In an ever-expanding world, Christ calls us to be unified and inclusive, compassionate and embracing. It is toward these ends that church musicians are often compelled to introduce new music, and particularly “global” music.
So, you decide to sing an Asian, Celtic, Latin American, or African song. Now what?
1. Do your homework.
First, educate yourself. This includes pronunciation and dialect, rhythmic patterns, suitable accompaniment, native instruments, etc. One fabulous resource is Leading the Church’s Song (Augsburg Fortress, 1998). This book explains how to authentically lead songs from many different cultures, including pronunciation guides, specific percussion patterns, instrument suggestions, etc.
2. Make it meaningful.
Do not simply sing an African hymn just for the sake of singing one. Find a piece that speaks to your congregation—tie it into a worship theme, or feature a song from a region where you send offerings. If a piece has specific meaning to your worshiping body, it will be more readily received.
3. Choose good tunes…
Not every church sings every published hymn equally well, and not all hymn melodies are intuitively “singable.” If you want people to feel comfortable joining in communal songs, be sure that laypeople can actually sing them!
4. … and good texts.
The same is true for texts. If you’re still tongue-tied after practicing a new text, you can bet that parishioners will be, too. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t use that song; it does mean that you’ll need to properly prepare the congregation. Consider teaching foreign words by rote, as it is often less daunting simply to repeat new sounds than to struggle over printed words.
Be sneaky! Have the choir sing the song as an anthem a week before the congregation participates. Have a soloist introduce it during communion, or improvise on the tune for a prelude. When the congregation sings this “new” song weeks later, it will be vaguely familiar.
6. Educate others.
A simple bulletin note goes a long way to explain how and why we sing new songs. For example, many Latin American songs stem from a modal tradition, so joyful texts are oftentimes paired with minor keys. Be sure the congregation understands that this is not an incongruous pairing, but rather part of a long musical history.
7. Get help.
Enlist others! A few high school students on inexpensive shakers and djembe, claves and guirro, will enhance the music of other cultures manifold.
8. Consult local experts.
Someone in your community speaks Spanish, and someone in your congregation may innately feel syncopated clave rhythms. A college student may know French, and a local professor could help with Gaelic. Find those experts around you who can give pronunciation tips over the phone, answer cultural questions via email, or make quick YouTube tutorials for instrumentalists.
9. Let go!
Your musical offering will not be perfect. Your choir won’t be mistaken for an authentic Zambian choir, and your Swahili will probably be slightly affected. Nonetheless, if your church learns something about South African Christianity, and if your music enables worship, you will have succeeded mightily.
10. Assess & Repeat.
As with all worship elements, assess your successes and challenges afterward. How could you improve worshipers’ experience next time? Did you achieve the desired effect? If so, add this song to your church’s repertoire. If not, choose another and repeat the process.
Finally, remember why we introduce new music. If we mindfully honor foreign traditions by acknowledging the value of their music, we can foster a culture of inclusivity, ecumenism, and welcoming within the Church.