Who’s Afraid of Repetition?

August 7, 2013 — 9 Comments

Kevin DeYoung had an excellent post about the new evangelical liturgy arguing that it is not an improvement of what came before. The new liturgy looks something like this in most churches.

Casual welcome and announcements
Stand up for 4-5 songs
During the set, or at the very end, add a short prayer
Closing song

The old liturgy had the following elements:

I’m talking about an order of service that included a call to worship, multiple Scripture readings, Psalm singing (along with old hymns and new songs), a Scriptural benediction, historic rubrics like the Apostles’ Creed and the Ten Commandments, and many kinds of prayers (e.g., invocation, prayer of adoration, prayer of confession, prayer of intercession, prayer for illumination). I’m talking about what Mike Horton calls “the drama of Christ-centered worship” or what Bryan Chapell calls “gospel ‘re-representation’”–a carefully constructed, though flexible, liturgy which progresses with a distinct gospel logic: adoration, confession, assurance, thanksgiving, petition, instruction, charge, and blessing. The traditional Protestant liturgy has an Isaiah 6 movement to it where the gospel is not just preached in the sermon or even sung in the songs, but embodied in the entire order of the service.

DeYoung then says:

For whatever appeal the New Evangelical Liturgy may have in American culture, and for whatever abuses or doldrums may be associated with a more traditional liturgy, I don’t believe it can be argued, by objective measures, that the new is superior to the old. Which liturgy has more prayer? What one has more Scripture? Which one does more to accent sin and forgiveness? Which ones anchors us better in the ancient creeds and confessions of the church? Which one is the product of more sustained theological reflection? Which is more shaped by the gospel?

As I was finishing James Smith’s book Imagining the Kingdom he had a couple of golden paragraphs about Protestants and their “built-in allergy to repetition” in worship. Maybe a renewed emphasis on repetition may be part of the answer to to DeYoung’s analysis. Smith encourages a new appreciation for repetition.

Protestants have a built-in allergy to repetition in worship, although we are quite happy to affirm the value of repetition in almost every other sphere of life, from study to music to sports to art. We affirm the value of ritual repetition if we’re learning piano scales or learning to hit a golf ball but are curiously suspicious of repetitive ritual in worship and discipleship

Smith traces this allergy to three primary causes.

First, the heritage of Protestantism is that we associate repetition with dead orthodoxy and trying to earn salvation by going through the motions. Smith says:

Ritual and repetition are bound together in our suspicion of “works righteousness”…We see repetitive ritual as bottom-up effort–and it’s just that notion of “effort” that starts to sound like “work,” and it doesn’t take long before this all seems part of an elaborate system of “salvation by works.”

Second in modernity worship tends to be thought of as only an “upward” act of the people of God who come to offer their sacrifice of praise. Obviously there is a lot of truth to this, but it can turn into a “swirling eddy of individualism.”

Gathered worship is then thought of like a collection of individual, private encounters with God in which worshipers express an “interior” devotion. It is precisely this model that prizes authenticity so highly. If worship is only about expression, then sincerity is the highest good, and we have this lingering sense that doing the same thing twice—let alone over and over again–is not sincere. Thus we feel the need to encourage novel modes of expression week after week.

Third, we have bought into the cult of novelty. We disdain the “old” and constantly pursue fresh expressions.

Smith concludes:

The wisdom of historic Christian worship runs counter to all three of these assumptions precisely because it sees worship not only as expressive (what we offer to God) but also as formative (what God is doing to us in the encounter)… Quite simply, there is no formation without repetition. There is no habituation without being immersed in a practice over and over again. There will be no sanctification of our perception apart from a regular, repeated recentering of our imagination in the Story of the gospel as rehearsed and enacted in the ‘practical logic’ of Christian worship. So it is precisely our allergy to repetition in worship that has undercut the counterformative power of Christian worship – because all kinds of secular liturgies shamelessly affirm the good of repetition. We’ve let the devil, so to speak, have all the repetition. And we, as liturgical animals, are only too happy to find our rhythms in such repetition.

Unless Christian worship eschews the cult of novelty and embraces the good of faithful repetition, we will constantly be ceding habituation to secular liturgies.

Patrick Schreiner

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I teach New Testament at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. I am married with three children. This blog, against all wisdom, includes anything I am interested in. That includes movies, music, theology, culture, hermeneutics, the Gospels, and politics. Feel free to comment and let me know you are reading or that you have found something helpful. I reserve the right to delete unhelpful or rude comments. Many of these posts are simply things I find interesting and therefore I am not asserting I agree with everything I link to.

9 responses to Who’s Afraid of Repetition?

  1. Interesting. I think Jesus only mentioned repetition once and it didn’t really get positive billing. Perhaps that is a contribution to the allergy?

    • Benjamin

      It does not seem like that is good criteria for evaluating this. Although the Scriptures give some guidelines for worship and church structure the guidelines are actually quite open and general so that it can be adapted to many cultures.

      • I don’t mention it as a criteria per se, but rather as a curious thought as to why evangelicals associate repetition with vanity. Do you think that plays into the mindset?

  2. It seems to me that an even greater “allergy” with regards to Protestant worship is the denial and neglect of a living and “holy” tradition of worship that is catholic (according to the whole Church) and evengelical (centered on Christ). Modern American Christians seem to think that the Faith is a-historical and that all tradition is “tradition of men.” Well, Scripture is “traditioned” and perhaps worship, insofar as it reflects the content of Scripture might be included as well. Patrick well describes a “contemporary” framework of worship that is solely emotive and devoid of holiness, beauty or mystery…all of which are replete in the Scriptural encounters of man with God in Christ.

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