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On Advent Readings, Repetitive Contemporary Music, and Lex Orandi Lex Credendi

Q After many years of planning Advent and Christmas services, our worship planning committee wants to use Old Testament readings other than Isaiah 7, 9, 11 and 40. Do have any fresh ideas?

—Alberta

A Great question! Many congregations limit their search for Old Testament readings to texts from Handel’s Messiah (who would have ever guessed that a 17th-century oratorio librettist would have so much influence on worship today!).

But the Old Testament is filled with wonderful choices. Psalm 72, a messianic psalm, is one of the best, as are other psalms of longing for God’s visitation (Ps. 25, 80). Also consider messianic prophecies such as Jeremiah 23:1-6 and Numbers 24:15-19 (Mendelssohn made this one memorable). Prophecies about the coming kingdom of God such as Isaiah 35 and 60 are very appropriate as well. Finally, don’t forget about key but underused New Testament texts beyond Luke 2 and John 1: Hebrews 1:1-3, 2 Corinthians 8:9, and Titus 2:11-14 and 3:4-7.

One good source for your study is the Revised Common Lectionary. Even if your congregation doesn’t use this regularly, the lectionary will give you a quick source for texts that are, for the most part, traditionally associated with particular seasons.

Q Some people in my church dismiss contemporary music because it is so repetitive. Is repetition so bad?

—Indiana

A Not at all. Repetition allows us to savor the words we are praying. Lots of fine music is very repetitive: Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” and many Taizé refrains stand out as good examples.

The challenge is to find texts that are worth repeating and music with melodies and harmonies that are profound enough to convey the mystery of even a simple text. Some repetitive music is tiresome by the third time we sing it. Other examples last for centuries. Between us, I think that “Santo, Santo, Santo,” stands a better chance of surviving than “Celebrate, Jesus, Celebrate.”

The best use of repetitive texts is in conjunction with other more complex texts. Handel’s “Hallelujah” works so well because it sums up two hours worth of musical settings of scriptural prophecy. Taizé refrains are often paired with spoken prayers or solo verses. Psalm 150 is short and repetitive—but it functions like a doxology after 149 other texts full of spiritual protein.

One challenge we face today is making good choices when so many songs are repetitive. Over time, congregations will be most satisfied and nourished with a balance of songs that are complex and simple, more linear and repetitive.

The critics in your congregation may still be on to something. Perhaps the problem is not any one repetitive song, but the use of too many of them.

Q I’ve been reading a lot about worship. Quite often I’ve run into the Latin phrase lex orandi lex credendi. What exactly does this mean?

—Massachussetts

A It means “the rule of prayer is the rule of belief.” The phrase has the force of suggesting that our worship and our doctrine are inextricably intertwined. Our worship both reflects and shapes our theological commitments. Our worship may speak as loudly about our ultimate beliefs about God as the creeds and confessions we hold dear—and probably influence more people. Every worship service conveys an implicit understanding about who God is and what God has done and is doing in the world. Prayer and belief can’t be teased apart.

Occasionally, this phrase is used in an even more narrow sense to suggest that our prayer or worship patterns actually ground our beliefs or doctrines, rather than the other way around. Reformed theologians have (rightly, I think) questioned this inference as a normative statement. Even so, it may still be descriptively true: more people drink in theological sensibilities from worship practices than from theology textbooks.

In any case, the phrase, which dates back well into the early church, calls for all theologians to pay attention to worship practices, and for all worship leaders to pay attention to the theological implications of everything they do. As such, this phrase is as prophetic in our time as it was 1,500 years ago.