“All things must be done for edification.” One perspective on using non-English language songs in worship.

12552721_10103793089270573_5361744195176355129_nOur 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.

6 Replies to ““All things must be done for edification.” One perspective on using non-English language songs in worship.

  1. Thank you Andrew! Well said ! I believe the opinions you express, are also part of the Audio Art team vision. We discern these misappropriations, with everything we record.
    Sometimes it’s hard to explain the stories and the dialogue that go along with that process. But it’s nice to know that people are picking up what we are throwing down as a community . We’re always working on our language, I feel you did a great job articulating It, so thank you!

  2. This post is confusing to me. If what Andrew’s saying is what we want to follow, it seems like we’d have to give up most of our non-English songs. How does what we currently do fit with this perspective?

    I generally feel like songs of other languages have become part of our culture, so I don’t feel weird about using any of them, but did we steal them? Have we been wrong all these years?

    (I have to admit I’m not a music team leader, so I haven’t wrestled with this as much as others)

    1. It’s worth talking about more, but I think many of the non-English songs we use we have a tangible connection to. It’s in a language someone speaks, a friend introduced it to us, someone brought it from a place they visited once, etc. I don’t think Andrew is making a “rule,” as much as he is offering his own experience.

      1. Yeah, I hear that. I think I’m a little hung up on calling it theft. I don’t think anyone owns worship songs….if you are possessive about something made for worship, then that’s a problem. I’ll ask Andrew for more thoughts when I see him.

  3. Two thoughts.
    1. I have listened to choirs and congregations in Zimbabwe singing European and North American hymns — without seeking permission. That’s the way cultural diffusion works. I think (don’t know) that we’re over-thinking this. Certainly our worship should be meaning-ful, but we are part of the world around us anyway. For myself, I find certain songs in Zulu or Ndebele to speak to me (in spite of my weakness in the language — I speak it a little, but not much) in ways that lead me deeper into God’s presence. “Stealing” is a harsh word!
    2. Andrew: “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.” DRC: Is their a place for the use of liturgy from the past, as the Anglicans and Catholics (and others) use. These criteria seem to me to invalidate a major part of the liturgy that the global church uses. Again, I applaud the effort to fill liturgy with meaning, but wonder if we’re being too restrictive.

    Daryl Climenhaga

    1. 1. I think sometimes the “permission” that we seek may be less explicit than we realize; but I do think there is an argument to be made for how someone in Zimbabwe might claim and English or American song and why the opposite might not be true.
      2. Andrew is offering his personal experience more than a criteria; what works for him. With that said, I think that people’s cultural experience is wider than we realize. My friends connect me to a lot of different cultures.

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