This month, the Worship Exposed team seeks to shine a light on the topic of Intercultural Worship. If you haven’t done so already, check out the past post for this series:
The week, we are excited to welcome our friend, Dr. Morehouse to the Intercultural Worship series! Dr. Morehouse is a professor at Liberty University within the field of Multi-Ethnic Music Studies. We believe Dr. Morehouse offers incredible insight and wisdom within this specific topic, so please come with open minds and hearts as you read this discussion post. This discussion covered over the course two days, so be sure to check out part two on Monday!
Coming from the global standpoint of ethnomusicology (the study of music and its relationship to culture), scholars often focus on world music, looking at the beauty of all of its diverse cultural expressions. When we apply this discipline to worship, in the specialization of ethnodoxology, we find unique styles of music from all over the world that declare God’s greatness—songs sung in the heart-musics (locally sourced music) of Christ followers worldwide. My job is helping students and churches from around the world recognize the need for localized worship. I help train musicians and worship leaders to facilitate new localized heart-songs with the ultimate goal of seeing every nation, tribe, and tongue singing their own songs to the Lord. The beautiful thing that I see emerging in students’ work and in worship trends worldwide is that we continue to find ourselves face to face with unimaginable realities and possibilities for global worship communities—to locate ourselves and our churches as a diverse, yet unified, whole body and bride of Christ.
One of the issues that I think will be a continuous point of holy tension for us in the 21st century is how we integrate and engage the local and the global in our churches. For centuries, western hymns have been exported to the world through missionary efforts, and for decades, the globalized Christian music industry has played a tremendous role in the predominantly English CCM/gospel/worship music being spread throughout the world via mass media. These “foreign” songs have been translated and utilized in local churches around the world, sometimes with quite amusing results, like the story one Liberty professor, John Benham, shares about “Hide me, oh my Savior, hide me” being translated mistakenly to “Skin me, oh my Savior, Skin me.” Friends of mine in Guinea, West Africa, told me that they sing translated western hymns in church because it’s tradition, even though the words don’t really make sense to them, the songs still have historical meaning. What if this was your experience of worship on Sunday morning?
It’s true that using “globalized,” English-sourced worship, where we are singing the same songs, but in different languages, can lead to an apparent unification of the body of Christ through shared musical efforts and a feeling that we are quite literally sometimes “on the same page,” singing the same song. On the other hand, an overemphasis on English-sourced worship can make God seem foreign, can undermine local worship efforts, and can even portray Christ as irrelevant to local culture. Furthermore, it exacerbates power differentials that exist inside the media/money driven worship industry. What we need to be looking for is a solution that allows us to share worship songs cross-culturally, through local community relationships and partnerships between ethnic churches, between neighbors and friends, and between people around the world.
Over the last several years, there has been a trend toward global diversity in the worship repertoire of English-Speaking churches, with wonderful books being published on culturally diverse worship by worship leaders Sandra Van Opstal, Steven Newby, Josh Davis and Nikki Lerner, among others. It seems like the Holy Spirit is moving us as English-speaking worshippers into new places where we need to be challenging ourselves to worship in other languages and musical styles. At first this might seem trivial—
After all, if God truly cares more about the “heart” of worship, the motivation behind it, than any sort of style or language, then why might He be calling the English-speaking world to practice a more “global” worship? Why would he even care about the diversity of musical style and language in our worship?
TO TEACH US AN INCARNATIONAL APPROACH TO WORSHIP
I want to focus here on how God went about creating real relationship with us. Where he had communicated His love through the Word of the Law in the Old Testament (in addition to other miraculous events, provision, judgment, and mercy), He ultimately reached us in terms of connecting with us relationally by becoming the Word incarnate (literally into flesh)…He sent His Son to become flesh and live among us.
John 1:14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (ESV)
In the verse above, the original Greek word for “dwell” is eskēnōsen, literally meaning to pitch a tent! He pitched his tent, decided to camp out and stay for a while and live among us, learning our language, culture, and what it was like to live in our skin, in our flesh.
The Message translation puts it this way…
The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, generous inside and out, true from start to finish.
In worship, the “skin” is the musical style—which is simultaneously the least important aspect and the most important aspect of our worship. It is least important because God is looking at the heart of the worshipper, not the “skin” (the way it looks or sounds), but it is also very important because musical style is the package that worship is wrapped in, giving off the first impression of the local and global church, and expressing sonically what our hearts are trying to communicate spiritually.
So what is incarnational worship? It is when God gives us opportunities to step into other musical “skins” and allow the heart of true worship to shine out of an-“other” context. This might resonate with you in a call to contextualizing worship in your local church, but let’s keep thinking globally for a minute here…
Think of how it would change world missions if every short term, let alone long term, team learned to worship in the local musical language of the people they were going to minister to before they even left home. Though there is obviously nothing inherently wrong with non-English speakers learning English-sourced worship songs, there is another question that can be asked…What if learning “others’” songs of worship was actually a truer version of ministry and outreach (by giving voice to the sometimes voiceless and marginalized of the world) rather than simply bringing our own music to them? Wouldn’t learning their music encourage the local worship community and strengthen the broader body of Christ?
Now…imagine bringing those songs home with you after a missions trip and singing them at your church, adopting them into your church’s repertoire? What about connecting online to worship together or sending your partnering church overseas a video showing your congregation singing one of their songs? How loved would this make them feel that you have cared enough about them to learn to worship with them, to sing their heart-song to our God.
Here’s an example of how this looks…We had a group of students at Liberty return from a trip to East Asia where they helped a new songwriter document a set of worship songs he had composed. One day, after they made the effort to learn his songs, they sang his songs back to Him. He cried saying, “never before have I heard people sing praise to God in my own language…Now my people have a voice before God.” Knowing that these students had made the effort to sing to God in His language was an immeasurable gift to Him. By putting themselves in the position of learners, an act of humility, they were able to show love to this man by showing his voice to be important.
One of my favorite quotes comes from a video called “The Canaan Hymns,” where one Chinese Christian is talking about Chinese worship songs:
When I sing hymns translated from other languages, I feel like I am walking into the kingdom of God. Now [through the Chinese-sourced worship songs] it’s like God walks into our hearts and encourages us.
There’s a difference in our walking into the kingdom of God and Him walking into our hearts, isn’t there? So…just as Jesus came to us incarnate and camped out with us, we want to pitch our tents with and form relationships with “others” so we can worship incarnationally. When we care enough to join “others” in worship, encouraging their local songs of worship to God, instead of expecting them to join us, we utilize their languages and musical expressions so that we can show them the love of a Savior who is incarnational…and we become incarnational worshippers.
Dr. Katherine Morehouse, B.A., M.A., Ph.D.
Chair, Department of Multi-Ethnic Music Studies
Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology
Recommended Track of the Week: "King of Heaven" by Hillsong United
DISCLAIMER: Discussions written by guest writers are completely based on the guest's view and not necessarily Worship Exposed's. However, Worship Exposed is extremely selective when choosing individuals for the discussion page. We strive to only feature those that we believe are prominent and respected leaders within the Christian ministry field. We seek out excellence that will honor and glorify the Lord.