By Johnnie Godwin
Contributing Columnist, B&R
Beloved Courtney Wilson became my first Tennessee pastor 44 years ago. He died last week. Courtney never did preach long; but toward the last, his messages were even briefer in the “Memory Care” unit where he held forth. With his vast memory and recall greatly reduced, Courtney was still able to hold up a figure of an angel that would say, “I love you.” Then he would say, “I’m going to quote my favorite Bible verse: John 3:16. “For God so loved the world … .” After that, he would offer a few devotional thoughts.
One of Courtney’s daughters shared this with me. She was at one of those devotions when a woman with “repetitive” dementia was listening. When Courtney finished quoting John 3:16, that woman started quoting it over and over and over again. Finally, gentle Courtney said, “Ma’am, you need to be quiet! I’m having devotions.” Even the world’s greatest truth repeated to annoyance in repetition calls for a period and moving on with its meaning.
What the Bible says about empty repetition. Jesus said, “When you pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking” (Matthew 6:7). Recently at a graduation, I heard a prayer that was longer than the Sermon on the Mount or the Gettysburg Address. He really wasn’t repetitive, though. Still, I’m guilty of wanting brevity; so I whispered to Phyllis, “That was a pretty good commencement address.” We need to avoid long-windedness, and we need to obey what Jesus said about empty repetition in our prayers.
In Philippi, a spirit-possessed-girl followed Paul and company daily on their way to prayers. And every day for many days this young fortune-teller aggravated Paul greatly by saying aloud, “These men, who are proclaiming to you the way of salvation, are the slaves of the Most High God” (Acts 16:16-17, HCSB). Though she spoke the truth, Paul got so fed up with it that he turned and said to the spirit in her, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her” (Acts 16:18, HCSB). And the offending spirit did come out; but Paul was arrested and sent to jail.
In Matthew 12:36, Jesus said, “Every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.” Other translations refer to “careless” words or nonworking words. More simply, avoid wasting words. Speak with purpose and to the point in sharing the gospel.
Interlude: a good word for repetition. I would be remiss if I failed to point out that repetition is a key factor in principles of learning. Repetition grooves our minds in new skills we learn. Repetition helps athletes groove their performances toward excellence. Pianists and other skill-learning students have to discipline themselves with great focus and repetition to become class acts and reach the peak of their chosen fields. A caveat, though, would point out that practice does not make perfect; rather, the right kind of practice makes perfect.
Of course, storytelling and the rituals of recounting heritage and history and family things requires repetition. Even the Jewish people kept their faith and practice alive by repeating truths as a family and from generation to generation (e.g. Deuteronomy 6:4-9). Repetition has its place, but that place is not a boring verbosity or aggravating and annoying droning on. Not even God likes empty repetition or wrongly motivated repetition.
Using common sense and dealing with repetition. We’re living in a spastic society that tends to have a short attention span. That’s a reality. That fact speaks to commonsense in how to go about effective and optimum communication and performance today. Let’s focus on worship. No one but God knows how long a preacher’s sermon ought to be. But there are some clues any preacher would be wise to consider. If a preacher pays attention to glazed-over eyes or people who seem paralyzed because they are numb at both ends, it might be a good conclusion to end the sermon. Praise songs get bad press from a lot of quarters — and not just the older folks. But criteria for good Christian music are the same — under God — for every age and stage. So, new songs or hymns may be as good or better than some from the past. But when seemingly endless repetition occurs, people get tired of standing and seemingly don’t pay much attention to the words. Have a beginning and an ending. The length of the service, sermon, or song isn’t the point. Rather, the point is that empty repetition, nonworking repetition gets diminishing return.
Considering both sides of the pulpit. When I was in my first pastorate as a Baylor ministerial student, I invited fine friend Jim Ward to be evangelist for our revival. The little mission church was near a government project where we lived — not a desirable location. But Jim stood with open Bible in hand and preached the gospel on a hot summer night. A drunk staggered in the door and sat at a pew near the back. Then upon every utterance from evangelist Jim’s mouth, the drunk would say, “Amen!” Finally, gentle Jim, who loved all God’s creation and wanted everyone saved, had gotten as aggravated as Paul did that time. So, Jim paused and said, “Sir, I wish you wouldn’t do that.” The guy may not have gotten saved, but he did get quiet. Get the picture of the apostle Paul and evangelist Jim both speaking God’s divine Word. Now, reflect on how both of them had to put the quietus on two people who affirmed the truth but repeated it so much that it drove the speakers bonkers.
Common sense today seems to call for listening to the Holy Spirit, observing the people, and learning how to be most effective with both length and repetition of gospel content. In the meantime, perhaps worship leaders might forgive the pew side for thinking “Stop the sermon!” or “Stop the music and let us sit down!” I better quit lest I become even more guilty myself.
— Copyright 2014 by Johnnie C. Godwin. Write the author: firstname.lastname@example.org.