Discover more from Contents and Containers
"All things must be done for edification." One perspective on using non-English language songs in worship.
Our Sunday meeting team leaders often talk about how or when to "use" non-English language songs. In a recent discussion about the issue, I asked one of our leaders, Andrew Yang, to offer his thoughts. I appreciated his perspective so much, I asked him to "blogify" it. -- Jonny
My guiding principle is that, generally speaking, worship should arise organically out of the cultural context of the people worshipping. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 4:26, “Whenever you come together, each one has a psalm, a teaching, a revelation, another language, or an interpretation. All things must be done for edification.” As Paul tells the Corinthian church, the purpose of worship is to build up the Church, and the elements of those worship come from the participants themselves (Paul describes elsewhere in the chapter that while the purpose of worship is the edification of the Church, but it shouldn’t alienate newcomers. The liturgy shouldn’t become an insular artistic expression of its members).
As I approach it practically, the elements of a liturgy should be those that members of the congregation have written, or that members of the congregation bring from their cultural experiences. If the members of the congregation have the experience of singing hymns, or gospel songs, or CCM, we sing those songs. If we have dancers, then they help us bring dance. If we have non-English speakers, they bring that language, and so on.
As a church, we have a diversity of cultural experiences and artistic expressions, and that diversity should be expressed in the liturgies. It’s therefore the job of the liturgist to make sure that they’re familiar with what cultural expressions exist in the church and its context, locally and globally, in addition to understanding themselves so that they don’t impose their own cultural aesthetic on everyone on a week to week basis at the expense of all others.
So where does that leave non-English songs?
The danger of singing a non-English song is the issue of cultural appropriation. I don’t like that term very much, since it’s got a kind of buzz-wordy feel to it, so I prefer the word “theft.” When we’re asking whether something is theft, we ask whether the person doing the taking has any right to the thing being taken. In terms of taking a song or cultural expression in a liturgy, I think the liturgist needs to ask themselves the same question: “What right do I have to this cultural expression? Is it mine to use, or do I need permission?”
Permission can be a nebulous term. Sometimes, it can be literal permission – if the liturgist is planning on singing a song from a different culture, they can literally ask someone from that culture whether, or how, to sing the song. Sometimes permission is less literal, and we have to use our best judgement while asking the same question, “What right do I have to use this cultural expression?” Someone who’s immersed in the culture, but who isn’t a member of it, might have more of a right to sing the song than someone who just watched a YouTube video of it. Someone who watched a YouTube video and worked on the pronunciation might have more of a right than someone who decided to just read the words off of a page with no regard to the language. I’m deliberately avoiding stating how much of a “right” someone needs to have to an expressive element before it becomes OK to use. Questions about exploitation are never simple, and I’m not interested in formulating a rule.
I understand that there are benefits for a pre-dominantly white congregation in singing a song or use an element from another culture to which we have no personal connection. We often say that the purpose is to remind ourselves that Jesus is trans-cultural. I’m not saying this benefit isn’t real. I am saying that stealing is wrong. Theft from an oppressed culture for our own benefit and edification is the definition of exploitation.
We also might sing a song from another culture to symbolically stand in solidarity with members of that oppressed culture. But solidarity that has no cost isn’t solidarity at all. In our United States context, this kind of symbolic solidarity provides the benefit of being morally satisfying and requires very little sacrifice, if any. Solidarity requires actual partnerships with oppressed people, on their terms.
The job of the liturgist is to listen and respond: to listen to the congregation on Sunday night and lead them to worship God, to listen to the congregation in general and design the liturgy so that the congregation can worship and grow, to listen to our network of congregations and see what the network is doing and how we can adapt that locally, to listen to the global church, draw inspiration from its history and traditions, and unite us to God’s present movement in the world. This doesn’t have to be overwhelming, because Jesus gives us grace, and we extend grace to one another even as we make mistakes. The most important thing is to listen and respond.