Chinese Church Voices

A Conversation About Music in the Church

Chinese Church Voices is a weekly column of the ChinaSource Blog providing translations of original writing by Christians in China. The views represented are entirely those of the original author; inclusion in Chinese Church Voices does not imply or equal an endorsement by ChinaSource.

Much has been written about the so-called "worship wars" in the west, as churches struggle to find the balance between traditional and contemporary forms of worship. In this article, published on the mainland site Christian Times, we read that this is a question that some churches in China are beginning to wrestle with.

A Conversation with Beijing Zion Church Senior Worship Leader: How to Blend Traditional and Contemporary Worship Music

A Baidu search for contemporary praise and worship and traditional praise and worship will generate numerous articles. Yet those approaching the subject from a conservative point of view occupy the search engines first few pages. In recent years, Chinas urban church has been on the rise, as has its population of younger members; this begs the question: how should praise and worship within the church view "contemporary" and "traditional?" A Christian Times reporter recently invited Brother Jiang En, one of the main worship leaders from Beijing Zion Church, to share his thoughts.

Following his conversion, Brother Jiang En was called by God to work in the area of praise and worship, where he has now served for six years. A couple of years ago he accepted God's call to give up a lucrative IT job, and commit wholeheartedly to serve the church. His dream is to eventually become a worship pastor where he can edify other believers, both musically and in their Christian life.

I have observed in the church the phenomenon that there are times when Christians are praising and worshiping God that they can easily become preoccupied with their own emotions. The purpose of worship should be to look to, honor, and glorify God; but instead lyrics become the source of comfort and worship becomes a time of self-pitying.

During the quiet time when we seek to commune with the Lord, we can reveal all of our emotions to Him. I have learned from experience that when the Lord accepts all of a persons feelings, genuine worship and reverence toward God will follow. However, it is obvious that there is some difference between collective worship and individual worship as a spiritual discipline. Thus, the question is how should worshipers in a church handle such differences?

Brother Jiang En believes that Christians preoccupation with their own feelings during worship is perhaps related to the lyrics that tend to emotionalize the individual worship experience. He then directed the topic more specifically to the exploration of contemporary and traditional worship songs. He sees this fixation with personal feelings as one of the disadvantages brought about by the musical form and lyrical content of contemporary music, areas, which not surprisingly, have also received criticism from proponents of traditional worship music.

Brother Jiang En said that the subject in many songs is I, such as " How am I and how do I feel?" In traditional four stanza hymns, however, most often the subject is God. There is richness to the lyrical content of each stanza; some hymns even traverse the Scriptures in their entirety from the book of Genesis all the way to the book of Revelation.

"If comparisons are made based on the richness of content and the ideas and deeper meanings contained within, contemporary worship falls short of traditional worship. Yet Brother Jiang En feels that the two genres must compliment one another during worship.

What we currently refer to as so-called traditional music was, during the period of its inception, considered "contemporary music." Those interested in upholding traditional music need to give today's contemporary music space to develop and mature to uncritically reject contemporary music would only serve to restrict the development of music that reflects the unique characteristics of this current generation.

For example, some traditional churches claim that drums should be forbidden during worship. They believe drums are an instrument of Satan. To show the faulty logic of such thinking, Brother Jiang En used the analogy of a knife. He explained that a knife cannot kill a person by itself, but rather requires a person to take up the knife. Drums, he feels, are the same. If they are used to create rock music that is dark and lifeless, the impact will be negative. If drums are used to praise God, then they can also glorify God.

Some have suggested that within worship the holy and pure instruments include the piano and the pipe organ. Brother Jiang En doesn't completely agree. The Israelites never used these instruments in their worship of God. In the year the Israelites crossed the Red Sea and sang the first song of Moses, the tambourine used in worship was very possibly an Egyptian instrument given the significant acculturation Israel had experienced living in Egypt for more than 400 years.

This instrument, if looked at from a human perspective, a narrow perspective, certainly was not holy and pure, but the Israelites used it to worship God. Brother Jiang En shared his personal view: "The blame cannot be placed on the instrument itself, but should be placed on the person, how the person uses the instrument and the mind set when playing. This is very important.

The Strong Points and Transformation of Contemporary Worship

Music plays a significant role in the process of transmitting the gospel. Leading young people to sing four stanza hymns will only put them to sleep and waste an opportunity to enter into dialogue with them. The question, then, is how should the church change, serve the younger generation, and encourage them to worship God? The answer is not, of course, to go to the other extreme and abandon traditional hymns altogether. Brother Jiang Ens current practice is to incorporate at least one traditional hymn into each Sunday service, which compliments the other more contemporary worship songs.

He believes that traditional hymns are a tremendous gift. If Christians do not inherit them, it will be a great loss. Furthermore, contemporary praise and worship can take the gift of traditional music, redevelop and reproduce in order to compose music afresh, "to create music using a form that won't put people to sleep".

Lyrics are the enduring quality of traditional music. Customarily, the ideas behind the music and lyrical implications are intended to place God at the center. Listening to one piece of music is like listening to a sermon the content provides much on which to contemplate. Furthermore, the church is made up of different age groups. The middle aged and the elderly resonate with this kind of music and often meet God in the music.

Consequently, the two styles need to complement one another. The strength of contemporary music is its versatility and varied musical form. It is full of energy, has a strong rhythm and can speak to the younger generation. Take Korea for example. Two years ago Brother Jiang En traveled to Korea to attend a conference for worship leaders. He discovered that in the 80's and 90's the Korean church experienced a large-scale revival that resulted in a significant influx of young churchgoers. The reason? At least on the surface, research suggests that the 20-year period was a time of transformation for the church during which worship shifted from traditional to contemporary.

Brother Jiang commented, "This gives us something to reflect upon. The Chinese church is in a period of transformation and the question is how praise and worship should adapt." Therefore, what influence does Chinese worship have on the transformation of the Chinese church?

"The Koreans did a good job, but we can't just simply copy what they did. For example, some young people like to listen to English songs that are popular in the West. Joshua band, a Taiwanese music group, has translated many such songs. At times we also sing these songs. However, this also has its own inherent weakness."

"Translated songs are definitely not true to the original. The lyrics are an art, which need to transmit their true message, achieve their intended purpose and do so with a measure of aesthetic beauty. Lyrics also need to have a rhyme scheme. If the rhyme scheme is broken, then the music also breaks down. Therefore, there is definitely something lost in translation. It just cant be entirely natural, particularly when lyrics have been composed by a westerner in the context of their own culture, history, and life background. In our context the translated songs will undergo a certain degree of cultural adaptation." Therefore, Brother Jiang En feels that China's praise and worship needs to conform to Chinese culture.

"We need blending. We need to take elements from Chinas own cultural heritage and build on the Wests musical foundation to create music that can be considered contemporary Chinese praise and worship." In simpler terms, "Chinese praise and worship music needs to have a Chinese style."

Praise and worship are an integral part of culture. To improve the quality is not only a service to worship itself, but also a service to the culture. Music is an indispensable link to culture. Within Chinese culture, worship music should gradually begin to establish its own place, which perhaps is something that those producing praise and worship need to consider.

Original article: 北京锡安教会敬拜主领谈:赞美中传统诗歌与现代诗歌如何配搭?

Image credit: Worship, by Ashley Campbell, via Flickr

ChinaSource Team

ChinaSource Team

Written or edited by members of the ChinaSource staff.          View Full Bio

Are you enjoying a cup of good coffee or fragrant tea while reading the latest ChinaSource post? Consider donating the cost of that “cuppa” to support our content so we can continue to serve you with the latest on Christianity in China.