HYMNS & SONGS
A little reverse mission:
Global worship in local places
By C. Michael Hawn
HOW DO WE GAIN a sense of the universal body of Christ? Singing with the worldwide church opens up possibilities. Those who seek to change prevailing worldviews need to approach the opportunity with open eyes and hearts, as well as clarity of purpose.
Lest I am misunderstood, I do not propose that we embark on a journey towards liturgical alienation. Pastoral sensitivity to established worldviews is always paramount.
If what we know and what we love are the top criteria on our list of measures for selecting congregational song, there will be little room for the prophetic word. We cut ourselves off from experiences from the Other/other that just might transform our understanding of who Christ is among us – globally speaking. Relevance is also a significant criterion, but if relevance is overly exaggerated, to paraphrase J. B. Phillips, our God may become too small.
So, let us move towards worship in a global perspective. I will invite you to begin this journey with three initial suggestions.
(1) I invite you to hear another language in addition to your vernacular at some point in each service. This may come in the refrain of a song, a scripture reading, a spoken prayer in two languages, or any number of other places. Hearing a language beyond ours is a reminder that worship is not only local, but takes place with Christians of every time and place. To listen to a language that is incomprehensible to us, however, is not the same as not understanding what someone is saying or singing.
While we may risk the momentary insecurity of the inscrutable, the greater reward is that we may glimpse the ineffable – the overwhelming encounter with the Holy One manifest through Christ’s presence in others. We also may become conscious of something more important, especially our changing perspective in the world, and the privilege of extending hospitality.
(2) I invite you to extend the leadership of worship to as many willing and prepared persons as possible. Who is up front counts. Who is seen and heard in worship shapes the cultural perspective of the congregation.
How often are children or young people invited to be leaders in meaningful ways? Their generational differences offer broader cultural perspectives as well. One of the great problems I see in worship leadership is ministerial or staff hegemony, especially in access to places of liturgical visibility. Invitations to lead should not come without the opportunity to plan together and for each leader to feel prepared. Tokenism does not break down dividing walls, but only reinforces them. Shared planning and leadership may offer a new worldview to the congregation.
(3) I invite you, each time you gather as Christ’s body, to pray for the needs of the world. Surely it is important to share the needs and concerns of the local body. A congregation becomes a more complete body of Christ, however, when the prayer of the voiceless is heard and the struggles of the invisible become manifest. Political oppression does not appear to be on the wane. We may witness human suffering via the media around the clock in our homes or on the street corners where seeing the homeless makes us feel so uncomfortable.
Christians around the world bear witness to their faith in many extremely inhospitable environments. Public prayer for the needs of the world each time a congregation assembles is an antidote to feelings ranging from frustration to callousness. Praying for the world is part of worshipping globally.
One of the most gracious acts of worship that we can share is to pray for the world by using sung prayers from the people for whom we are praying. Singing songs beyond our cultures of origin provides a closer bond than words alone can. The vulnerability of taking into one’s voice words and melodies beyond our experience has the potential of moving us towards a greater empathy with others even when they are not physically present. Their cries of pain and pleas for mercy in the face of oppression become embodied in own voices.
The creativity of the Holy Spirit knows no bounds and is very active in our newest songs and our existential lives. As 19th-century hymn translator Catherine Winkworth said so beautifully in her hymn, “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name,” “through the church the song goes on”, I would also suggest that the relationship between the church and its song is reciprocal: “through our song the church goes on.”
Large segments of the church in the Northern Hemisphere will be blind to the richness and diversity of our generation’s song and ignore these gifts to us at the church’s peril. The songs, prayers and confessions from the global community can add depth and energy to worship that is too often complacent and culturally bound. What we need is a little reverse mission!
Dr C. Michael Hawn is Professor of Church Music at the Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.