Musings on Interculturalism

Musings on Interculturalism

Full disclosure:  I love my Mennonite 4-part hymn singing tradition.  I love the natural, unamplified sound. I love the congregational community feeling of singing together – creating beautiful and strong harmonies. My Swiss-Mennonite upbringing taught me to love acapella singing – with a good song leader who didn’t “conduct” us, but created a wave of tempo that we all settled into together. I became a song-leader and this was a significant part of my church ministry identity for many years – until I moved to Edmonton!

In Edmonton, the church I attended helped me understand early on that for me to contribute musically, I would have to give up my style of song-leading, and instead learn how to lead from the piano. They explained that they didn’t like someone controlling them by waiving their arm. Little did they realize that a good pianist controls them, none-the-less – more subtly, but the control is there! 

I adapted. As a cultural outsider most of my life, I have learned well how to adapt. And yet I longed for my style to be honoured and recognized. I longed for others to perhaps adapt a little bit to me.  And, over time, that happened. 

Adaptation is the hardest part about becoming an intercultural church community. At our recent Mennonite Church Canada gathering, I was invited to adapt some more. Our music team lead, Anneli Loepp Thiessen, included Christian Worship Song repertoire that I didn’t know. I had already decided that I couldn’t learn these – the rhythms looked hard on the page, the style required drums and rhythm guitar.  I play folk guitar.  But I surprised myself.  I learned these well enough to help lead. And afterward, I experimented with playing guitar differently, and realized that with a faster rhythm, those scary rhythms on the page actually make sense. Again – I was adapting and learning how to expand into, what was for me, uncharted territory – territory that threatened to change my perception of “my” musical style. 

As a newly installed intentional interim pastor for a church that is striving to be truly intercultural, one of the first areas I investigated was music. I learned that this congregation had three styles of music. Some loved those “traditional” hymns – traditional only to those whose cultural heritage comes from Europe. Some loved contemporary songs – camp songs or contemporary worship songs that use guitar and drums and keyboard.  Some loved “traditional” African songs – in this case songs that came from the culture of West Africa – Liberia, to be precise. 

The way this congregation navigated these three discrete styles was by inviting one group to lead the singing each week, rotating through these three styles. This is a multi-cultural approach to bringing cultures together. We put them side by side, but there is no opportunity for cross-over or cross-fertilization. 

I wondered whether everyone was happy with this set up. My first time working with the African music team, I suggested we try a new hymn for them to offer instead of a prelude – a vocal prelude, if you will.  We learned it easily.  The next week, I wondered if we could sing what I thought would be an unfamiliar “traditional” hymn – “Take my life and let it be”.  It turns out it was a very familiar hymn, having been introduced by Baptists in West Africa. We sang it easily – with descant harmony – with guitar and drums!  We were all adapting together. On another occasion, someone from the congregation suggested we include “O Healing River” for Peace Sunday. I assumed everyone knew this since someone suggested it, but it turns out, just because it had been sung in the past didn’t mean everyone could join in.  We had to learn it line by line. Lesson #1: Don’t make assumptions!!!

When I talked with some of the congregants about their favourite hymns/worship songs, they shared with me how meaningful some of the songs from the Contemporary Worship Song repertoire are to them. I asked for a short list, and found that many were in the new Voices Together hymnal.  With my newly acquired confidence in helping to lead this style of song, we began learning a few together. Our younger music team members – 9 and 10 year olds who attend Christian schools – knew these songs, and helped lead them.  New members who were not from the African team joined. We tried to schedule these songs to sing when our drummer, who does shift work, could be there with us Sunday mornings. Our team was expanding and adapting. 

After a few weeks, I asked the question:  what works better for you; separating the styles by week, or integrating multiple styles within a worship service?  The answer was so very clear.  They had felt frustrated with the multi-cultural approach. They shared how some people didn’t come on Sundays when the music style wasn’t to their liking.  That approach wasn’t working for them.  They had been longing for an opportunity to learn each others’ styles.  They also recognized that to do this required weekly practice, which is difficult to commit to when you lead a busy life with children and two jobs.  But they have committed.  We meet every Friday for 45 minutes to an hour.  By now we are able to bring in hymns we have learned together over the past months, reducing the number of “new” hymns.  That feels really good.

Since the beginning of our experiment in adapting to each other, I have learned how to improvise a keyboard part for the “Traditional African” worship songs. The young members have improved their reading as we have learned “traditional European hymns” together – which have a lot of words!  Our African-born members have realized they can sing higher than they thought as we try to sing things in the key a song is written.  And in all of this, we are modeling integrated music and singing, which means congregants are more willing and curious to join from the pews. Our congregational singing is evolving in a beautiful adaptive way.

Last Sunday,  I realized I had failed to include a slide for one of the hymns -- which meant we had not practiced it as a music team. I confessed my error to the congregation, and explained that we would be singing this hymn in an – I hesitated…  I didn’t want to say “traditional” because there are multiple “traditionals” in this intercultural community!  And so, I said we would be singing it in an “old fashioned” way – with song leader and piano – no amplification, and no drum. And so we sang “We are People of God’s Peace” in the congregational style I grew up with. Afterward, one of the culturally West African team members came up and said “I liked that ‘old fashioned way.’” I think this team member had never actually joined in non-amplified congregational singing before, perhaps because this was not a familiar style to her. Perhaps she felt exposed without the extra sound of the speakers.  Whatever the reason, this Sunday, she joined in! After all the adapting we have been doing, it feels like the willingness to try on new styles now permeates throughout the congregation – across cultures and ages. 

Music is but one aspect of creating an intercultural community. But since music plays such an essential role in our collective worship, it is perhaps the most important when it comes to planning worship together. We now have a common repertoire with people from a variety of cultural backgrounds confidently modeling singing in multiple musical styles. We continue to learn and grow together in our intercultural worship.