Perhaps one of the most polarizing issues regarding the repertoire of the musical worship of God’s people is the use of more contemporary hymns. To be certain, there are more modern hymns that bear a striking resemblance to those written in generations long ago. Some were written by our brethren (such as Charli Couchman’s “Sing and Rejoice in the Savior’s Birth,” John Trimble’s “Our Father Forever,” or Mark Coulson’s “Praise Christ, by Whom the Worlds Were Framed”), while others have come from pens in broader Christianity (such as Townend and Getty’s “In Christ Alone”). On the other hand, there are those which seem to do a very good job of saying very little, but saying it a lot.
Songs of this nature are often collectively referred to as “7-11” songs. The generalization is that they repeat the same seven words 11 times. For many, these songs represent everything that is wrong with Christianity today when it comes to shallow understanding of God’s word. For many others, these songs are much beloved expressions of simple spiritual truths.
The “Original” 7-11 Song
For a long time (relatively speaking), I was not a fan of the 7-11 song. In fact, when Sumphonia sent out the hymn survey in 2006 in preparation for the hymnal that would eventually become known as Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs, in the final comments section I wrote two or three paragraphs railing against the depravity of much of the contemporary repertoire. Granted, I was all of 19 when I wrote it. In the intervening years, my opinion mellowed, though I still preferred (and do today) songs that say more over songs that say less.
But one counter-example, pointed out in the last year or so, has helped to moderate my thinking on this point further. A brother in a Facebook group posted this in reference to Revelation 4.8:
| : Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty
Who was and is and is to come : |
For those who aren’t as versed in musical notation, “|:” and “:|” represent opening and closing repeat bars. Now, while there are certainly more than seven words in this text (there are 16 in this rendering), when we start thinking about unique words and such, we aren’t much above that level (and in fairness, most so-called 7-11s have more than seven words). So it is that we have the heavenly equivalent of a 7-11 hymn.
This makes it hard to outright condemn all 7-11 songs on the basis of what they are. But does that make all 7-11 hymns “okay”? What makes a 7-11 song beneficial to the public worship?
The Defining Difference
In a more traditional hymn, there is a lot more material to work with to develop a topic or even imbue peripheral content. Consider that a four-verse hymn like “In Christ Alone” has around 225 words in it. Now, I think that hymn writers should give care to each word chosen for maximum impact, but longer hymns with higher word counts have a lot more wiggle room. When a song consists of only a few words, every word becomes that much more important. It becomes very easy for such a song ultimately to say nothing. There may be words there, and they may be words of praise, but is there a strong, coherent, original message?
Here are some things that writers (and consumers) of modern praise choruses (aka 7-11 songs) should strive for to maximize their effectiveness and utility in the assembly:
- A strong, focused message. In the case of the Revelation 4 example, can there be any stronger message than God’s unique holiness? In the Bible, repetition is used to intensify a thought or to signify its importance. While there are many biblical thoughts worthy of our consideration and expression, we are probably best served by limiting this degree of repetition to the really big themes of the Bible: God’s glory, our Savior’s sacrifice, etc. I’m not as convinced that we are as well-served by extensive repetition of “Let there be love in our homes” as we are by something like “Great is the Lord our God, and worthy to be praised.”
- Fresh expression. This one is a bit more subjective. While repetition can be good, we should strive for variety in our expressions. I realize that “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain” is verbatim from Revelation 5.12, but my question is whether that line needs to appear in every song about Jesus’ sacrifice. It’s a well-known line, and it’s easy to throw into a song, but I wonder, though, if we are missing a whole range of worthy biblical thoughts about that sacrifice because we default to that one (or a few).
- Limited musical difficulty. This final point is even more subjective, but we need to be mindful of the difficulty of music. The use of a repeated phrase in some cases leads to a “theme and variations” approach to the music, where each repetition begets further musical embellishment, counter-melodies, etc. This really gets to questions of whether the song is used as a vehicle for expressing worship or as a vehicle for demonstrating musical virtuosity. There are a couple of songs I have recordings of where by the time they’re done, there are four or five different musical (and lyrical) lines intermingling at one time. Here’s a reality: many congregations can’t sing these songs. The one where I am at can’t sing these songs and have them sound like anything. Many of the ones that I am acquainted with—even those who have trained musicians who can sing each part—would have (and have had) difficulty in executing these songs correctly. Do we really want to impose this (some would say, “inflict this”) on congregations for the sake of a certain sound?
Question: What other things do you think make praise choruses/”7-11 songs” more effective as a part of the repertoire of assemblies of God’s people?