Hymns

Baby on back of choir memberChoirs in African churches often differ from choirs in the US. For one thing, they often function as small groups for Bible study and mutual support. But the aspects I want to focus on today is that they often sing in African languages and they very often write their own songs, sometimes regularly introducing new songs. Coupled with high rates of illiteracy found in many parts of rural Africa, choirs can be an important way to get the Bible to people.

I’m reading a book about theology and Christian life in Africa. Each chapter has a different author, all African. They write about what Christians in Africa believe and how that affect (or not) their behavior. Here’s a passage from a chapter written by a church leader from Mali:

Theologie et vie chretienne en AfriqueIn all the churches, the availability of the Bible or New Testament is a source of inspiration for composers of Christian songs in their mother tongues. Whereas the first missionaries translated their English or French hymns into Malian languages, Malian Christians composed their own hymns using their musical styles. The songs composed by Christians who do not read the bible are full of moral exhortations which differ only from the songs of non-Christians because the name of Jesus appears a few times. On the other hand, composers who read the Bible are a minority, but they write songs enriched by the Word of God.

Choir_4This is another example of how the translation of the Bible into the language of the people enhances faith and people’s experience of church.

As most people memorize songs more quickly and easily than we memorize plain text, many people memorize what they sing in church. What a pity if those songs don’t have much content!

But if the songs are full of Bible content, then that content gets into people minds and from their into their hearts. So, to get new translations used, we target choirs, choir directors and people who write songs for churches. We might hold a small workshop for them, for example. They idea is to encourage them to write based on the Scripture in their language.

choir with handkerchiefsAs they sing these songs, and often the congregation sings along,  the Bible will get into the heads of people who may never learn to read. That’s important because of high rates of illiteracy in Africa, especially in rural Africa.

Worship in churches in Africa is known for its enthusiasm and vibrancy. Those are good. When the words of the songs are full of Bible content, then worship will have as much substance and truth as it has vivacity  – the best of both.

Choirs

Ghana choir

Ghana choir

When you hear the phrase “church choir”  what comes to mind? Large? Traditional? Sings hymns? Wears robes?

What would it be like if:

  • Many church choirs wrote their own songs
  • Every church had 2-3 choirs and and large churches might have 10 or more
  • Choirs expected the congregation to learn their songs and sing along
  • Some choirs sang in a language which is the mother tongue of only a fraction of the congregation and some churches would have several of these
  • Choirs offered support to choir members and others during times of bereavement, illness, unemployment, etc.
  • A significant portion of choir meetings was spent in sharing and prayer
  • Choirs expected that at least some people in the pew would come to the front and dance for joy with choir members during rousing songs
  • In some rural churches, as many as 70% of choir members could not read or write, just like the rest of the congregation

I don’t have to imagine this. I live in it. This us what church choirs are in much of Africa.

Church in Abone, Congo

Church in Abone, Congo

Now, imagine that you are part of a team doing the first translation ever into a language and you are looking for more ways to get this new translation into hearts and minds. A local person suggests choirs, but you still think about choirs the way you did at home. So you reject that crazy idea.

It has happened just like that. Of course, others realized that if choirs compose and sing Scripture songs in the local language, Bible reading and memorization happen. It’s cheap, sustainable and fits the local system.

Being effective when working in another culture means making a conscious choice to call your understanding into question, even for things you know (or think you know) perfectly well, such as choirs.