Multicultural Worship

Is One Language or Style Enough?

I like to say that I am browner on the inside than I am on the outside. My family history goes back to Germany, France and the UK, but we Davises have been living in the United States for at least 100 years. When I talk about my cultural identity, I say that I am White American. Like the cheese. But, I also say that I am Dominican. Because I grew up in the Dominican Republic, I speak Spanish fluently and I would be happy eating rice and beans every day. When I worship God, I am not either White American or Dominican. I am somehow both

Unfortunately, most worship songs don’t allow me to be both Dominican and American at the same time. Sure, there are some old hymns and some recent modern worship songs that have Spanish translations. (Why is it so much easier to find songs that were written in English and translated into Spanish than to find songs written in Spanish and translated to English? That’s another article for another day!) Sometimes, I am quite happy singing a verse in English and then a verse in Spanish. There is a kind of “separate but equal” vibe that I am ok with for a while.

The truth is, however, that the Body of Christ was never meant to be separate but equal. We are called to be together and equal. And Spanish and English are not separate inside of me. They are somehow interwoven. Sometimes I think in English. At other times I think in Spanish. And sometimes I think in concepts and then pick a language to try to describe the concepts with. In some cases, I would need six words in English to communicate what one word in Spanish says quite well. I am most myself when I can just say whatever word comes to my mind without worrying what language it is in. 

I grew up hearing that God wants us to bring our whole selves before Him in worship. So, it makes the most sense to me that I would sing worship songs that mix Spanish and English fluidly. But, I didn’t know any songs like that until I wrote With One Heart/Con Un Corazón. It was the first song I ever heard that has Spanish and English woven together in an interdependent fashion. You can’t sing it in either Spanish or English. One language isn’t enough. You have to sing it in both: With one voice en esta canción, we give you glory. Te damos gloria, Jesús.

In this song, the languages coexist peacefully and even work together. In certain sections, the English is simply a translation of the Spanish. In other places, the Spanish says something different entirely. Sometimes they take turns. And sometimes they occur simultaneously. In another song I wrote, entitled One Kingdom-Un Reino some of the Spanish lines even rhyme with the English lines. No separate but equal here!

Prompt: Do you have more than one language inside you? Write a song that incorporates all of your languages.

Prompt: Do you feel a tension inside you between two different sides of your personality? Or two different ways of looking at the same thing? Write a song that allows both sides to co-exist peacefully in the same space.

I believe the Body of Christ needs more what I call “interlingual” songs. (Songs that can’t be sung in one language or another independently, but have to be sung in two or three or more languages at the same time. The languages are interwoven, interdependent.) Sure there are a lot of bicultural, bilingual people like me in the Body of Christ. And it is very meaningful for us to be able to bring both of our cultures, both of our languages to the Lord simultaneously. But, this issue is a lot bigger! The reality is that the Body of Christ is multicultural, multigenerational, and multilingual. And, we are called to worship together and live together in harmony. In order to help us be together well (without one culture or language dominating and others simply assimilating), we need songs that help us express our hearts in our own languages and musical styles to the Lord. 

In our worshiping community here in Clarkston, Georgia, people from different cultures come together all the time. Often, when we gather to worship, food is involved. So, we were needing a song we could sing as a way of saying grace before our meals together. What would it sound like for a Sudanese man, a Korean woman, an African-American woman, and a Dominican man to come together to sing their thanks to God? Maybe something like this: Multilingual Grace.

Prompt: What languages and cultures are present in your congregation? Can you imagine writing a song that would give expression to several of those at once?

Revelation 7:9,10 shows us a picture of people from every tribe, language and nation gathered around the throne of Jesus. Notice that there is no mention of a Korean service at 10am and a Sudanese service at 2pm. This is not separate but equal, but rather together and equal. Notice that Jesus is at the center, as the Unifier of His people. Even as we catch this glimpse of heaven, can you hear the prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray in  Matthew 6:9,10? Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. May we continue to see God’s kingdom come here on earth as people from different cultures and languages gather to worship Jesus. 

Prompt: Write a song based on Revelation 7:9-12. Imagine what it would look like, sound like, feel like to be a part of such a gathering. Here’s one way I imagine all the languages and cultures weaving together: Psalm 117

[written by Josh Davis]


Join Proskuneo on June 13, 2020 for an online seminar on Multicultural Songwriting! Register here.

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