Home Worship Planning Music Resources And They Sang a Hymn: The Incarnational Nature of Congregational Song in Multicultural Contexts (Part 3)

And They Sang a Hymn: The Incarnational Nature of Congregational Song in Multicultural Contexts (Part 3)

By Cynthia Wilson

Stock choir clapping hands

Part 3: Living Liturgy: Embellished Rhythms and Cultural Particularities

How can communities of faith measure the efficacy or cultural action and symbols in worship?

In an age where individualism and detachment breed separation and disunity, there is an urgent need for a catalytic agent that makes possible the Christ event in corporate worship. Where primary symbols function at the very center of our liturgy, connecting us to the richness of our history, secondary symbols such as fire, space, oil, images, sacred speech, water, the drum, dance, the song and the Assembly represent the particularities of those gathered. This is the evidence, the holy things that reveal the what, where, when, how, and who of the congregation. Once connected to primary things, these linkages or liturgical fields set off the divine-human encounter understood as Divine Liturgy. It is here that we experience “the primary human response to the love of the triune God as doxology.” (Duck, Praising God- 97) Through the revelatory arts of language, drama, visual art, ritual storytelling, and song, all

people at all places at all times are able to fully experience the Spirit and truth of the mystery in their particular vernacular. Maynard-Reid affirms that “in worship, people’s cultural self-expressions are authenticated in the presence of God. If worship does not have its grounding in people’s lives and cultural experiences, it will remain foreign, imposed and irrelevant.”

Although history proves that most movements to re-form liturgical music, whether Catholic or Protestant, the true intent was to either reinstate and restore to a primary place that which has become sacred in a particular context or to radically change the status quo in worship matters. More often than not, such endeavors have produced an unhealthy tension between the artistic and ministerial. Obviously, this is not an either/or scenario. Gail Ramshaw reminds us that “the sacred comes not to me, but only to us” [italics mine]. (Ramshaw, Reviving – 26 Vital worship can only be experienced when there is balance between the artistic and the ministerial. Once clearly established, such a balance can potentially reinforce and intensify the reciprocal relationship between culture and religion which is the essence of Christianity. (Maynard-Reid, 196)

Geoffrey Wainwright argues that “any natural symbol can be baptized for use in the Christian cult. Any cultural expression or social institution can be ‘Christianized,’ as it were.”[1] Diverse cultures bring to bear an assortment of secondary rhythmic action and symbols such as musical genres, musical instruments, attire, symbols, gestures, food, and cultural mores upon worship rituals that can only enrich the worship community internally while at the same time, create an atmosphere of warmth and hospitality for the stranger. Nonetheless, Gordon Lathrop encourages us to be mindful of the ways in which these indigenous actions, signs and symbols can potentially draw our attention away from the center of our worship celebrations: the living, suffering, dying, and resurrected Christ. While this process can be quite awkward, the Church must remain true to “the tension between constancy and diversity, catholicity and locality in worship”. (Lathrop, Holy Things, 169)

Firstly, all liturgical elements used in Christian ritual should direct us to the Triune God: In Baptism, immersion into the only One in union with Christ through the power of the Spirit; the Eucharist gives thanks to God the Source, remembers Jesus the Word, and prays for the gift of the Spirit; in preaching, through the power of the Spirit, we proclaim the presence of the eternal God in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and in our daily lives, and of course hymns are the wellspring and witness of Trinitarian faith. (Duck, Praising God- 81) Faith communities carry on dialogue in worship with God through the symbol of song. In so doing, the people of God embody the real presence of Christ, God is glorified, and God’s people or edified, transformed, and empowered to take that same presence into a world that is devoid of justice, grace and peace.

Secondly, in examining indigenous action and symbols, we must search out the mimetic activity within them. Joyce Zimmerman points us to the three-fold model of Ricoeurian mimesis: 1.) Mimesis1 is a “prefiguring” process that implies there is already some sense of the events in the narrative action; 2.) Mimesis2 is a “configuring” activity which serves as a mediator between both sides of a narrative: individual events and the story as a whole; 3.) Mimesis3 is an activity in which the “reader” or hearer of a story inserts personal life experiences into “holes” in the story. Where liturgy is concerned, for Zimmerman, in Mimesis1, the “prefigured” process imitates the life, passion, death, resurrection, ascension, sending of the Spirit, and Second Coming of Christ. This is done by means of emplotment. That is, within a liturgical text. The lives of the worshiping assembly imitate the life of Christ. Mimesis2 would then be the “configuring” of these events in the actual celebration. Finally, Mimesis3 “refigures” the lives of the worshipers as they embody the mystery. (Vogel, Primary Sources – 308-309)

In twenty-first century worship Christians are still situated between the dialectic of life and liturgy. In our lives the mystery is re-configured through the deep structures of liturgical celebration. Week after week we become a part of the Divine Mystery, even is this contemporary space and time by remembering and rehearsing what God has done in the past, by celebrating what God is doing in the present (cosmos), and by anticipating what God will do in the future (eschaton). At the very core of liturgy must be contextual sensibility and its implications for vital, relevant, transformative worship in the twenty-first century. The achievement of such sensibility requires the deliberate acknowledgement of a particular faith community, a genuine embrace of that community’s indigenous ritual songs, symbols, and texts, a legitimate encounter with the diverse approach to ritual celebration, and a routine incorporation of the new worship expression. A universal approach to Congregational Song must also value the contributions of various cultures and subcultures, and we find many examples of the appropriation of these are appearing in worship today. The Episcopal and United Methodist churches have recently published hymnals collecting the hymns, songs, and spirituals of diverse cultures. United Methodists have published several volumes of hymnal supplements as well as an official hymnal that garner the music of African Americans, Asians, Hispanics, and Native American. Dr. Zan Wesley Holmes, Jr., retired Adjunct Professor of Preaching at Perkins School of Theology and United Methodist pastor offers this insight:

While the forms and styles [of worship] may be diverse, the musical genres varied, the degree of liturgy different I quantity and kind, the Word preached and read in different ways and languages, the questions become: Was there a rehearsal of the gracious acts of God in the past, the present, and the promise for the future? Was there an encounter with the Holy God? Was there a sense that we are the created and a people prone to dip into the social swine pen of life and stay to live as if we are not those who are called to be God’s people? Was there a reminder that we owe thanks and praise to the one from whom all blessings have come? Did we say, “Much obliged!” Did we show gratitude for goodness and grace? Was there a reminder of our obligation to act and care about those people and things that the Grace-giver cares about? Did we encounter Jesus in his risen power?[2]

To ignore the vital signs of life that exist beyond the “temple of our own familiar” is to sabotage the Christ event in the world. Jesus posed the definitive question: Who is my Mother? Who is my brother? Our connection to God can only be secured by our connections to the other. Liturgical objectivity and exclusivity inhibit our capacity for true communion with God. A subjective approach to ritual activity enables us to see Christ, to see each other, and to fully embody the mystery of Christ in a world of injustice, hatred, and war. Worship can only be sacred when it is communal. Ramshaw sums it up this way, “The cross needs to get some body in it. That body, kit seems to me, is the Church made alive in the Spirit. The universe is transformed by the cross as it is enfleshed by the body of the Church.” (Vogel, 25)

When our worship traditions, customs, routines, rituals, or whatever label we deem appropriate, respond to the call of Christ to fulfill the Great Commission, when our passion for justice, mercy, and equality runs alongside our commitment to preserve the core elements of our rich and valued apostolic worship tradition, when the ‘other’ is welcomed into such a splendid tradition as neighbor and friend, when our zeal for accuracy and authenticity is able to make room for rituals, symbols, gestures, and garb from other contexts, perhaps then our worship can reflect God’s glory, the love of Christ, and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. The truth be told, neither tradition nor culture can fully take responsibility for the efficacious task of moving the gathered body into the presence of God separately. But together, they can evoke an unwavering “Yes!” to the call, “Come follow me.”


[1] Wainwright

[2] Holmes, Jr. Zan Wesley. Vital Signs: Encountering Jesus. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992), 42.

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