The sounds of worship across cultures deepens and expands our praise
Written by Andrea Nwabuike
I mark the start of each new year by creating a playlist. It is always a diverse collection of gospel, rap, jazz, R&B and reggae. At first listen, it may sound like an unorganized and messy arrangement, but each song is chosen intentionally.
I build my playlist slowly throughout the year, adding oldies overheard in the grocery store with desperately anticipated singles from my favourite artists. Lively tracks compelling me to dance blend into contemplative melodies mirroring my deepest and most vulnerable emotions. Songs in Portuguese, Korean, and Igbo flow one after the other.
I don’t always understand the lyrics, but the power of music is its ability to reach beyond the limits of language. Each song carries memories, lessons, and intentions collected throughout the year. By December, I’m left with a time capsule, more vibrant and expressive than pictures or journal entries could ever claim to be.
Music has had its most profound effect on my spiritual life. It is the means by which I hear God most clearly. He has comforted me in seasons of anxiety with Kirk Franklin’s song “He’ll Take the Pain Away.” When I’ve struggle to find contentedness, He has challenged me with the questions from “Satisfied” by The Walls Group.
Recently, I’ve been meditating on the ad-lib, “His jealousy is protection” from Maverick City’s single, “Jealous.” Heaven has greeted me most tangibly in my church’s sanctuary, when the musicians have lifted their hands from their instruments and the voices of the congregation declare in perfect harmony, “Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to Thee How great Thou art, how great Thou art!”
When questioned by the Pharisees about which commandment in the law was the greatest, Jesus confirmed that it was to love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds. Music plays a unique role in deepening our love for God. Musical worship engages my mind as I reflect on what I sing; it employs my body as I dance, clap, or sway to the rhythm; and it stirs my emotions as the tone and mood triggers a heart-level response.
Music invites me to worship God with all of who I am. It is no wonder that God also commands His people to sing.
I would not be able to hear God as clearly or worship Him as deeply through music if I restricted my taste to certain genres or styles of worship music. In his book, When The Kings Come Marching In, American theologian and professor Richard J. Mouw writes,
“…there is no one human individual or group who can fully bear or manifest all that is involved in the image of God so that there is a sense in which that image is collectively possessed. The image of God is, as it were, parceled out among the peoples of the earth. By looking at different individuals and groups we get glimpses of different aspects of the full image of God.”
The image of God is not reserved to a particular people or time period, and neither is His voice. We see glimpses of who God is not only by looking at the diversity of His people but in listening to the diversity of their stories. The Lord’s glory is revealed in the theologically rich lyrics of hymns and simple two-line choruses that repeatedly call upon His goodness.
He delights in our worship whether we are accompanied by acoustic guitars, pipe organs, or tambourines. Our yearning for God’s deliverance is heightened as we sing old African American spirituals. Our vocabulary expands as we worship him in different languages. Our affections for God are grown when we immerse ourselves in music that touches our hearts in different ways.
A few years ago, my home church decided to observe every third Sunday as Praise Sunday. During these special worship services, members of the congregation were invited to stand at the pulpit and share their testimony. Many would start by singing a hymn. The rest of the congregation would gently sing or hum along.
This practice prepared our hearts and minds to listen attentively to the speaker’s story and to express our solidarity with them in their struggles and triumphs. Though our journeys with God were different, we could affirm together the truths of the hymns we sang.
Musical worship not only connects us to God but to each other. We are unified with the ancestors of our faith when we sing the songs they wrote and connected to the global Church when we sing songs from other contexts and cultures. Can you imagine how glorious Heaven sounds on Sundays, as congregations worship with different instruments, languages, and genres? God’s playlist is unrivaled.
Andrea Nwabuike is a Nigerian-Canadian mental health counsellor and writer. Her love of words began in childhood when she would hide under the covers with a flashlight and a juicy mystery novel. Those reading sessions expanded her imagination and ignited her curiosity. Andrea’s passion for the written word has drawn her to write about the intersections of faith, ethnicity, and gender. When she isn’t writing or counselling, you can find her eating plantain chips or belting out 90s R&B classics.