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On my last Sunday at Saint Barnabas, where I led music for almost 27 years, the new music director asked me to share my philosophy of church music with some key instrumentalists. It was a good occasion to rehearse what to me is the role of music in biblical worship.
First, be eclectic. Select the best from a variety of styles and sources. This is fundamental to being the church.
The Christian church exists almost everywhere because, as missiologist Andrew Walls discovered, Christianity has been far more culturally adaptable than other religions. Yes, I know the horror stories of Western missionaries imposing insipid Victorian hymns on African and Asian converts. But I also know about missionaries—from Baptist to Jesuit—who have helped new groups of believers cultivate worship in their culturally unique musical vocabulary.
To worship as part of a global church, we must find small ways to incorporate music from other cultures. At Saint Barnabas, we recently sang a Tibetan arrangement of the Lord's Prayer, the multilingual Xhosa-Zulu-Sesotho hymn "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika" ("Lord Bless Africa"), and an Old Church Slavonic chant.
The Christian church has culturally cross-pollinated its worship for almost two millennia. Egeria, a fourth-century Spanish pilgrim, wrote an eyewitness account of worship practices in Jerusalem. Those practices became the basis for the emerging liturgical year. In the sixth century, after retaking the Italian peninsula from the Ostrogoths, Emperor Justinian appointed three popes. The result was "blended worship," a mix of East and West that brought the Hebrew Halleluia and the Greek Kyrie Eleison—"Lord, have mercy"—to our common worship.
The Reformation also produced tremendous cross-pollination. Though Elizabeth I didn't like them, the psalms of John Calvin's Geneva spread to her realm, and they set the stage for scripturally dense hymn writing. Among my favorite ...