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World Music In Worship – An Article From Worship Leader Magazine

July 28, 2015

Author: Tom Sullivan


“Go into all the world” …

The recent years have produced an interesting phenomenon. We have watched as other nations like China have become the growing Christian movement and to our shame the growing area where missionaries are being deployed – sometimes even to the Unites States. We sometimes forget that whole world outside the United States until we speak of foreign missions. But, for a few of us … maybe we need to look musical foreign missions. Don’t start packing up your guitar to get out before I ask you to go to Africa or Columbia! I’m not talking physically, but musically!

Consider the musical influences of this country over the past 100 years or so and how it has shaped our worship. Slaves brought in gospel and blues was borne out of the south. Elvis Presley shifted early rock and roll to include blues and gospel elements. Musicians from the British Isles made their impact on the American music scene with artists like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Musicians like Tito Puente, Santana, and others brought in the Latin influence, and other musicians have inserted other elements of their cultures. We have become a huge musical melting pot. We can look at how American music utilizing all these forms has truly changed the world and how people live.

In our churches, we have seen some of these influences brought into our music, especially gospel, rock/pop, and the Latin influence, but how far have we used these elements? We do insert pieces of these styles into our own forms of worship but generally we enter only toe deep, choosing to stay in the shallow end. We send missionaries, money, and supplies to foreign countries. We are called to go out into all the world and present the Gospel to people where they are. What if we were to send out worship music in the style of the country receiving it?

This consideration is not for the faint of heart! We tend to remain in our own tonal and stylistic comfort areas. Taking this step will require you to adjust your hearing, preferred styles, focus, and possibly even your instrument.  What if we were to study external influences that so changed our American music and use them to return new worship songs to areas of the world that are Latin, Asian, African, Middle Eastern or otherwise influenced? What if American missionaries could take music that is – dare I use the word “relevant” – into the mission field?


Where do we start?…

The harmonium is being used in contemporary worship at many local churches.

Many worship songs already employ elements of other worlds. For example, Afro-Cuban percussion instruments are used in today’s worship teams as a side instrument. We hear the Latin influences in some worship songs and often hear blues, rock or gospel influences. What if we mix elements and nodes that appeal to multiple styles, genres, peoples?

Use in the mission field may require further study. A study of musical modes, scales and styles can help us learn the styles and how to embrace it. Music outside our normal world may use scales we don’t know or play. We may need to adjust instruments, modifying tunings, add something to the instrument to change the sound, or even add a new non-traditional instrument.

When exporting music to the field, we may need to consider instrument availability. Music that uses synths, electric bass, and full drum kit here won’t necessarily be usable in foreign worship. So, we should focus on worship music that can be presented in any form – acoustic or amplified – to meet multiple needs and to allow the electronics to be “additional layers” where available. Stringed instrument players may consider adding non-traditional instruments like Russian Balalaika, Japanese Koto, Zithers, or differently stringed Latin guitar. Wind players might consider wind flutes or pipes, didgeridoos, ocarinas or whistles, and keyboardists could consider melodicas, harmoniums, or accordions. For lyrics, we might start with translation tools, followed by validation of the translation and pronunciation. Also, in many world cultures, songs may include sounds other than words – whistles, humming, clapping, or other sounds.

The more difficult part might be the change in style and thinking. Start with learning the rhythms, styles, modes and scales of each culture. Use these influences in your own music or alter existing music with these influences and then shape new music that will fit world areas. The easiest entry may be into that of Latin influence as it often shares the same instruments and scales and is a large mission area. What influence could we bring to the Middle East if we were able to bring the Christian message to that region in a style they already accept? What if just a handful of those songs reached lost populations and drew them to our God? What if a small group were so impacted by our desire to reach them for our God through our pitiful efforts that they recognized just how valuable and wonderful the Christ must be for us to do this? Would anyone be able to stop them from taking this worship and Christ’s message forward?  What if in singing that music in our local churches helped convert more Hispanics, Asians, Muslims, and others?

The Mridangam is a two headed drum from Southern India.

The Mridangam is a two headed drum from Southern India.

This is not a simple change to us or our ears, and we do not know what the impact could be. It seems likely that a God who would create such a wide range of people could use a well-trained and furnished people to help meet those others where they live. I hope some of you are encouraged to take this new road to expanding your music, and God’s Kingdom, by allowing Him to use you in different ways and expanding your abilities. If you consider God’s leading in this, you may want to start with browsing the internet for sites that provide samples of world music instruments or songs, purchase a soft synth that includes world music samples, or begin a study of musical styles. One useful book is “Contemporary music styles (The worship band’s guide to excellence)” by Bob Barrett and can currently still be found used on sites like Amazon and provides a very nice introduction to other styles. God has called us all to worship Him and has provided many languages and styles to do so. Pick your language and style and worship the Great I Am!


Tom Sullivan lives and worships in the Richmond, Virginia area. He enjoys writing and arranging, and has played trumpet, bass, keyboards, and percussion over the years. Tom is a member of ASCAP, has written for the Worship Corner, and is thankful for a forgiving, gracious God.



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