I know, most of you are probably thinking of the game “Imagine If” right now, but, just stay with me a minute.
Think about your favourite worship song or hymn. Now, think about the arrangement or music style that you enjoy singing it in most (for example, one of my favorite hymns recently has been “There is a Fountain,” by 18th century hymn writer William Cowper, but I enjoy the arrangement by Enfield, available on their first Hymn Sessions album, released this year. I would describe the music style as a softer rock). Got that? Now…
Imagine that this arrangement didn’t exist. The words may be fantastic—theological, poetic, thought provoking—but the melody or tune is completely unpalatable, or has strange connotations (like, a continues I to V chord progression sometimes makes me think of Larry the Cucumber playing the Veggie Tales theme song on that horn-thing). Would it be appealing to you? Would this be one of your favourite hymns regardless?
There have been generational fights about music and worship style within the American congregations for generations now, most of it boiling down to pitting one person’s personal preference against another’s, or someone deciding to be stubborn just because they think they know best. There are now some good conversations concerning the value of using a variety of different music styles in worship, and evaluating which style is most appropriate for individual congregations depending on generational and cultural demographics. In a way, I think it’s a blessing that these conversations, even fights, happen, because it shows that we have a large heritage in Western song. Imagine now that we didn’t have this heritage. That we had no songs in our language declaring the Gospel to the lost, responding to God’s love demonstrated to us through the Gospel, or reminding us of our Gospel inheritance. How different would your life and community be?
Ponder that for just minute…Imagine that you had no worship songs in your language…pretty depressing, right?
I was able to witness something amazing this past week. I attended a songwriting workshop for believers with a Tibetan Buddhist background, and was privileged to be part of the audience to hear the first performance of a worship song in the Kagate language. The Kagate people are a small ethnic group (estimated to be about 2,000 total in number) in Nepal, mostly located in the Solokumbu and Dolakha districts (so, over by Mount Everest). They primarily follow Tibetan Buddhism, and being a significantly small minority group, have had parts of their traditional culture—such as music—suppressed or overwhelmed by surrounding cultures, like the Sherpa. After some of the discussions in the workshop about the value of utilizing traditional cultural music forms when writing worship music (both to encourage the local believers and reach out to unbelievers), the two Kagate brothers in attendance went home and wrote a song in one of their traditional idioms. They chose to base their song on Matthew 11:28 (portions of the scripture have been translated into the Kagate language). Their father, a very literate man who grew up in a Kagate village, helped them write the melody. They then sang it for us all the next day, to the accompaniment of a guitar (a bit of modernity thrown in there). The brothers admitted that they were fluent in speaking Kagate, but weren’t use to singing in it or using “scripture words” in their everyday speech. They apologized ahead of time if they stumbled over some of the words or messed up the melody. One of the brothers said he was too old to really be singing in public (he was probably in his early 40s), and felt a little shy, so requested that the audience show him grace. The audience was very receptive and excited about this new song!
This song was a good example of the work that many in the Lhomi congregation—a people group that spans Nepal and Tibet—have spearheaded in Nepal: redeeming local cultural forms, especially the arts, to glorify God. Those in the Lhomi congregation have found this to be effective both in encouraging believers to grow in their faith, and reaching out to non-believers, because its putting the Gospel in “local clothes” so to speak—presenting it in a form that is culturally familiar.
Attending this six-day workshop was quite the cultural experience for me. Though I grew up in Nepal, all my interaction has been with people of Hindu and urban background, and primarily from the dominant groups of Newar, Bahun and Chetri. These groups are all of Tibetan Buddhist background, and hailed from some of the minority people groups in the country: Tibetan, Lhomi, Sherpa and Kagate. All these languages were utilized during the seminars, and translated into Nepali as the common linguistic medium. I hung out with the Lhomi group during the actual songwriting sessions. Ninety percent of their communication was in Lhomi, with the random Nepali sentence, or translation into Nepali or English for my benefit so I wasn’t completely lost as to what they were doing!
Probably about half the people present considered themselves “musicians” (ie, they sang professionally or knew how to play an instrument), but tried their hand at songwriting anyway. The majority of people in the Lhomi group were women, so in between cooking meals, doing dishes, and making tea for everyone (there were about 30 people who attended in total) they joined the seminars and workshops, lending their laughter, lyrics and melody ideas to the songwriting process, and recording the day’s work on their mobile phones so they could review the new songs for future performances! All of them said that, while they “weren’t musicians,” they learned lots of new things about their musical heritage (there were two seminars on traditional Tibetan music), and about what the scripture says concerning the role of music and song in worship. In total, the Lhomi group produced six new songs for use in congregational worship—some more polished than others—and a few of the younger people present were interested in taking dramnyen lessons—the stringed instrument used to accompany singing in their churches, which many of them found easier to play than the guitar.
~ For unity in the Gospel within the Lhomi congregation, and that they would continue to spread the Gospel to other TB groups in culturally sensitive ways.
~ For the Kagate believers, as they begin to explore how they can utilize their cultural art forms in worship
~ For continued encouragement and fruit from the work done in this workshop