Choirs 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:
In 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.
This 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.
As 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.