As the church of Christ expands across continents and into cultures where it has previously not reached, its worship must be culturally sensitive to new situations and groups of believers. This interview introduces a couple who have responded to the need of developing culturally relevant forms of worship.
Can you describe your ministry?
We are the leaders of WEC International’s emerging Arts Release ministry, which was called Resonance. We started with an emphasis on music, but we now include other arts, such as drama and visual art. This multi-arts scope was our aim all along, but now it is becoming a reality. We hope to grow into more arts disciplines.
When did you first see the need for culturally relevant worship music?
When we were applying to WEC thirty years ago, we had various questions about how to fulfil God’s call to an unreached people group in the Himalayas. At that time, Ian was a violin teacher. God gave him the idea of learning their music to understand their culture more deeply so he could communicate the love of Christ through their musical language. Ian eventually did a master’s degree in ethnomusicology, and we spent most of our field years in Nepal. There, Ian learned to play some of their instruments, composed Scripture songs in their song styles and put together an indigenous songbook. At the same time, a new indigenous church started, and we worshipped with them every week. It was an amazing experience to discover what music most released their hearts.
How did your ministry develop in the UK?
On returning to the UK in 1997, we continued to have plenty of involvement with people in Asia. We spent seven years producing a DVD that gave an overview of the Bible using contextual music, art, dance and drama. Then in 2008, we started Arts Release. We realised it was important that believers in different countries could worship in ways that are true to them, and not simply as a translation or imitation of another culture. Arts Release seeks to help others see the importance of learning music from other cultures, to assist with this task. God seems to love variety – he made people of all cultures in his image. Surely there is not just one way to worship Jesus. We don’t even know the tunes that Jesus and the Apostle Paul sang, and in Revelation we see people from all cultures bringing their worship.
In British churches, it is very easy for a dominant culture to overlook how it feels to be in the minority. So, we started teaching churches worship songs from other cultures – finding simple ones and translating a verse or chorus into natural, singable English. Often these songs are taught to us by members of the church who come from other backgrounds. This way the whole congregation can sing together.
In 2011, we started a multicultural music group to demonstrate and teach these beautiful songs from other cultures. Over the years, some of our team members discovered the songs became their own, and they love to worship using them even though they are not from that culture. We also found that singing or hearing them helps congregations to pray for people in other countries. Some of our volunteer band members have gone on to do more mission work.
Tell us about some members of your team
We have a team of nine full-timers in three countries – UK, France and Germany. These include members with different arts backgrounds (or none). Some have training and experience as arts practitioners, and others have picked up skills on the way, so we are quite varied. Two new team members are Joan, a visual artist from the USA, and Julian, a specialist in Middle Eastern music. They are both with our UK team based in Leeds and Manchester. We also have several part-time volunteers, including two multicultural bands, one based in the north of England and the other around London.
Can you give some examples of visits teams have made to other countries?
Until recently music was our main thing, so we have led many song-writing workshops in places including Cambodia, Spain, India, Nepal and France. I think about ninety songs have been written in about twenty languages. It is thrilling to see a group write their first Scripture song, and sometimes the first song ever for Jesus in their language or musical style. With other specialists, we also now run drama and visual art workshops.
And how are you developing your work in the UK?
We now want to help churches who have multicultural congregations to address the issue of how to worship together – learning to share, with lots of give and take. We do this through weekend workshops held at the invitation of a local church or group of churches. Sometimes, we run a song-writing workshop enabling them to write songs in the languages that are spoken in their congregation. So, they ‘make a new song to the Lord’, one that is unique, from that church to the Lord. As they do so, they discover that ‘He puts a new song in my mouth!’ We also want to find the artists that God is calling into mission to serve Him in a culture other than their own. We’re looking for Christians who are prepared to learn about the arts in that culture, so they can better speak to people’s hearts about the God who loves them, and encourage believers there to produce artwork for the kingdom that can speak into their communities.