Decolonizing The Worship Movement
Worship is contextual as Jesus incarnates himself in us and therefore in our cultures. When the Israelites sang that the power of their God had resulted in the Egyptian cavalry being thrown into the Red Sea, after God had helped them pass through safely, it intensified their worship experience. Likewise today, it is powerful when we sing songs that are born out of God’s interventions in our current circumstances.
Worship is trans-cultural as Jesus transcends our cultures. (A heads up, as will be explained in the paragraphs ahead, “trans-cultural” does not mean “western” or “Anglo”.)
Worship is counter-cultural as Jesus challenges our cultures. One such example is described in the attached article on the priesthood of believers.
Worship is cross-cultural as the gospel is relevant to all cultures. Even before the death of Jesus technically opened the way for every nation to participate in God’s redemptive plan, Isaiah prophesied as follows: “Let no foreigner who is bound to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.” … foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, … these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.”
Sadly, the current trend is for worship songs to be exported from Anglo cultures to rest of world. Globalization has infiltrated the church, and wherever you go in the world you are mostly going to hear adaptations of Anglo songs.
Sometimes worship songs are altered and sections are replaced or modified, not too dissimilar from how international food franchises adapt their core items from country to country.
Mostly songs are being imitated. When new songs are written in non-western contexts, they are being written in the prevailing western idiom, often performed with an uncomfortably forced American or British accent.
The net result of all of this is that worship songs are hardly ever indigenized anymore. There are less and less songs written in the style of a local culture. Therefore, there is not much opportunity for the genre to be internationalized.
In the Old Testament, worship was rooted in one culture and place and the operative word was “come”. In the New Testament, worship straddles many cultures and places, and the operative word should be “go”. Accordingly, I would like to build a case for the internationalization and the decolonization of worship music.
In order to do so, we need to review the realities of spiritual colonization, spiritual imperialism, globalization, westernization, Anglicization and isomorphism.
Not much lasts forever. The bible tells us that there will be no more tears, pain, death or mourning in heaven. Spiritual gifts will no longer be necessary. Neither will be ministry pursuits. Even marriage does not make it into the after life.
But the bible lists a few things that will last into eternity: faith, hope, love, God’s kingdom rule and God’s words. One of the surprises is language, national, cultural and tribal identity as per Revelation 7: “I looked again. I saw a huge crowd, too huge to count. Everyone was there – all nations and tribes, all races and languages.” The reason: the eternal retention of cultural identity testifies forever to the reach of the gospel into all nations and the faithfulness of God to give his son the nations as his inheritance.
What more appropriate way to celebrate the completed mission of Christ than an eternal worship mash-up that fuses every culture, tribe and language in a worship expression that celebrates the reach of the gospel into every nook and cranny of this world!
Therefore, what more appropriate medium to express our worship on earth, to intercede for the completion of the mission of Christ and to prophesy the ultimate proliferation of the gospel into every unreached people group, than a worship idiom that coalesces the sounds of believers from every culture, tribe and language that this gospel has penetrated.
How wonderful if more of us could find a new resolve to fight for a place of dignity for the worship expressions of our respective cultures in the worldwide worship movement!
God has chosen to reveal himself by incarnating himself, firstly in his son, but now in us … in and through our feeblenesses, our humanness, our idiosyncrasies, our cultures and our stories. And one of the stories that we need to tell is that the gospel is relevant to every culture. May God help us to begin to tell that story in our worship songs.
Incarnation is basically “content meeting form”. The gospel is not an ethereal conceptual message. It is an enfleshed reality. We are not robotic copycats of a message. We are the message. Therefore form matters. Therefore our worship music should reflect our cultures and, potentially, the mishmash of cultures that have responded to the gospel. As Marshall LcLuhan, the father of communications, put it: “the medium is the message”.
The million-dollar question is “what message is being told by the medium and culture of contemporary worship?” I would like to make a few observations. (1) Globalization, spiritual colonization and isomorphism are acceptable and inevitable. (2) Celebrity and brand leveraging are legitimate catalyzing agents for the spread of the gospel. (3) High-tech production and fashion give us credibility
Let’s look at these three observations in more detail.
(1) Firstly, I would like to propose that spiritual colonization has impoverished and not enriched kingdom life. Jesus sends us out to disciple nations. Somewhere, in church history, discipling and colonizing got a little blurred.
Colonization is the sending out of a group of settlers to a nation to establish control over it, leveraging God-given blessings for the interests of the sending agency, superimposing language and culture and other realities on the settlement, leaving behind a trail of sadnesses.
Modern day brand leveraging runs the same risks as colonization. An overly cultivated desire within a ministry community to influence the church worldwide with its homegrown resources can have consequences similar to colonialism. Bear in mind that the only people that upset Jesus enough for him to threaten with a whip were the “resourcing agents” that made it easy for worshipers to purchase their sacrifice animals on site. Jesus’ antidote to the enterprise of religion was summed up in his retort that his father’s house was meant to be a house of prayer for all nations. Just like John the Baptist had predicted, in this comment he “raised every valley and brought down every mountain and hill, and created a level playing field where all had dignity and a vital role.”
I would like to propose that the antidote to the current overly cultivated desire amongst a few ministries to “resource the church worldwide with their songs” is still the same today as it was in Jesus’ time – for us to be reminded that the house of God is international, a commonwealth of communities where each group has something valid and vital to contribute, notwithstanding “a song to share”.
Discipling is different from colonizing. It is less about influencing and more about serving. Yes, there are truths to be taught, but they are communicated in such a way that they can be absorbed via the local culture. When the bible is translated it is repurposed via local idiom. Discipling should not repeat the mistakes of the colonial missionary movement of days gone by. Servant hearted ministry results in the blessing of the nations, just as was God’s original intent with Abraham.
Imagine a Christianity where every culture is represented with dignity. Imagine if our worship told story of reach of gospel into every people group.
God’s way, in nature and in the kingdom, is cross-pollination. May this dynamic become the way of the worship movement.
We can argue that the internet spawned globalization, making it easier for certain cultures to get the gospel out in new and creative ways. However, the converse is also true. The internet can also open the opportunity for a two-way exchange. This should be a priority-sensitivity in the kingdom. We should not be following the trend of the day. We should be emulating the dynamics of heaven where every culture and language has a place.
(2) Secondly, celebrity and brand leveraging are vogue and have taken us off course. The sadness is not that we have veered from the plot. The sadness is that we do not even know that this has happened. We are becoming a culture where leveraging opportunity is becoming the norm, including in the worship music arena.
The kingdom is not about leveraging. It is the polar opposite. It is about laying down our rights and our privileges. Jesus did not consider equality with God something to be leveraged, but he laid it all down – and that is what made him so attractive to us. It was not his power that made him so compelling. It was his humility.
Philippians 2:3-11. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross. Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,to the glory of God the Father.
Unfortunately, we live in a world where leveraging has become the norm, including in the church. May God be gracious to us!
(3) Thirdly, high-tech production and fashion are redefining discipleship. How you are “attained”, in the Christian life, determines the ingredients necessary for you to be “maintained”.
Statistics are not on our side at this point in history. It is becoming increasingly unlikely that a Christ follower, who came to faith in a production culture, will be able to endure the difficult seasons in his or her Christian walk without continued sensational presentations to keep them going. For the most part, the rules of production and discipleship are incompatible. The one requires that you die daily and that you live vulnerably. The other insists on 24/7 positivity and the appearance of success. Just like with show business, the ministry business can be driven by outward displays that are not necessarily accurate nor believable
2 Corinthians 4:7-11. If you only look at us, you might well miss the brightness. We carry this precious message around in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives. That’s to prevent anyone from confusing God’s incomparable power with us. As it is, there’s not much chance of that. You know for yourselves that we’re not much to look at. (Fashion) We’ve been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we’re not demoralized; we’re not sure what to do, but we know that God knows what to do; we’ve been spiritually terrorized, but God hasn’t left our side; we’ve been thrown down, but we haven’t broken. What they did to Jesus, they do to us—trial and torture, mockery and murder; what Jesus did among them, he does in us—he lives! Our lives are at constant risk for Jesus’ sake, which makes Jesus’ life all the more evident in us.
Once again, imagining worship music through the lens of the cultures of the world has the potential to give us a huge, big and helpful chiropractic adjustment.
I am hoping that these thoughts help give birth to a new vision for the decolonization of our contemporary worship movement.
As we near the end of this age, we are experiencing an increased hostility and mistrust between the cultures of this world. How amazing it would be if we were able to develop a prophetic worship culture in the church that included multitudinous cultures and languages. I saw how this fostered healing in my native South Africa. I am convinced it could make a huge impact globally.
As an example, take a look at the simple, and childlike power of what is happening in Jerusalem with the cross pollination of Hawaiian, Jewish and Arabic cultures.
Twenty years ago the rock ‘n roll band was new in Christianity. It is now ubiquitous. Who knows what could happen in the next twenty years if we grab a hold of this idea?
What more appropriate medium to express our worship on earth, to intercede for the completion of the mission of Christ and to prophesy the ultimate proliferation of the gospel into every unreached people group, than a worship idiom that coalesces the sounds of believers from every culture, tribe and language that this gospel has penetrated.