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Unwrapping the Gift of Music from Other Cultures

Have you noticed all the clues that God loves diversity? Iona Community members can help you introduce music that reflects the gifts of Christians from "every tribe and language and people and nation."

Alison Adam will never forget it. The former elementary school teacher from Glasgow, Scotland, had gone to the small, windswept island of Iona for a week-long youth work course.

"There was to be a singing practice in the Abbey church. A group of Iona Community members came straight from the football pitch, still all muddy, with their trainers on. They made no division between the sacred and the secular.

"And then they asked me to read a piece in worship. That was very powerful. I hadn't been asked to participate in worship since I was in elementary school," she says.

The ecumenical Iona Community, where Alison Adam first heard people connect their faith with the real world-nuclear war, apartheid, how animals are farmed-changed her life.

"The liturgy and music we shared was fresh and relevant, something I had never experienced. I came from a boring Presbyterian church. Through Iona I discovered the vitalness of faith that looks out, not just inward. I discovered I could be a Christian and be myself-rather than trying to be some bland good person," Adam says.

John Bell, ordained in the Church of Scotland, helped lead the youth work course that week. Over the next years, while planning and leading worship with and for young people, both Adam and Bell noticed that songs from other cultures resonated profoundly with biblically illiterate and unchurched youth. Both eventually moved from youth work to leading worship and music workshops in the United Kingdom and abroad.

God calls us to diversity—not uniformity or conformity

In March 2004, Bell lectured on "the integrity of diversity" at both Western Theological Seminary and Calvin Theological Seminary, plunging from the "Amen" of his opening prayer into leading a melodious multi-part "Amen."

Bell reminded listeners that God gave a rainbow, not a "gray bow," as his sign for how he would deal with humanity and the church. He chose twelve tribes that weren't the same numerically or in temperament. Christ called twelve disciples so different that he had to tell them to love one another. The Holy Spirit inspired a Bible with varied literary genres, a book so complex that nondenominational, Presbyterian, and Episcopal churches all find roots for their church governance in the New Testament.

"All this intentional diversity is the soil through which God's church will be born. So we should expect that there will be diversity in the way we express ourselves through music in the church.

"Different songs will speak to different people at different times. Music in God's house will at times speak to us in ways we like and at times not relate so well. Within the church we have to develop a tolerance so that, over time, everyone is nourished," Bell said.

He peppered his lecture with participatory songs from Sing! A New Creation, a supplemental hymnal that includes 19 songs that he arranged and dozens more that he gathered from around the world.

"In the 21st century, God has made it clear that our primary identity as a church is not to be local, denominational, or national. We must see ourselves as a global church," Bell said. If the Western church doesn't prove itself to be in communion with pains suffered by Christians in Ghana, Peru, Taiwan, and Korea, then it will be overly comfortable and miss the enrichment God offers, he added.

Global music offers three gifts

Bell, in his March 2004 lectures, and Adam, in her sessions at the January 2004 Calvin Symposium on Worship, described three gifts that Western Christians receive from Christians in other cultures.

First, global songs join worshippers as a singing community, instead of dividing them into performers (or worship leaders) and audiences.

"In the U.K., they don't focus on congregational songs. People haven't been encouraged to think that singing is something special. In my workshops, I introduce people to a new musical repertoire. I hope they have a really positive experience of singing together-and get convinced that they really can sing and do something good.

"If you don't think you are a 'singer,' then to experience the sound a group of you make in harmony is mind-blowing," Adam says. She likes how four-part songs from other cultures are so often easy to sing, yet sound fantastic. We have so much to learn from cultures that do naturally what we had turned into 'art.'"

Second, Christians from other cultures create music that invites people to experience the gift of healing. This global repertoire expresses a whole range of emotions, not just praise to God for granting individual salvation.

"So Much Wrong," a Palestinian song translated by Jeffrey T. Myers and paraphrased by John Bell, begins: "So much wrong and so much injustice, so you shouldered a wooden cross. Now like you, my best dreams are shattered; all I know is the weight of loss." Its chorus asks, "My beloved, my beloved, tell me where can you be found?"

Other global Christian songs are almost impossible to listen to without swaying, tapping your feet, clapping your hands-or feeling tearful. "A lot of worship is cerebral. So I make a plea for worship that engages head, heart, body, and spirit. I'm not into dumbing down. I'm into being more participative. Communion is an example of taste, touch, smell, hearing, and speaking all coming together," Adam says.

Finally, songs from Christians around the world often have lively rhythms, interesting harmonies, and easy-to-remember words-all good reasons why they appeal to young people. That many such songs are best accompanied by drum makes them even more engaging, Bell explains.

Adam says the appeal extends "from ages 3 to 93." She teaches new and global music in schools, churches, prisons, and fields.

She particularly recalls some schoolgirls "from a very rough area," who attended camp on Iona.  Unruly, some from wrenching backgrounds, these girls weren't keen to attend evening worship.

One night in the common room, Adam started singing with them. "We started lively, but as the evening darkened and we lit candles, the mood changed. Gentle chants filled the room. The peace and stillness were remarkable amidst that chaotic week! There was a power there that I have not forgotten, nor will they. It was prayer."

Adam followed up with the campers at their school. "Three of the most challenging women came back to youth weeks on Iona. Singing global music put them in touch with something they had not experienced before-either within themselves or at any church," she says.

Learn More

Read John Bell's five tips for honoring the integrity of diversity in church music, browse the list of his compositions, or read about him in C. Michael Hawn's book, Gather into One: Praying and Singing Globally.

Book Alison Adam (through GIA) for a retreat or workshop on global music, prayers, and other resources that will energize and deepen your congregation's singing and worship.

Listen to Wild Goose Worship Group music samples. Find and buy Iona publications-or browse them in our Ministry Resource Center. Please honor the permission policy for Iona music and worship resources.

Arrange a visit to the Iona community's island centres and worship nightly in the medieval Abbey church.

Delve into the joys and challenges of becoming a musically cross-cultural community. Read "Together in song: an ecumenical si(g)n?", a long but fascinating article about an ecumenical hymnbook published in Australia.

Start a Discussion

  • Which instruments, song genres, or cultural traditions shape your congregation's music?
  • What strengths or benefits do you receive through these choices?
  • What global gifts do you miss out on? How and why might you broaden your musical repertoire?
  • What obstacles or discomfort would you have to work through to introduce new instruments, song genres, or cultural traditions?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you've found to learn from Christians from other cultures?

  • Talk with people who've come to your church from other nations or traditions about what attracts them to your worship and what they miss about their former church's worship.
  • Ask these members or regular attenders for ideas to include their languages in music, church banners, prayers, and liturgies.
  • Invite a choir or instrumentalist from another culture to share music in your worship service, and ask them to explain what these songs or instruments mean for their faith.
  • Teach a new song to a church school class or youth group-and have them teach it to the congregation.
  • Pass out simple percussion instruments-or encourage people to shake their car keys-so that anyone who wants to can provide rhythmic accompaniment.