One of the common refrains among those who don’t practice a traditional worship liturgy is the idea that repeating things in worship is bad. The prospect of reciting pre-fabricated prayers can be hard enough, but then to imagine saying the same thing next week, and the week after that, and the week after that? Surely it can’t be meaningful and heartfelt if you do it all the time, right? You’re just a robot, saying what everyone else is saying, without really thinking hard about what it means!
Now there is truth to the statement that some people could be just reading along, without much engagement, and thus the liturgy for them is a lifeless exercise. But I want to address the notion that repetition in worship is, by nature, a problem and should be avoided. Forgive me if these statements are unfair caricatures, but I’d like to look at the ways in which we often discount repetitive liturgies, and offer some gentle pushback on those concepts. This will hopefully open up our thinking to see the ways in which repetition can actually be a blessing in worship.
Objection #1: “You’re not really thinking about what you’re saying.”
This argument presupposes that active cognitive processing is fundamental to true worship. Put another way, if I don’t think really hard about the words I say all the time, then I’m not really honoring God with my mind. I would just put it out there that we do many, many important things in life as a matter of unconscious habit. Most of our daily life seamlessly flows in a ritual of patterns, and I think there is room in Christian worship for this kind of activity to form and shape us at the core of who we are. A concert pianist practices the same piece over and over again until the music is ingrained in her fingers, until she can “play it in her sleep.” Does she do an injustice to the composer by not “thinking about” each note? No! Instead she places the music deeper into her life than the upper levels of rationality – it becomes a part of her. So repetition in worship, when part of the complete life of discipleship, can work things into our minds and hearts at a level much deeper than the things we consciously think about.
Objection #2: “If you say it every week, it doesn’t come from the heart.”
While the first argument is about the mind, this argument is about the emotions and feelings we experience in worship. Again, I would draw on our own life experiences to show that this can’t be accurate. I tell my wife I love her every day, and the fact that I say it every day does not make it less true. In fact, the repetition of a statement of love, regardless of circumstance, is more powerful than only saying it when I “feel like it.” It places faith and trust in the object of love, not in the subjective surroundings. Whether I’m jubilantly rejoicing in God, or wavering in doubt and despair, repeating the refrains of the liturgy (confession, creed, prayers) demonstrates that I worship a real and present God, regardless of what I happen to feel that day.
Again, I don’t want to discount the real issues that arise when a repetitive liturgy is rehearsed apart from the Spirit’s leading, as this can certainly lead to problematic practices. I just want to offer up my own experience of repetition in worship as another way of thinking about this. I have found that saying the same things over and over again engraves these concepts on my heart and forms the way I interact with the world around me. I find myself wanting to pray, and the only words that come out are the liturgical elements I have memorized because of repetition. I hear myself say: “O Lord, open our lips, and our mouths shall proclaim your praise,” or “Most Merciful God, I confess that I have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed…” The resources I have to draw on, because of repetition in worship, begin to form my prayers and petitions, in ways that I feel are helpful and God-honoring. So if you’ve previously objected to repetition in worship, maybe it’s time to revisit that thought. Maybe the repeated refrains and rhythms of worship can sink deep in your soul in a fruitful way, as they have in mine.