us is that the Holy Spirit is not opposed to repetion and formality in worship.
Of course, our Lord Jesus did condemn vain repetition in prayer. For example, in Matthew 6:7-8 Jesus condemned the practice of heaping up empty phrases and thinking that God is more likely to listen to our prayers if we use lots of words. But what Jesus condemns in passages like this one is a bad theology of prayer, one which sees prayer as a means of manipulating God into doing what we want Him to do by using empty words and excessive verbosity. But while vain repetition stands condemned by our Lord, meaningful and biblically-based repetition is actually encouraged (as we see from Psalm 136).
Next, I would point out that the Holy Spirit loves order, not chaos. It was the Spirit of God who brought order out of chaos at the very beginning of creation (Genesis 1:2). He inspired the prophets and apostles to write down the Scriptures in orderly, written fashion. He inspired the Apostle Paul to direct the Corinthian Church, a church where an anarchistic, unedifying form of “spontaneous” worship prevailed, to make sure that everything in their worship assemblies was done “decently and in order” (First Corinthians 14:40, ESV). The Reformed Liturgy actually seeks to honor the Holy Spirit’s love for decency and order by having a certain formality in our worship practice, including the formality of meaningful repetition.
Finally, a meaningful, biblical repetition in our worship practice can actually help to root and establish us believers in the faith once-for-all delivered to the saints, and can serve as a source of great comfort during times of trial.
When I and my family were preparing to move out to Ohio from New Jersey so that I might take up my pastoral labors here at Lake Church, the sale of our townhouse in New Jersey fell through at the very last minute due to circumstances beyond our control. The moving truck was coming to pick up our stuff and take us to our new home in Ohio, and we had to leave for our new home not knowing whether or not we would be able to sell our New Jersey home anytime soon. As you might imagine, this was a tremendously stressful time for me and my family.
As I was driving down the highway in one of our cars (my wife and son being in the other car) on our journey out to Ohio, I remember feeling overwhelmed by the stress, almost to the point of tears, due to the uncertainties that lay ahead. In my stress the words of the great hymn, “It is well with my soul” came to mind. I began to sing this hymn. As I sang out the words of that precious hymn, which I had sung so often in the past in church, began to sink in to the depths of my soul. The stress began to dissipate, and for the first time in awhile I felt a sense of inner peace and calm settle over me. Whatever would happen with the sale of our home and whatever I might face in my future service to Lake Church, I knew that God was in control and that He had things sorted, however things might end up working out. (I am thankful to report that, in God’s kind providence, our realtor was able to sell our townhouse in a timely fashion, so that burden was lifted from our shoulders in relatively short order.)
Without the repetition of singing that precious hymn many times in church, I would not have been able to memorize it. And without having memorized this hymn through the process of repetition over the years, I would not have had it in my spiritual arsenal as I faced a stressful and trying time in my life.
As we grow older and begin to lose our memory, those things which have been burned into our souls over the years through constant repetition are the things that we will still likely remember. Elderly believers who start to lose their memory will often still be able to recite Bible verses, hymns and prayers that they have learned. (I am given to understand that the Lord’s Prayer is one of the last things that is remembered by churchgoers who experience extreme memory loss.)
If everything in church always has to be new; if we are always having to reinvent the wheel of worship in order to supposedly keep our worship practice relevant and appealing; if we must studiously avoid everything that smacks of repetition; then we rob God’s people today of a precious heritage of faith and practice that has stood the test of time and has brought generations of God’s people comfort and hope in the midst of distress.
Let us studiously avoid vain repetition. But let us always, over and over again, engage in biblical repetition; for the glory of God and for the good of our souls!