Singing Globally

Expanding Congregational Music

Melissa Askew

When investigating the music currently sung in Protestant churches in the United States, one is likely to find two different styles in common use.1 One would be traditional with a focus on older hymns, and the second, a newer, contemporary approach that focuses primarily on recently composed praise and worship songs. Some churches exclusively use one of these two worship styles, while others blend the two. And yet others seem to be involved in what has been called “worship wars,” where there are disagreements within a congregation over which of these two styles is the most appropriate to use.

As Christians, our differences in the things we like and dislike make up much of the problem. This is especially seen in musical tastes. Sometimes it is easy to get so consumed with what is personally preferred in a worship service that some may become blinded to the reality that other people exist. Churches have split or formed multiple services that are different from each other over the issue of worship style. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some people attending one type of service look down on other styles that do things another way.

Worship simply comes down to one thing, and that is God always needs to be the center and the only reason for our worship. There are countless scriptures that show why God needs to be the focus of our worship. Perhaps by simply looking to the story of creation is reason enough for God to come first. Psalm 100 however gives a really good example of what worship is:

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing. Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name. For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.2

How powerful this passage of scripture can speak to us! There really is no question about the meaning. God made us, and as God’s people we are to bring our praise, and worship with gladness! God’s steadfast love does endure forever, and because God has never failed, then God’s followers need to make sure they never fail to give God all the worship that is deserved.

In the above scripture Christians are told to “make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.” Since “all the earth” is given in this instruction, then perhaps it is time for churches to look outside traditional and contemporary styles, and begin to expand globally with the music used in worship. The history of the United States is one where people have emigrated from other countries with the hope of finding a better way of life. Every community can find some degree of international diversity, and it is especially prominent in larger cities. Including global music in worship services is just one way to learn about the different cultures from which people have come, and to understand how people from all over the world worship God.

What can be done to show congregations that people across their own country, as well as in other countries, worship God in different ways that is acceptable to God? In recent years hymnals and hymnal supplements have become more globally diverse, including songs from cultures such as Hispanic, Asian, African, etc. The editors of these hymnals are also trying to keep true to the original style of music from those particular cultures. With these developments there are new responsibilities for the worship leader to help bridge the cultural gaps.3

People are taught throughout life the rules and ways of the culture in which they live. When new cultures are introduced in worship, there will undoubtedly be a gap between the culture a person is part of and the culture being introduced. The goal and challenge is to try to allow worshipers to exist in both worlds. One temptation when receiving music from a new culture is to try to change it so it fits what the receiving culture is comfortable with, an act which invalidates its authenticity. A more positive outcome results when the music is preserved as closely as possible and causes people to reevaluate their own culture and open their minds to new ideas.4

Musical authenticity can be difficult to define and differs from culture to culture. One reason is because some cultures learn music through written means and others learn by rote tradition. Even within one particular culture there can be differing opinions on what is considered authentic. One danger in introducing new music from different cultures within the church is to avoid forcing the music upon the church. This rarely leads to cross-cultural awareness.5

The point of learning music of other cultures is not to imitate them or try to become like them, but rather to expand our resources in worship and heighten our awareness of the sacred music traditions in other cultures. The worship leader is responsible for choosing music that reflects the church’s own culture, but also for finding when it is appropriate to introduce music from other cultures. This differs from congregation to congregation. Perhaps one place to start is by lessening the gap between the congregation and the choir, because in the global church the congregation is the most important choir.6

Mary Oyer has been a leading figure in selecting songs for hymnals reflective of her experience in studying the music of other cultures, especially African. Oyer believes the importance of singing global sacred songs is the challenge presented by music that is not as familiar and which follows different rules than we are used to. In doing so, we will likely discover that those rules and music are acceptable for worship too. They also provide a way to minister to others without being condescending.7

Andrew Donaldson also gives helpful suggestions for introducing global music to the congregation in his article Singing Global Song: The Gifts are Many; The Body is One. One place to start is to find international songs that are similar in style to what the congregation is used to. For example, Donaldson suggests that if “Amazing Grace” is a familiar tune to the congregation, then a good compliment to it is the Korean folk- tune ARIRANG.8 Finding global songs that match what the congregation is accustomed to singing can help them learn new songs easier and make them more open to the idea of expanding their repertoire. This may also be enhanced instrumentally by using the appropriate instrument(s) when available that would normally accompany the music. This may mean that sometimes the music is sung without any instrumentation at all.9

The way most hymns in the Western tradition are sung include pauses that are built in at the end of each phrase, at cadence points, and sometimes even in the middle. But this is not the way much of the music from around the world is sung. Music from other cultures requires that the singer follow the beat, and if it is based on dance rhythms the music needs to be sung rhythmically in order to sing it correctly according to the tradition it comes from. This can be a difficulty when trying to teach a new hymn to a congregation that is not familiar with this style of singing, but it can be done if taught and explained carefully. When teaching these unfamiliar rhythms to the congregation, Donaldson recommends teaching syncopations one rhythm at a time. He suggests picking “a key rhythmic figure and teach it for a number of weeks in worship…Teach it with voice, rather than an instrument.”10

One common complaint about praise and worship songs is the use of repetition. There are many global songs, for example those from Taizé, that rely on repetition to truly be effective. This could pose a problem if introduced in a congregation that is hesitant towards repetitive music. However, in Donaldson’s opinion, “if its techniques are treated with respect, repetition will restore our soul, rather than lead us into tedium.”11 There are several different ways to make this happen. First, the rhythm should be flexible, but should avoid slowing down at the end of each repeat. Second, find ways to shape the repeats through dynamic and stylistic contrast. Third, sing the repeats with varied intensity. One time through could be sung passionately, while the next time it is meditative in nature. There are many other ways that can be used to help make repeats more interesting and meaningful, but it is still important to recognize when it has become too much and the song needs to come to an end.12

When using global music in church, it is important to look at the form, content, and the context of the song. Global songs come in many forms that are familiar, such as folksongs, call and response, liturgical prayers, and strophic hymns. Donaldson notes that singing “Wa Emi-mimo” from Nigeria as the congregation takes communion strengthens the act of eating together as a communal engagement, adding in effect extra meaning to the words of the song. Giving the congregation information about the original context of the song can help congregants make a more personal connection to it. This can be done when teaching the song, and can include actual cultural context, or simply informing that their youth group or children’s choir typically sings the song. Perhaps someone from the congregation has actually experienced the song in its native context and could share their experience with the rest of the church.13

While many hymnals and songbooks will have an English translation for international songs, it is a good idea to have the congregation sing these songs in the original language if it is not too complicated. Since most Americans are not fluent in other languages, it is important to find aids to teach the correct pronunciation. There is also debate about translating a song to English or another language. Some believe that the translation needs to reflect the original meaning and include the original text in its entirety. Others believe that a less literal approach should be taken. There are strong arguments for both sides, but perhaps it is possible for there to be many ways to stay true to the original text.14 Donaldson suggests that “what must not be lost is the marriage of words and music that gives the song its strength. Look for translations which express and delight in the melody and its rhythms (rather than work against them) and whose words will bear repeating.”15

The above mentioned ideas for including global music into a church’s worship are invaluable and only begin to touch the surface of the methods that can be used. It is important not to neglect informing the congregation the reasons why they need to sing music from other cultures. By singing others‟ songs in addition to the church’s own, they are creating a worship environment that is welcoming to those from the outside.16 It also provides a way for the congregation to learn more about their own worship practices. “A community that is willing to enter into the theology and experience of another part of the body of Christ gains a deeper understanding of its own.”17

Singing global music can also be a reflection on the incarnation of Jesus. While Jesus‟ birth took place in a local setting in the city of Bethlehem, it essentially was a cosmic event.18 While the singing at a particular church occurs locally, when the congregation is singing the songs of other countries it creates a broader experience for those involved.

It can become very easy for a church to focus on the needs and concerns for those in its congregation, friends and family, or for the local community. These are the general areas where most prayers are centered. But if the same church begins singing the songs of others outside of their community and even country, then it opens opportunities for them to remember to pray for the world on a regular basis.19 In recent years, there have been several large disasters outside the United States for which many churches have prayed for the victims and have even sent aid. But it seems that once the news coverage of such an event is over it is easy to forget that there are people still picking up the pieces of their lives. Perhaps if the congregation is singing a song from Haiti or Japan, for example, regularly in their worship they will be reminded that prayer is still needed in these places as well as the world as a whole.

While singing the songs of other nations can inspire prayer for these places, singing and prayer do not necessarily have to be viewed as two separate acts of worship. “One of the benefits of singing global song is to reclaim the essential unity of praying and singing, a unity that finds its roots in Jewish liturgy and the worship of the early Christian church.”20

Many evangelical churches are mission-centered, whether locally, internationally or both. While missionaries throughout the years have brought their own musical traditions to other countries, they seem to also have discovered the importance of learning the music of the people they are witnessing to. Some of the reasons discovered for using global song in the international mission field are applicable for those in the local mission field as well.

People are often able to find hope, unity, and inclusiveness in global song. Hearing and singing songs from all over the world that offer praise to God gives a glimpse of universal hope. In the same way people hear in the music of other cultures the same hopes of God’s salvation, peace, and love.21 “We touch the soul, soil, toil, joy, trouble,  sorrow, ecstasy of others‟ lives through their songs.”22 God’s grace is inclusive, and while it can be difficult for many to  actually define what inclusiveness means to them, especially if someone else’s definition differs from their own, learning to sing  the music of others can help broaden the acceptance of everyone, regardless of where they come from, in the Christian family.23

When trying to determine who the audience is for using global songs in worship, the obvious answer would seem to be the people in the congregation. This is definitely the case, but the audience really does extend broader than the walls of the church.

When you include the sounds of peoples, their cultures, the world in which they live, you almost automatically include those who often feel excluded by the holy sounds of the faith community. The familiar sounds of peoples worlds can break down the ‘holy’ wall around the church.24

Singing the songs of other people’s cultures holds the potential of breaking the barrier that causes them to feel unwelcomed in the church.

While there have been many throughout the years that have contributed to the growth of international hymnody, one person in particular who has made significant contributions is I-to Loh. “As an Asian Christian ethnomusicologist, [I-to Loh] has devoted his life to giving Asian Christians a liturgical voice that sings in culturally authentic ways of pain, joy, struggle, conflict, and hope of Asian experience.”25

I-to Loh was born to Chinese parents in 1936, and was influenced at an early age by the music of other cultures. His father, Sian-Chhun Loh, was a missionary and a minister in the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan, and traveled among several of the aboriginal tribes of Taiwan. I-to accompanied him on these trips and as a result learned many of the songs of the tribes they visited.26

There are several noteworthy influences on Loh’s development as a hymnist. The first is his father, who in addition to being a missionary, was also a hymnal editor. He served first as the musical editor and then as general editor on the hymnal committee for the hymnal Sèng-Si (The Hymnal). Sian-Chhun Loh has seventeen texts and three musical entries in this Taiwanese hymnal.27

A second influence comes from the Japanese occupation of Taiwan (1895-1945).  This era is responsible in part for shaping his cultural identity and faith. The Japanese were hoping to force their culture upon the people of Taiwan, but the tribal people that Loh interacted with were able to maintain their cultural identity despite the Japanese invasion. Loh was very impressed by this and it laid the groundwork for his future work.28

A third influence was the seminary that the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan (PCT) founded in 1876 as Tainan Theological College. It was forced to close during World War II but afterwards reopened in southern Taiwan. Loh experienced a Taiwan that was influenced negatively by both Japanese control and Chinese influence, and this gave him an appreciation not only for the Taiwanese people, but also for other Asians who experienced the same oppressive impacts on their culture.29

Growing up in a family who appreciated both the Taiwanese and the aboriginal cultures of Taiwan, worshiping in the prophetic PCT, and studying in a theological school where the biblical text and the political context were placed in dialogue all have shaped Loh’s musical and spiritual vocation.30

The first Taiwanese president of Tainan Theological College, Sholi Coe, also had an influence on Loh. Not only did Coe revive the seminary after the war and Japanese occupation, but he was also prominent in the theological discussion about “Christ and culture,” stressing the importance of the interaction between biblical text and cultural context.31

A final influence to mention would be that of Loh’s family, especially his wife Hui-Chin and their three children. Loh gives his wife credit for helping him complete his education while raising their children at the same time, for indexing his major publications, helping with clerical work, and always encouraging him to do his best.32

I-to Loh is known as a teacher, hymnologist, and ethnomusicologist and has made significant achievements in each of these areas. The focus now goes to the work he did with the Asian hymnal Sound the Bamboo. In 1969, Loh began traveling to the twenty-two countries which would be represented in the original 1990 edition of the hymnal, using Manila as the home base for most of these journeys. On these trips, he visited most of these countries more than once and each time sought indigenous hymnody and folk song.33

A revised version of Sound the Bamboo was published in 2000.  The following list includes several distinctive features between the original and its revised version, with most of these applying to the revised edition:

Original languages (thirty-eight total) in transliteration are included in the hymnal along with English translations or singing paraphrases.

Melodies are ornamented in the style of the country or locality of origin, including indications for gliding up or down as one approaches or leaves a note.

Many songs contain melody only, indicating a monophonic performing preference.

Other features include instructions for instruments (with special performance suggestions in the editor’s notes) or specific practices related to a more authentic performance of the material.34

Contributions that Loh personally made to the hymnal include transcriptions with added text, harmonizations, original music, and adaptations of existing melodies.

The revised edition of Sound the Bamboo includes forty- eight new hymns (thirty from the original edition were dropped), to make a total of 315 hymns. New hymns were added from countries that were not as well represented in the first edition.35 Also, “English translations have been revised to support the melodic and rhythmic flow of the music.”36

The work of I-to Loh has had a significant impact on the countries in Asia. Christianity is a minority faith on this continent except for the Philippines.

I-to Loh has listened to people throughout Asia and has been the midwife to a nascent movement that encourages Asian Christians to raise their voices to God in sung praise and prayer, using the cultural symbols closest to their experience. There is no greater voice throughout Asia for developing indigenous congregational singing than I-to Loh.37

Sound the Bamboo is an excellent resource for a church that wants to include international hymnody in their worship, especially if they have Asian representation in their congregation, but it is just one of many songbooks that can be used. Table 1 includes a sampling of other collections that can be used as resources for global sacred songs in worship.

As noted earlier, many denominational hymnals have begun to include more global music. Table 2 is a general survey of international hymns found in several major denominational and non-denominational hymnals. The hymn tunes included in this table do not represent all non-Western tunes in each hymnal, only the most common. Most hymnals do not include a separate index for international tunes.

When comparing these hymnals, it can be seen that The United Methodist Hymnal, Chalice Hymnal, and The Presbyterian Hymnal have the greatest inclusion of global hymns.  Each hymnal includes more tunes than is listed in Table 2. The two most recent Baptist hymnals for example have international tunes, however, they are not the most common among those found in other prominent hymnals. The 1991 edition of the Baptist Hymnal includes several tunes from Japan. Newer editions of hymnals that are coming out are more likely to have more international songs than previous editions. This will be beneficial to churches that do not have the resources to buy songbooks other than the denominational hymnal they use but still want to include global songs in their worship.

There is not a shortage of resources for using global music in church, and there are many strong reasons why churches should be singing the songs of faith from those around the world. The challenge remains in finding ways to let congregations know that there is a world of opportunity for incorporating global sacred music beyond the style they prefer in their worship services. Now is the time for the Christian Church worldwide to come together and sing with one voice in praise to God, even if that voice includes innumerable languages and cultures.

Table 1
Songbook Title Publisher
Let Us Arise Hänssler-Verlag
Global Praise 1 General Board of Global Ministries, GBGMusik
Global Praise 2 General Board of Global Ministries, GBGMusik
Set Free: A Collection
of African Hymns
Augsburg Fortress
Sing! A New Creation Faith Alive
Global Songs for Worship
Faith Alive
Come, Let Us Worship Faith Alive
Korean-English Hymnal
Word of Life Press
Sound the Bamboo Christian Conference of Asia
Table 2
Arirang (Korea) x
Awit Sa Dapit Hapon (Philippines) x
Beng-li (Taiwan) x
Blantyre (Malawi) x
Cantad al Senor (Brazil) x x
Chinese Melody (China) x
Den Stor Hvide Flok (Norway) x
Debora (Spanish) x x
El Camino (Spanish) x x x
Elfaker (Sweden) x
Fingal (Ireland) x
Gartan (Ireland) x x
Gratitud (Latin America) x
Hsuan P’ing (China) x x
Huan-sha-ch’i (China) x
I Himmelen, I himmelen (Norway) x
Id Y Ensenad (Spain) x x
Jesus, Remember Me (Taize) x
Kas Dziedaja (Latvian) x x
Kuortane (Finland) x
Le P’ing (China) x x
Linstead (Jamaica) x x x
Mi Rey y Mi Amigo (Spanish) x x
Mikotoba (Japan) x
Nueva Creacion (Spain) x
Nyt Nlos Sieluni (Finland) x
Pescador de Hombres (Spanish) x x x x
P’u T’o (China) x x
Rocking (Czech) x x
Rosas (Spanish) x x x
Siyahamba (South Africa) x x x
Soi son Tud (Thai) x
Thuma Mina (Africa) x x x
Toa-sia (Taiwan) x x
Una Espiga (Spain) x x
Victory Hymn (Hindi) x
Vigil (Sweden) x
Wen-ti (China) x x

Hymnal Abbreviations

UMH-The United Methodist Hymnal (1989)
PH-Pilgrim Hymnal (1986)
SBH-Service Book and Hymnal (1958)
LBW-Lutheran Book of Worship (1978)
TWC-The Worshiping Church (1990)
JS-Journeysongs (2003)
TPH-The Presbyterian Hymnal (1990)
TH-The Hymnbook (1955)
CH-Chalice Hymnal (1995)
WR-Worship & Rejoice (2001)
BH91-Baptist Hymnal (1991)
BH08-Baptist Hymnal (2008)


1 This article originated as a term paper for the course Studies in Hymnology at Campbellsville University.

2 Psalm 100, Holy Bible (New Revised Standard Version).

3 C. Michael Hawn, Gather into One: Praying and Singing Globally (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2003), 241-42.

4 Ibid., 245-46.

5 Ibid., 247-48.

6 Ibid., 251-56.

7 Hawn, “Interview with Mary Oyer,” Gather into One, op. cit., 267-68.

8 Andrew Donaldson, “Singing Global Song: The Gifts are Many, The Body is One,” The Hymn 52 n4 (October 2011): 4.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid., 5.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid., 6.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.

18 C. Michael Hawn. “From Center to Spectrum: Singing with the Faithful of Every Time and Place,” The Hymn 51 n1 (January 2000): 28.

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid., 29.

21 S. T. Kimbrough, Jr. “Using Global Hymnody in a Program of Global Ministries,” The Hymn 51 n3 (July 2000): 7.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid., 8.

25 Hawn, Gather into One, op. cit., p. 73.

26 Ibid., 74.

27 Ibid.

28 Ibid., 75.

29 Ibid., 75-76.

30 Ibid., 76-77.

31 Ibid., 77.

32 Ibid., 78.

33 Ibid., 79.

34 Ibid., 81.

35 Ibid., 99.

36 Ibid.

37 Ibid., 103.

For Additional Reading, See:

Come, Let Us Worship: The Korean-English Presbyterian Hymnal and Service Book. Grand Rapids: Faith Alive Christian Resources, 2004.

DeBruyn, Randall. Journeysongs. 2nd ed. Portland: OCP Publications, 2003.

Forbis, Wesley L., ed. The Baptist Hymnal. Nashville: Convention Press, 1991.

Global Songs for Worship. Grand Rapids: Faith Alive Christian Resources, 2010.

Hawn, C. Michael. “From Center to Spectrum: Singing with the Faithful of Every Time and Place.” The Hymn 51 n1 (January 2000): 28-34.

Hustad, Donald P., ed. The Worshiping Church. Carol Stream: Hope Publishing Co., 1990.

Jones, David Hugh, ed. The Hymnbook. Richmond: John Riddle, 1955. Kimbrough Jr., S.T., ed. Global Praise 1. New York: General Board of Global Ministries, GBGMusik, 2000.

        . Global Praise 2: Songs for Worship and Witness. New York: General Board of Global Ministries, GBGMusik, 2000.

Korean-English Hymnal. Seoul: The Christian Literature Society, 1984. Loh, I-to, ed. Sound the Bamboo. Chicago: GIA Publications, Inc., 2000.

Lutheran Book of Worship. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1978.

McGowen, Linda, and Gordon Schultz. Let Us Arise. Neuhausen- Stuttgart: Hänssler-Verlag, 1982.

McKim, LindaJo, ed. The Presbyterian Hymnal. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990.

Merrick, Daniel B., ed. Chalice Hymnal. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1995.

Olson, Howard S., ed. Set Free: A Collection of African Hymns. Augsburg Fortress, 1993.

Oyer, Mary K. “Hymnody in the Context of World Mission.” In Gather into One: Praying and Singing Globally by Michael C. Hawn, 265-66. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2003.

Porter, Ethel, and Hugh Porter, ed. Pilgrim Hymnal. Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 1986.

Rainer, Thom S. The Baptist Hymnal. Nashville: LifeWay Worship, 2008.

Service Book and Hymnal. Philadelphia: United Lutheran Publication House, 1958.

Sing! A New Creation. Grand Rapids: Faith Alive Christian Resources, 2001.

Worship & Rejoice. Carol Stream: Hope Publishing Co., 2001. Young, Carlton R., ed. The United Methodist Hymnal. Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989.

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