Is Repetition a Help or a Hindrance?

Will sent me this question:

Is there an objective standard by which to gauge the effectiveness of repetition in contemporary worship hymnody?…What are some helpful ideas to bear in mind for incorporating effectively repetitive worship songs while not neglecting great hymns and songs that are not so characterized, and when do we as…worship leaders cross the line in leading the congregation in ineffective or mindless praise (apart from their own distractions and heart idols brought into worship) via repetition?

When someone has a problem with repeating lyrics, I’m reminded of my daughter’s response when I suggested she read a certain book of the Bible. “I’ve already read that,” she replied confidently. I had to help her see that reading something once doesn’t mean we’ve fully grasped all God has for us in it. Besides, we’re dull. Our minds aren’t always engaged with the words we’re reading. We need to hear them again.

Likewise, there’s benefit in singing the same words again. I can think of at least three ways to repeat songs. Some songs already contain repetition, like “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever,” or “It is Well.” A second kind is what a leader does in a meeting when he repeats a phrase, verse, or entire song. A third way songs can be repeated is from week to week. I’m not aware of any “objective standard” to measure whether repetition is effective or not, but here are some of principles I use to help determine what’s appropriate.

1. Have a reason for repeating.
Don’t just repeat a verse or a line because “that’s what you’re supposed to do.” That line of thought leads people to sing mindlessly and pursue emotionalism. There are good reasons to repeat lyrics when we sing. You might want to give the church time to meditate on an significant truth. That’s why I’ll sometimes repeat a phrase or the last line of a song. I’ll often go back to a verse of a song that proclaims the Gospel, like verse 2 of How Great Thou Art. Repetition from week to week can help people remember songs. Repetition can also enable people to sing the same words from different perspectives. It’s what we experience when we sing the same song before and after a message. Once we’re heard God’s Word preached, our hearts are full and every word we sing seems to jump off the screen (or page, as the case may be).

2. Be careful about repeating repetition.
A number of choruses to modern worship songs already contain the same line three or four times. Do we really need to sing them 9, 12, or 15 times? That’s not necessarily wrong or unhelpful. I just want to be sure that people are singing in faith and not out of rote.

3. Choruses aren’t the only part of a song we can repeat.
It’s natural to sing a chorus twice in a row, but often the choruses are the more subjective part of a song. Our aim isn’t simply to sing over and over about what we want to do for God, but what he’s done for us. Verses often, though not always, contain the rich doctrinal truths that inspire our heartfelt response.

4. Be aware of the difference between repeating objective truth and subjective response.
It can be very moving to sing “Fire, fall down” for two minutes, but that tends to produce an experience in the moment rather than sowing the word of Christ into our hearts (Col. 3:16). If I’m going to repeat a phrase for any length of time, I want it to be eternal truth that builds people’s faith, not simply an expression of our needs and desires.

5. Don’t end every song by singing the last line three times.
The first time you do this in a meeting it’s moving. The second time it might sound predictable. The third time, it’s distracting, and doubtful that anyone is singing with faith. We should only repeat the last line of the chorus when we still have more to say. Also, we can repeat lines other than the last line. In “How Deep the Father’s Love,” I’ll sometimes repeat the next to the last line, “But this I know with all my heart,” to emphasize that we really know, “His wounds have paid my ransom.”

6. Repetition can include musical variety.
When we repeat a verse we can affect how people hear it by changing the accompaniment. Use just a guitar or piano, just percussion, or sing a cappella. When repeating a line at the end the musicians can vary what they play, maybe leaving one instrument to accompany the last line.

7. Repetition is helped by explanation.
If you’re in a church where people would faint if you sang anything more than once, it might help to tell your church ways repetition can help us (see point #1). I’ll sometimes say something like, “Let’s sing verse 3 of ‘In Christ Alone’ again reminding ourselves that EVERY sin has lost its grip on our lives.”

Repetition isn’t wrong in itself. Like most practices, it can be used or abused. I pray these few thoughts are a help towards using it to serve people more effectively for the Savior’s glory.

,

14 Responses to Is Repetition a Help or a Hindrance?

  1. raisingupleaders August 31, 2007 at 6:56 PM #

    It’s funny because I was about the write on the same subject. I don’t know if there is anything I can add to what you wrote, but let me tell you I am encouraged. Would you consider guest blogging?

    Rock on,
    Peter Park

  2. Bob Kauflin August 31, 2007 at 11:09 PM #

    Peter,

    Thanks for stopping by and for your encouragement. I’m honored you’d ask me to “guest blog,” but I’m afraid I have a hard enough time keeping this one going. Feel free to use whatever you find on this one, though.

  3. ldsnowden September 1, 2007 at 12:11 AM #

    Bob,

    I would add an 8th point to your list. “Use repition as does the scripture.” Like most other aspects of worship, we can find a pattern for repition even within the pages of scripture. Psalm 136 repeats the phrase “his steadfast love endures forever” 26 times. Not only does this show us that there is a legitmate use of repetition, but it also gives us a pattern for repitition. The phrase that is repeated is of doctrinal significance regarding God’s unfailing love for His people. The preceding statements include subject matter that give substance to the doctrine. v.23 is one such example, he remembers us in our low estate – this should cause us to praise His never ceasing love.

    There is not only doctrinal truth expressed and repeated, but also the manifestation of the truth as seen in real life. Chris Tomlin in his “Forever God is Faithful” seems to reflect this in his lyrics and dealing with this very passage. On a different issue Pat Sczebel’s “Jesus, Thank You” has the same pattern.

    Bob, what other Biblical patterns for repition do you see in the scripture?

  4. Kyle September 1, 2007 at 12:19 PM #

    Hi Bob,

    Thank you for so clearly laying out these categories. My wife and I have had several fruitful conversations regarding repetition, and how it can be helpful. I’d like to share one significant one.

    Several years ago, in an article you wrote, you mentioned a student in the PC who had paraphrased something that Piper said at some point. “Right thoughts about God lead to right affections towards God, which lead to right expressions to God.” (I’m probably butchering what was actually said, but this is my fifth-person paraphrase, and I’ve found it pretty helpful.) Anyway. My wife has found at times that repetition can actually help her to engage with the truth in the songs we sing on the affection/expression levels much more.

    She’s found that if we sing words like “Arise my soul Arise, shake off your guilty fears, the bleeding sacrifice on my behalf appears…” too quickly, it’s hard enough for her to know what we’ve been singing about, let alone engage with the words. But, if we repeat a verse, she can actually process the words, and then much more easily react to them on the emotion/expression level. If we too quickly fly through songs, we may run the risk of not letting the truth of those words sink in before moving on…

    Thanks,
    K-

  5. Bob Kauflin September 1, 2007 at 3:35 PM #

    Ldsnowden,

    GREAT additional point! And the most obvious. Other places in Scripture that confirm repetition is a good thing that come to mind are:

    * the number of times God’s proclamation of his name to Moses in Ex. 34:6-7 is quoted. It shows up at least 11 times.

    * Phil. 3:1 and 2 Pet. 1:12

    * the amount of repetition in the Pentateuch, including Deuteronomy, where Moses is repeating and explaining the commands given at Mt. Sinai to the Israelites.

    * the amount of repetition in the Psalms. For instance, Ps. 108 is a combining of Ps. 57 and Ps. 60. Ps. 118 contains a good bit of repetition.

    * the importance God places on repeated ritual, recitation, and explanation, e.g., the Passover in Ex. 12:24-27

    God seems to have no problem repeating things. With the appropriate restraints, we shouldn’t either.

  6. Jeremiah Richards September 8, 2007 at 6:45 PM #

    7And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Matthew 6

    Do you think this verse applies to prayer in song?

  7. David S. Spaggiari September 9, 2007 at 12:36 AM #

    Bob

    I appreciate your article. I practice one aspect of repetition that you mentioned: using the same song several weeks in a row. It’s a struggle for some in our church but I see benefit in singing the same song and bringing out different aspects of the same song from week to week. Good worship songs many times lend themselves to drawing out several of God’s attributes.

    Another aspect of repetition that I have found to be very affective is to use the same song twice or even three times in the same service. I have a preference for using fewer songs (3 or 4 vs. 7 or 8) in a service and camping out on or repeating a particular song for emphasis.

    Thanks for your insight, Bob!

    David S. Spaggiari

  8. Matthew Westerholm September 9, 2007 at 9:17 PM #

    Jeremiah,

    I think many of our songs actually ARE prayers. The rhythm helps us pray together, and the notes allow us to pray passionately. To answer your question about the verse, I think the difference is that they are singing many times so that GOD will hear them, and we are repeating to make sure WE hear the truth.

  9. Aaron Campbell September 10, 2007 at 3:22 PM #

    Bob,

    This was so helpful to me this weekend. For years I’ve only known one verse to Mark Altrogge’s “I Stand in Awe.” I recently came across the second verse that talks about the beauty of Christ because He was crushed for our sin. The first time we sang it we used full accompaniment. We then went back and sang it again with very sparse accompaniment, and and an encouragement to focus in on this glorious truth. It was so moving to see people respond to this truth, and was not something I would have done if not for your post. Thanks.

  10. Don Gale September 13, 2007 at 11:41 AM #

    Bob,

    Here’s a related question that I’ve been wanting to ask someone. What about singing the same one or two lines over and over during a bridge? Example: Kristian Stanfill’s rendition of “Jesus Paid It All” on the latest Passion album culminates in a huge, building bridge of, “Oh praise the one who paid my debt and raised this life up from the dead,” repeated about 20 times. [Other examples can be found on the CD. Like “Our God Reigns” which is only “Our God reigns, forever His kingdom reigns” over and over again for 6 minutes]. We’ve done the song (Jesus Paid It All) at our church and repeated the bridge in the same way. Then we’ll go back into the chorus and end. Usually people then start singing the bridge again before we can get into the next song. Anyway, playing the song this way always stirs strong emotions in the body (myself included). Is this method a cheap or unbiblical way of invoking emotion? Should it be avoided? I could go on asking questions about it, but what are your (and other readers’) thoughts? I will say that I do like both of those songs and even the way they’re done, so I’m not trying to bash them at all. The rest of this blog was very helpful and informative. Thanks!

  11. Bob Kauflin September 13, 2007 at 1:23 PM #

    Don,

    Great question. I’ve been in meetings (and led them) when we sang a chorus over and over for a few minutes. I think the questions I posted remain the same. Kristian Stanfill’s bridge is substantive and can be repeated numerous times without losing its effectiveness. We’re singing about substitutionary atonement and its effect on our lives. Will we ever stop being amazed at that thought? The second example you gave is a little less clear to me. The fact that God’s kingdom reigns forever is certainly a profound thought. But I’d be less prone to repeat that phrase ten (or more) times because I’m not sure that people would be growing in their understanding of or appreciation for God’s reign as we sang it. I’d suspect that they would become increasingly affected by the sound of our singing or an awareness of our singing. I can’t say what was going on in people’s minds at these events. But as a leader I have to do what I think will engage people’s hearts AND minds with God’s truth. If I think we’re saying too much too fast, I repeat. If I think people have “gotten” what we’re singing, then I move on.

    Generally, I think repeating a line or bridge more than three or four times ends up being a mixed bag. Some people move on to a more profound encounter with God, some get caught up in the music, and others are distracted by the amount of repetition.

  12. Bob Kauflin September 13, 2007 at 1:24 PM #

    Matthew,

    Thanks for answering Jeremiah’s question. I agree.

  13. Ben Lee March 30, 2009 at 12:16 AM #

    I really appreciate the comments here. I think that there is a place for both types of songs in worship. I enjoy songs at both ends of the spectrum – No repetition [such as “In Christ Alone”] and repetitious [such as “Agnus Dei” – M.W. Smith]

    What really changed my mind about repetition was the Lord reminded me that in Revelation 4:8 —

    The four living creatures, each having six wings, were full of eyes around and within. And they DO NOT REST DAY OR NIGHT, saying:

    “ Holy, holy, holy,
    Lord God Almighty,
    Who was and is and is to come!”

    {emphasis mine}

  14. Patricia Backora September 2, 2010 at 10:43 AM #

    Increasingly, the “worship and praise” of modern charismatic churches especially, is getting so repetitious and watered-down it sounds like a mindless mantra. Recently I was in a service where one or two disjointed, vague words and phrases were repeated over and over by a guitar-playing song leader who seemed lost in a fog, and the music seemed to be as aimless as drifting smoke. God doesn’t tell us to leave our brains at the church door when we come in. No wonder the church is in such a wretched condition and failing to mature in Christ, it’s still sucking its thumb and wallowing in aimless, introspective emotion!

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