Voices from Abroad: Biblical Faithfulness and Cultural Sensitivity
Editor’s Note: We asked a handful of pastors around the world the following question: “You are familiar with American churches, yet you pastor in a non-American context. What has your present experience taught you about how to be biblically faithful yet culturally sensitive when it comes to selecting the songs that your church sings?” Their responses are below.
When it comes to selecting songs for church, one doesn’t need to choose between being biblically faithful and being culturally sensitive. Instead, the latter helps the former. With “biblically faithful” I am looking for songs that are true and clear. With “culturally sensitive” I am looking for songs that are singable and engaging for the congregation.
Biblical faithfulness takes priority, but we don’t have to choose between them. We are always choosing a musical language, whether consciously or intuitively. If part of the aim of singing is communication, should we not aim to choose a musical language that fits the cultural milieu of our church? We are naïve if we think cultural sensitivity is irrelevant, and we will be irrelevant if our songs are untrue or unclear.
During a recent sabbatical that my family and I enjoyed in America we had opportunity to visit several churches across the country. I appreciated that the churches we visited were thoughtful about song choice; not only were lyrics true but the music served to prepare people for and respond to the sermon.
Poor lyrics confuse and mislead people, and poorly considered musical style can build communication barriers. I am not sufficiently adept with American culture to know how successful each church was in communicating songs with the appropriate musical language, but my impression was that some churches clearly thought about this issue, others less so.
What I most appreciated was that even when the musical style seemed to be dictated by long-term tradition or hindered by a lack of skilled musicians, all the congregations we visited sang with conviction and joy, and we rejoiced with them. I may personally prefer to sing “And Can It Be” to indie-rock accompaniment, but when I heard a thousand voices singing the same hymn to a traditional piano accompaniment I was encouraged and wanted to sing. God’s people singing God’s truth trumps the limitations of our musicians and the foibles of church tradition.
I will always be a lover of the great English hymns. It’s a Christian legacy worth remembering here in South Africa. But in our many years here we have also enjoyed the rich heritage of biblically sound and singable African hymns and songs. Many African believers today, familiar only with the shallow contemporary Charismatic and prosperity gospel songs, are not even aware of their own Christian heritage of older hymns in Zulu and other native languages. Helping them rediscover these beloved and meaty songs can make an African congregation come alive in a way that Watts or Wesley may not.
I must also add that when Bob Kauflin was here last year, the African folks also loved his music and came alive. His leading is so encouraging and contagious (and expressive, like Africans), and his songs are so biblical and singable, that his music had a unifying effect in this very divided, post-apartheid country. The more communal African culture here also understands better how we can “sing to one another,” as Scripture says, ministering to one another in how we sing.
In training African pastors in various contexts, we urge them to find the most Scripture-saturated, God-centered, gospel-driven, edifying, and singable songs they can find, both old and new, and let them loose! In any culture, God’s people need songs that will teach them to live and to die for Christ.
I confess that I struggle with this one. Our congregation consists of people from sixty nationalities. So whose culture and musical forms do we choose? I’m convinced that the most important element of our songs is not the musical accompaniment, but the words being sung. So we sing the best songs that I’m aware of—written by people like Isaac Watts, William Cowper, Charles Wesley, Bob Kauflin, and Keith Getty. As for the musical accompaniment, we typically use the common arrangements, with some amount of acapella. If we can add a musical instrument that is more reflective of our demographic—say, a Pakistani tabla drum—then we try to incorporate it.
In all of our music, our goal is to enhance the congregational singing, not suppress it. We also aim for congregational participation, as opposed to an entertainment focus. By God’s grace, our congregation is singing better than ever. However, I am still not satisfied with the musical accompaniment we use (I feel it’s still too Western) and I’m looking for more indigenous forms of music (Arab, African, Indian) to go along with the solid lyrics we are singing.
Germans love U.S. music. This is reflected in many of our churches. It is not unusual that the majority of the songs during a Sunday church service will be in English, pretty much all being “contemporary worship music.”
The problem is that while most Germans do speak some English, some don’t, and many don’t understand everything. This means that we often claim to worship God without even knowing what we are singing to him.
In order to facilitate true worship in song, we are trying to encourage the writing of new, biblically faithful German songs, the translation of solid English songs (a good number of Getty and Townsend and Sovereign Grace songs have recently been translated), and the re-introduction of some old German hymns, sometimes set to a contemporary tune.
Germany has a rich treasury of wonderful hymns written by Martin Luther, Paul Gerhardt, and others, many of which have been translated into English. The one great challenge is to teach Germans to pay attention to the words. Sadly, some American contemporary worship songs have led many Christians away from true worship, and our churches have adopted these songs without even realizing this. So the greatest challenge is not the difference in culture, but gleaning the good from the U.S. while rejecting the bad, and then translating it into the heart language of our people.
I pastor a multicultural church with people from the Asia-Pacific, the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas in Sydney. The songs we sing are a mix of old and new, reminding us of God’s redemptive work throughout history. And they also hail from as many different cultures as possible, reminding us of the global reach of the gospel.
As Australia is a cultural melting pot, an ideal scenario would be for us to sing a breadth of songs reflecting the nation’s cultural diversity. However, it’s hard to escape the dominant historical connection Australia has to the UK and American Christian culture. Therefore, many songs we sing originate from these countries. (The CCLI top 100 Christian songs from the UK, USA, and Australia are very similar). It’s also difficult to source songs from other cultures as they may have not had the same rich heritage as the UK or USA in songwriting.
Nevertheless, we deliberately select as much from Australian composers as we can to remind the congregation of God’s saving work in our own country. We also encourage those in our own congregation with gifts in musical composition to help express universal truths about God in a culturally relevant way.
The repertoire of theologically solid, contextually relevant songs in Hindi is very small. Most songs that have good theology have been translated from older Western hymns or contemporary worship songs. So although the words might be faithful, the music is not indigenous and the local people find them difficult to sing. Also, such songs only confirm people’s suspicion that Christianity is a Western religion.
On the other hand, Hindi songs that are musically contextualized are often light on theology, repetitive, and devoid of Scripture. Sometimes songs pick up tunes that are currently used in the temples; many new believers find these tunes very unhelpful. In our church we try to avoid both these kinds of songs.
Therefore the first thing that I look at when choosing songs is its doctrinal soundness. If a song is theologically unsound, then we won’t sing it, however contextualized it might be. And if the words are good but the tune is not Indian then we will not sing it either.
So we choose songs with Indian tunes and faithful words. Granted, there are not many songs that fall in this category. But we are slowly building our repertoire.