The Soap Box Blog

"How many times are we going to sing this song?!"

I wrote an honest-to-goodness email rant this morning in response to a good friend, John Oldham. John, a very prolific hymn writer and a definite free spirit, was lamenting to his email list about the use of shorter songs, or "7/11" songs as he calls them, "using seven words and repeating them 11 times!"

John shares a notion about shorter songs which I think is fairly widespread, so I thought my response to him would be helpful for others to hear as well. [Full disclosure: if you are a regular visitor to this website, you know I write and give away many shorter songs, so I obviously consider them of value.] Here's the meat of my reply (after the break): 


Shorter songs are never meant to replace hymns and full-length songs! If people are replacing a hymn with a shorter song in worship they are likely doing a disservice to their community and to the liturgy in general. Many people in our communities need to be nurtured and caressed by poetry, metaphor and imagery; we thirst for the depth and development that longer song forms offer us. In addition, some among us have a rational approach to faith, particularly in a secular culture where rational, linear thought is esteemed, and the linear development of thought in a longer song is satisfying and nurturing to us. So hallelujah for longer songs!

Shorter songs, in contrast, are vehicles for prayer, designed to be quickly absorbed so they can be prayed - they engage the body and soul more than the mind. A steady diet of nothing but hymns in worship makes it hard for pre-readers, the sight-impaired, and people with limited skills with the primary language of worship to participate. Try attending worship with a Spanish-speaking congregation, if you have limited ability with the language for example, and singing along with a multi-verse hymn and see how challenging it is to participate. Then you'll have a sense of what it is like for many in our pews to struggle with multi-verse hymns! And yet a short Spanish song such as the Argentinian traditional song "Santo, santo, santo" is well-loved by many non-Spanish speakers because it is accessible. Shorter songs are more easily absorbed and brought to mind by the entire community, making them an inclusive vehicle for communal sung prayer.

So yes, we need to sing hymns in the grand moments - a hymn of praise, a song of going forth, in answer to a sermon. This is what hymns do best! And sing shorter songs in moments of prayer and in times when short liturgical responses are called for. Try coming forward to receive communion while singing a six-verse hymn - not an easy task! Singing a song such as "Eat this bread, drink this cup" from the Taizé Community, and everyone can join in by the second or third time around, with no bulletin or projected words required.

And please don't call them 7/11 songs! While it is funny, it misses the point entirely. A shorter song is an invitation into timelessness (as long as we can stop asking "how many times are we going to sing this song?!"), a gift to us and our communities in a hectic world which is dreadfully over-scheduled. Nothing funny about it - just an opportunity to put our rational selves aside and truly enter into prayer - if we can allow ourselves to let go and let God... And isn't that a good part of what worship should be about, truly coming into the presence of the Holy?

So what do you think? Do we need a variety of song forms in our worship?

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