This is the first blog post in a series of three concerning Nepali Christian worship forms, traditions, and resources that revolve around song. When I was writing my MA thesis, I realized that I forgot to ask the "obvious" questions, some of which are listed below (having grown up in the Nepali Church, I did not think to ask these while conducting MA research because it would be like a fish noticing for the first time that he's in water!). I've been asking these obvious questions to number of church leaders (when I'm not out in Dang chasing down information on Tharu repertoire) and I've compiled some of their answers below. I hope this is informative for people who are in and out of the Nepali Church alike.
Nepali church services have certain expected characteristics: people leave their shoes outside the door, sit on the floor, and men and women (usually) sit on separate sides. Women cover their heads during prayer. Prayer time is characterized by everyone praying out loud and together. And an inordinate amount of time is spent singing songs (to the expense of the sermon, in some people’s opinions).
But how did these forms come about? Why are they important to Nepali Christians now? Or is this just the imitative form that people now use? Below, I’ve put together a small quiz, based on my research questions. See how much you know about Nepali Christian worship forms before reading the answers!
- Why do Nepali churches meet on Saturday instead of Sunday?
- They’re all Seventh Day Adventists
- Saturday is the weekly government holiday, so its just easier to meet on Saturday
- Both A and B
- Why does everyone sit on the floor (as opposed to pews or chairs) during church services?
- Nepalis hate chairs
- Its just more natural
- The Nepali government imposes a high import tax on wooden pews
- Why do men and women sit separately during Nepali church services?
- Its culturally appropriate in South Asia
- It’s a Scottish Presbyterian thing that has carried over into church practices today
- Both A and B
- What is stuti prashansha?
- Solemn times of prayer where everyone takes turns praying out loud
- Rambunctious charismatic expressions that involves singing, clapping, shouting, crying, and generally making a “joyful noise unto the Lord”?
- A time where worshippers are to praise God for who He is, not bring their own problems and prayer requests to Him
- B and C only
- True or false: stuti prashansha has always been a defining characteristic of Nepali Christian worship.
- Why do women cover their heads during prayer, and during stuti prashansha?
- Its culturally appropriate in South Asia
- Nepali Christians take the Apostle Paul’s instructions concerning women covering their heads very seriously
- Both A and B
Here are the answers:
- B. Saturday is the weekly government holiday, so it’s just easier to meet on Saturday. According to Rajendra Rongong, one of the founding members of Gyaneshwar Church and pastor of the Dhobighat branch, they did originally have their weekly meetings on early Sunday morning, at about 8AM. However, it was difficult to get off work, or go to church then go to work. They started scheduling sacraments, like the Lord’s Supper, on Saturdays when more people could attend, and they finally floated the idea to have the main church services on Saturdays by NCF (Nepal Church Fellowship) in 1960, and the idea stuck. So Nepali churches have services on Saturdays instead of Sundays because of practical reasons, not theological reasons. However, many Nepali churches have begun to hold English language services on Sundays.
- B. Its just more natural. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that Nepalis hate chairs—the ubiquitous plastic chair is evidence that, yes, Nepalis do occasionally prefer a chair—however, for long periods of time, sitting on the floor is generally preferred. The Nepali churches in Kalimpong and other areas of Darjeeling have wooden pews, so sitting on the floor was not a carry over from Nepali church practice in India. According to Rongong, one thing they decided upon coming to Nepal was to practice the local culture, so they observed how people entered their places of worship—their temples—and they would follow suite. They found that they took off their shoes (and there are practical reasons too), and sat on floors, they decided to do that too (additionally, leaving shoes outside the door to keep the floor cleaner is also a habit seen in houses and offices, and generally people sit on the floor on mats in more rural areas as well). On a more amusing note: Loknath Manaen—who headed the Nepal Bible Society from 1977 to 1994, and was also co-editor and publisher of the original Khristiya Bhajan—recalled that, when he moved to Nepal from Darjeeling in the 1970s, one of the Nepali leaders who came to his new office was amazed to find tables and chairs present!
- C. Both A and B. According to Karthak, Rongong and Manaen, in Kalimpong and Darjeeling everyone sat in pews in the Presbyterian churches. However, men and women did sit on separate sides. This will require a little more research on my part, but it seems that the Church of Scotland historically had men and women sit on separate sides. I have to remember that this was the norm in some early North American churches as well. Additionally, it may just be a Hindu cultural thing to separate the sexes. When they moved to Nepal, Karthak and others felt that continuing to separate the sexes was a good thing because it was just more awkward to have men and women sitting together on the floor.
However, within South Asian society, men and women tend to separate in public, and the default is to do things along the lines of separating the sexes. There is noticeably more mixing now than when my family was here in the 1990s—men and women will go on motorcycles together, for example, or guys and girls will walk home from school or work together (and even hold hands in public!)—but this has not always been the norm. Rongong related a funny story: when his family moved from Darjeeling to Kathmandu, their new neighbors were high caste and highly educated Brahmins. Once, when Rongong and his wife went out shopping, the Brahmin women starred at them and exclaimed, “ah mai ni!—look at the husband and wife walking together!” Rongong commented that usually, at that time in Nepal the wife would not go with the husband at all; and even if she did go, she walked behind the husband (this is something I distinctly remember seeing growing up in Nepal during the 1990s as well). Rongong also commented that there was even a time in Nepali churches when men were hesitant to lay hands on women when praying for them. Now that has changed.
Still, there are times where people seem to default to gender separation. When I attend the English language service at Putalisadak, even though everyone sits in plastic chairs, invariably the men (usually from the theological college) will sit on the left side, and the women who attend will sit on the right.
- D. B and C only. Robert Karthak described stuti prashansha (literally “praise and adoration” though more commonly referred to as “praise and worship” in English by Nepali Christians) as a time where people speak in tongues, cry, fall down as if felled, jump around, cry out, and generally have expressions of “free worship.” While these outward forms exist, the expressed objective of this time as verbalized in my Nepali church, and as I’ve heard verbalized in other church services, is that this is a time to praise God for Who He Is, and thank Him for what He has done—not to bring requests or problems and the like to Him; leave that for another time.
Interestingly, during this time in my own church, the choruses sung are generally English language choruses (translated into Nepali and present in the Khristiya Bhajan) from the 1980s and 1990s (many of these were translated by Samuel Karthak for use in Gyaneshwar churches and because they become so popular, they were included in newer editions of the Khristiya Bhajan during the 1990s). I don’t know the year or writers of most of these songs, but some of the more popular ones in my church “From the Rising of the Sun,” “Jesus, Your Name is Like Honey,” “Hosanna, Hosanna in the Highest”, “My Strength is in You,” and we always end with “Come Let Us Worship and Bow Down” (written by Dave Doherty, 1980—according to the women on my church’s worship team, because it has the words “ghuDaa Tekau” or “to bend the knee” people know to kneel and that they’re ending stuti prashansha). All these songs fit the objective of adoration.
- False. Here’s how Robert Karthak, the founding pastor of Gyaneshwar Church, explained it to me: the founding members of Gyaneshwar all came originally from Kalimpong, in Darjeeling, where they had been raised in the Scottish Presbyterian Church. Their worship forms were very formal—lots of prayer, and while singing bhajans was done, people did so sitting down. Generally, more expressive forms of worship were dubbed “Pentecostal” and not encouraged. In fact, the MacFarlane Memorial Church in Kalimpong—where the first Nepali conversions happened in schools established by the Scottish Presbyterians—split during the 1930s when Pentecostal preachers came to the area from India, and a Pentecostal church came out of it (this will be an area of further research; right now I’m just going off of interviews and how Karthak remembers these things). Hence, in general, there was a bad feeling towards charismatic forms of worship.
However, in 1966, Karthak recounted that during a prayer meeting held at Green Pastures Hospital in Pokhara, with doctors, nurses, missionaries and patients in attendance, the Holy Spirit was poured out on the gathering, and for the first time in Nepal, speaking in tongues, crying, falling as if felled, occurred during a worship time. It spread to churches from there. Karthak didn’t make it clear who was at this meeting, but he did say that when they experienced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, they had a different and new experience of freedom. He points to this meeting as the genesis of this charismatic form of worship in Nepali churches. This is an area where I need to ask more questions.
However, other leaders I have talked to feel that this is just a spread of a worship form—while Gyaneshwar might be self-proclaimed “charismatic” and have a doctrinal foundation for this form of worship, other Nepali churches see Gyaneshwar as the model for church in Nepal and merely imitate the forms that they see and experience there. From the numerous churches I’ve attended, both in and out of Kathmandu, I can say that “stuti prashansha” is a characteristic of the Nepali Church in general, whether denominational, non-denominational, or self-proclaimed charismatic or not. When I interviewed the senior pastor at Patan Church—which was originally a branch church of Gyaneshwar—he emphasized that the church is not charismatic (while Gyaneshwar, however, is); however, in my experience their church services are no less serious or reserved than the Gyaneshwar services I have attended. Other leaders I have talked to attribute these charismatic forms to foreign Christian influence and teaching, not originating in Nepal—one informant markedly remembers a visiting pastor of European origin chastising the Nepali worshippers for sitting down while singing instead of standing up! During the 1990s, I do remember several inter-church fellowships where speaking in tongues and the like were discussed, and it has been a debated subject in Nepali churches in general.
I think its fair to say that all of the above is true to some degree. Karthak went on in the interview to attach this outpouring of the Holy Spirit with the humanly unexplainable exponential growth of the Nepali church under persecution during the Panchayat era. He marked the 1970s as an especially hard era with only approximately 15,000 believers in the whole country; but when 1980 came with additional outpouring of the Holy Spirit, within sixteen years the numbers grown to 185,000 believers, so by 1996, he estimates that there were 200,000 believers in the country. Since that time till today, he estimates that the church has grown at least four times over, but with a possible number of up to 1.5 million.
The numbers are hard to gauge—according to Rongong, the 2011 census numbers are botched and do not reflect the actual number of Christians in the country, because the government does not want to admit that the numbers are that high—it would mean that there are more Christians than Muslims in Nepal (Muslims also being the antithesis of the Hindu state, see Sijapati year here for more details). However, bad census taking also has an effect. One former Fulbright scholar recalls that, when the census taker came to a particular remote hill village in which she was conducting research, he simply went to the village headman and got all the baseline information from him instead of going house-to-house to collect information like he should have. Census takers also assume that a person’s religion is Hindu. One of the church leaders I talked to in Tikapur told me that the census taker simply ticked the “Hindu” box on the paper without asking him what his religion was; this church leader then went on to grossly rebuke the census taker for not doing his job right! As in the case of many, one of my friend’s fathers does not know that she has taken baptism, so when the census taker would have come to her house, and spoken to the father about the composition of his family, all of them would have been recorded as Hindu.
All this to say, while the origins, doctrine, and form of stuti prashansha are rather muddy and debated, the way people attach it to the numerical growth of the church in Nepal, and that fact that it can be found in almost any Nepali church, is significant.
- C. Both A and B. Rongong commented that a woman covering her head is part of South Asian culture. He commented that, in older Hindu culture, when a woman is talking to her father-in-law or brother-in-laws, she has to cover her head; this can cause embarrassment when she is caught unawares. He also pointed out that many female prime ministers in South Asia will cover their heads when publically speaking. Concerning the Nepali Church though, he commented that this teaching seems to go woman-to-woman—he has never preached on it himself at his church—and that the conviction of the Holy Spirit makes a difference; otherwise, it’s a mere ritual. When I talked to women in my own church, they appealed to both the 1 Corinthians 11 passage, as well as the fact that it’s a mark of respect in their own culture.
While it is culturally appropriate in South Asia, and the doctrinal admonitions in 1 Corinthians 11 are taken seriously by some Nepali Christians, two of my interviewees told me about a historical incident that happened in the mission church in Kalimpong. In 1947, there was a split in the mission church as a result of preachers of El Shaddai coming from India. A revival of sorts happened in the church—while there were new converts who were baptized, many people had been “born Christian,” taking infant baptism, identifying as Christian but carrying on with their lives without the mark of the Holy Spirit’s power or transformation. An El Shaddai preacher named Jordan Khan came to Kalimpong from mainland India, and from his preaching there were a number of people who were convinced that they were all sinners and had to confess Christ and be born again—Robert Karthak was one of many who were baptized again, and in his interview, he did mention this as a turning point in his own life. However, because El Shaddai was in strong opposition to what was called the mission church, a number of people left the mission church and became members of El Shaddai. Those remaining in the mission church, while perhaps agreeing with some of El Shaddai’s doctrine, did not want to be associated with them, so avoided outward forms associated with El Shaddai. This included women covering their heads (apparently, El Shaddai women cover their heads, do not wear jewelry or ornaments, or speak in church services). Loknath, who only moved to Nepal in the late 1970s, still remembers in the 1970s and 1980s, there was no practice of covering the head in the Darjeeling churches.