Who better to get your teaching and praxis from than Mark E. Smith? But he is known for his love of repetition. Indeed, he has a whole song about repetition in which he speaks about the the three Rs: repetition, repetition, repetition. He once insisted, clearly rightly, it’s not [just] repetition, it’s discipline.
All of that was in response to people insisting their music was a bit samey. A bit repetitive. The DJ John Peel said the Fall were always different yet, somehow, always the same. Individual songs are quite repetitive musically, but largely in a way that serves what they are doing. It wasn’t a bug or lack of imagination, it was a feature and one of their strengths as a band. They somehow managed to remain always the same even though the line up changed so frequently that Smith famously said, ‘if it’s me and yer granny on bongos, it’s the fall’.
When it comes to our teaching, many of us are a bit scared of repetition. We worry that people will get bored of the same old tunes, the same notes being sounded week after week. We often think that it is a problem if our sermons sound similar, like we are hammering the same truth every time. Maybe people will get sick of it. Maybe it’s all too repetitive.
But the truth is, we shouldn’t be scared of repetition. Hearing the gospel yet again in a sermon is not a problem with your preaching. It is, indeed, a key feature. It is, fundamentally, the gospel that people need to hear. Repeating it isn’t an issue – it is vital.
But beyond that, we can’t assume everyone hears everything we say the first time anyway. We have built into our weekly schedule some purposeful repetition. On Sunday’s we hear from whatever passage of scripture we are in. Midweek, in our home groups, we read that same passage again, we recap the main points again and we drill into the applications again. We take them further, but nonetheless, there are points that get repeated. It is not a bug, but a feature. We don’t assume everyone heard the first time. We don’t assume everyone retained it. We don’t assume everyone understood with perfect clarity. We repeat it so that it is more likely to stick.
It is not a failure of your teaching if people come up to you and insist they can restate what you have said because they have heard it already. That is not failure, that means you are doing it right. It means people have not only heard you, but have grasped what you are saying. And they’ve heard you say it enough times that they can now say it themselves. Repetition, they say, is the key to learning. Only when your people can credibly repeat things back to you can you realistically reckon they have got it.
Indeed, repetition is built into the scriptures. Deuteronomy is very clear on the need for the Israelites to keep repeating the law to each other and their families. Indeed, it keeps repeating that very instruction. And it is repeated elsewhere too. The Shema was to be repeated so that everyone remembered it. Various festivals were to be repeated, again and again, lest anyone forgets the key truths they exist to recall. The Lord sanctioned repetition as his means of making sure his people truly knew and understood what he had said.
In the same way, we shouldn’t be scared of repetition. Our weekly repetition of communion (or however regularly you do it) is not formulaic and boring, it is essential to remembering what it really matters for us to remember. The weekly sermon in which the gospel is held out again is purposefully restating the same truth, applying it in fresh ways to the congregation, so that they will remember its central importance. Revisiting key issues – particularly those pertinent to your church and context – is the best way to make sure your people truly grasp the reality of whatever it is they need to hear.
We should never be scared to repeat ourselves. Repeat, repeat, repeat and only relent when your people can so clearly tell you the truth you are teaching that they can repeat it to others. And if it looks like they’ve forgotten, go and repeat it some more. In the end, Mark E Smith is right. It isn’t repetition, it is discipline.