In my last post, I argued that repetition isn’t as bad as we make it out to be. In fact, repetition is important. We are shaped by repetition—and that’s true whether we are aware of the formative power of repetition or not. James K. A. Smith argues that we are immersed in “secular liturgies” every day and that these shape us deeply without our conscious knowledge. Smith’s solution is capitalizing on repetition in a healthy way within the church. This is part of counterformation: intentionally shaping ourselves through saturating our lives and practices and worship with the story of what God has done in Christ.
While we’re usually allergic to repetition in worship, Smith argues that we need to engage in healthy repetition. What this does not mean, however, is that all repetition is equally helpful. In fact, some types of repetition are harmful.
For example, I remember a time in my life when the song “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” was incredibly meaningful. I would get teary singing it. I had never felt closer to God or more passionate for his mission than when I was singing those words. So I sang the song. And I sang it. And sang it. Over. And over. And over again. Until the lyrics became meaningless. The song died for me. But I kept singing it in church and chapel and youth group. And it continued to mean nothing to me. But I continued to sing it.
The end result is that a song that had been a meaningful form of repetition for me, that was instrumental in shaping me for God’s kingdom, now became a harmful form of repetition and became instrumental in shaping me to be the kind of person who proclaims powerful truths without meaning them. In other words, “Lord, I Life Your Name on High” became a training ground for my hypocrisy.
This little example probably summarizes much of what people fear when they hear about repetition in worship. If we don’t keep things fresh and ever-changing, we’ll just be singing songs and repeating rituals that have lost their meaning.
But it doesn’t need to be like this.
One ritual that every church repeats regularly is the Lord’s Supper. Within 30 years of Jesus instituting the Lord’s Supper, Paul had to challenge the Corinthian Church to treat it as a meaningful practice—which indicates that it had become a dead ceremony to many in a short amount of time. Who among us has held the profound meaning of Communion in mind every single time we have participated? And yet none of our churches is ready to give up on repeating this practice. We recognize that repetition is essential in this area. And here’s why.
Imagine how much it shapes us to regularly hold the bread and cup in our hands. We are reminded that Jesus shed his blood and broke his body in order to redeem us. We hold the symbolic evidence of that sacrifice in our hands regularly: weekly or monthly or whatever. We taste the bread on our tongues and our bodies participate in remembering Jesus’ sacrifice. We drink the cup and our taste buds get involved in the repeated memory. We take this meal together and remember that Jesus’ body has placed us within his body—these people who worship alongside us. And we do this again and again and again because this act is central to our life in Jesus. The repetition cements the action in our conscious and preconscious selves. It sinks more deeply and shapes us in ways we don’t understand.
Can people allow the repetition of Communion to shrink into a dead practice? Absolutely. Does this make the repetition of Communion bad? Absolutely not. It’s still important, and that’s why Paul calls the Corinthians back to a sincere and meaningful celebration of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11. By continually eating this meal, we repeatedly “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (v. 26). He attacks the misshapen and misdirected practice of Communion, not the meaningful repetition of it.
I believe it is important for us to incorporate thoughtful, meaningful repetition into our church gatherings. This might mean singing certain songs repeatedly as anthems. We’ll want to help each other avoid the hypocrisy of singing truths we don’t mean, but the pull should be back into the significance of singing these songs jointly rather than abandoning the songs we’ve been singing for more than a month. It might mean repeating a benediction in the service, or praying regularly, or reciting the Lord’s prayer together, or engaging in corporate confession, or incorporating bits of ancient liturgy that have shaped the life of the Church for centuries.
When we sense that the repetition has devolved into cold gesturing, it’s time to revisit the significance of the action. Maybe there’s a better way to enact the story of what God has done in Christ. Maybe we just need a reminder of what we’re doing when we do ___________.
I’m not trying to argue for a particular form of liturgy. But we are being shaped by the repeated, embodied practices in the world around us, whether it be going to the gym, going to the mall, scrolling through Facebook, clicking our remote controls, or whatever. Unless we see the value of repetition in our church gatherings, we will be neglecting a vital form of counterformation that will help us combat the consumerism and individualism and whatever else seeps into our bones through these secular liturgies. We don’t have to be liturgical in an old, confusing sense. But our worship should be liturgical in the sense that we find powerful ways of embodying the Story in actions, words, songs, and symbols that can shape our life together. And when we find these powerful practices, we should repeat them.