Those Dreaded 7-11 Hymns

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 : |
(repeat forever)

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?

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Praise God, from Whom All Blessings Flow

One of our older expressions of praise (particularly in English) is Thomas Ken’s text, “Praise God, from Whom All Blessings Flow.” It is also referred to as the Doxology (literally, words of glory). It was a final verse for each in a sequence of hymns for devotion throughout the day, but has since become a hymn in its own right. Continue reading

Holy, Holy, Holy!

There are some songs/hymns which are iconic in their purpose. That is, they are fairly universally-recognized for filling a certain role in the assembly. There’s “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” for the Communion. There’s “Give Me the Bible” for a song before a sermon or about the word of God. One of the iconic praise hymns is Reginald Heber’s “Holy, Holy, Holy!” (the hymn is so iconic that it has appeared as #1 in numerous hymnals). It was written in connection with Trinity Sunday (in the liturgical year, the first Sunday after Pentecost) and the tune written for it is named NICAEA after the city where the Nicene Creed was agreed to. The Nicene Creed was the first major credal statement about the three-in-one nature of the Godhead. Revelation 4, one of the source texts, is a prescribed reading for Trinity Sunday in the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer.

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Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise

The hymn, “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise,” lays before us an unabashed and Scripture-filled statement of God’s glory. Admittedly, it does carry an air of stuffiness today. Much of this comes from the elevated language being used, but some from trying to express intelligent thoughts with so many rhymes in such a compressed space. Though it dates from the 19th century, it is a more recent entry into the repertoire of the churches of Christ. It stands as an interesting contrast to some of the “fluffier” songs of praise we frequently see today. Continue reading

Thou Art the Way

George W. Doane’s “Thou Art the Way” (PHASS #70) is a hymn based on the statement made by Jesus in John 14.6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me.” Each of the verses focuses on one part of that statement, and is expressed as a response addressed to Jesus. While not in PHASS, other hymnals include a fourth verse that summarizes the three. Continue reading

I’m Not Ashamed to Own My Lord

In Matthew 10.32–33, Jesus said, “Everyone therefore who confesses me before men, him I will also confess before my Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies me before men, him I will also deny before my Father who is in heaven.” Isaac Watts’ hymn, “I’m Not Ashamed to Own My Lord” (PHASS #530), is a declaration that we are not ashamed to make such a confession before men. Continue reading

Verse Selection: Things to Ponder

To this point, we’ve considered the potential problems created by always singing every verse of hymns and by omitting verses arbitrarily. In this third installment, I want to consider some things for song/worship leaders to consider in effective verse selection. As I think I’ve mentioned, my default is to sing every verse of a song, with the chorus following the verses, but here are some reasons why I do occasionally omit the chorus, lead the chorus only at the end, or lead only certain verses. Some of these may have been touched on already, some may not have. Continue reading