That was one of several points made at a "Worship and Culture" seminar during the recent Calvin Symposium on Worship, Jan. 24-26 at Calvin College in Grand Rapids.
One of the panelists at the session was Dr. Monique Ingalls, assistant professor of Church Music at Baylor University in Waco, Tex.
"I study evangelical worship music in North America that has – for better or worse – become globalized," she told an audience in the Prince Conference Center. "We have a lot to learn from our brothers and sisters around the world."
The annual conference includes artists, musicians, pastors, academics, students and worship leaders/pastors from around the world for a time of learning, encouragement and worship.
GETTING AT THE CONTEXT
Ingalls is the author of last year's "Singing the Congregation: How Contemporary Worship Music Shapes Evangelical Community" (Oxford University Press). She is an "ethno-musicologist" by training, and is co-founder and program chair of a biennial conference on local and global perspectives on Christian congregational music.
Ingalls said the church needs to grapple with culture and our understandings of the Christian tradition where there is both continuity and change.
The seminar took on a true multi-cultural expression – among the other panelists were Leopoldo Sanchez, a native of Chile and professor at Concordia Seminary; Robert Chao Romero, a UCLA professor whose father is from Mexico and mother from China; and Terry LeBlanc, director of the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies, who is Mi'kmaq/Acadian, an indigenous people group in Canada.
But it was Ingalls who spoke primarily about worship music and its intersection with various cultures.
WATCHING THE TRENDS
Ingalls has studied the accounts of 19th century missionaries translating hymns into tonal languages where word meanings depend on inflections – leading to misleading and even embarrassing understandings. To say nothing of musical styles inappropriate and incomprehensible in the local setting.
"Music is universal, but music is not the universal language," she noted.
But globalism trends over the last few decades – boosted by modern communication - have brought new pressures for the worshipping church.
"One is the commercial juggernaut of worship music which through Internet media and mega-churches is able to reach consumers at lightning speeds," she offered.
Among the examples mentioned was Hillsong, the music-infused mega-church which began in Australia but now has campuses around the world. From songs such as the 1990s "Shout to the Lord" to the more recent Grammy-winning "What A Beautiful Name," the Hillsong music success has led to arena-sized tours (coming to Grand Rapids this June) and growing music sales.
"There are pressures for churches to adopt the newest and latest out of a desire to be moved by the 'global' church," Ingalls said. "It becomes like a trade language: you need to sing these (songs) in order to worship with people around the world."
ON THE OTHER HAND...
But the opposite is also a danger – a presumed cultural authenticity that's imposed from the outside.
"As if someone would say that you should not sing songs that may be meaningful to your group because of (the songs) not being true to your identity," Ingalls said.
"So these kind of messages tie in with complicated local concerns and make music ministry on the ground challenging in general."
Ingalls' own musical training is in classical piano and as a choral singer - she's involved in the music ministry of her Episcopal church in Texas. But her teaching goal is to broaden the musical perspective of her students. "I'm trying to equip them with tools for assessing local situations," she said of churches where her students may serve. "Not that this or that music will lead the most people to Christ or promote the most spiritual growth. But to thoughtfully adopt and adapt what is right for the people in that place and to address local needs and concerns in that context."
That is similar to advice she would give to worship/music leaders, even here in West Michigan.
"Find out what talent there is in your congregation already... she what styles there are," she told a reporter in a post-seminar interview. "Then try to arrange music according to what grows up from those grassroots rather than imposing what you think people are going to respond to."