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.

Singing the Bible

Recording a biblically sound song about AIDS in Congo

Recording a biblically sound song about AIDS in Congo

Recent research in India discovered that singing Scripture songs is a prominent way believers there spread the Bible. It is a natural, low-cost, and effective way to make the Bible known. Better, it attracts non believers.

New translations of the Bible happen predominantly in places with low literacy rates. Research done in such places showed that almost 25% of Christians who could read learned by signing out of a hymnbook or book of praise songs. Think about it. The person looks at the same words and sings them over and over, week in and week out.

Some learn to read by the sheer force of repeated exposure without being taught. I have written about this before.

Almost everywhere I have been in Africa, believers who see someone translating the Bible into their language ask that their hymns and Scripture songs also be translated and/or published. Unfortunately, this request is too often ignored. That is sad. Perhaps Western missionaries no longer value hymn books because they have largely disappeared from our churches. But we need to make our decisions based on what works in here, not what is useful at home.

GILLBT and church leader showing their agreement with the proposal

GILLBT and church leader showing their agreement with the proposal

Recently, I helped a church in northern Ghana design a program to spread the Gospel in the two largest, unreached people groups of Ghana, together representing almost 2 million people. One of the key elements was the creation and publication of church songbooks in those two languages, so that the church services could be entirely in those languages. Without that, people in those language groups think that Christianity is not for them, but only those who speak other languages.