When Chinese Christians around the world worship God through music, chances are they’re singing a translated Western hymn or a hit by established worship music creators Stream of Praise (赞美之泉), Heavenly Melody (天韵合唱团), or Clay Music (泥土音乐). Several worship songwriters are interested in adding something that better reflects the tastes of young people.
Jiang Shaolong, Cui Yu, Jane Hao, Chen Ming, and Luan Xin all grew up in China before moving to the United States for college or graduate work and share a passion for Chinese worship songwriting and ministering to the next generation. They are enthusiastic about using their songwriting talents to help deepen the faith of the Chinese students and young professionals they pastor or mentor. With the exception of Chen, who studied music at a conservatory, all of them are self-taught musicians.
Jiang pastors the Chinese-speaking congregation of New Life Community Church Bridgeport, in Chicago, and offers spiritual mentorship to Jing Ji Huo (The Burning Bush), which also includes Hao and Yu, the band’s leader. Chen Ming and Luan Xin are both campus ministers. (Ming works with the diaspora Chinese ministry Ambassadors for Christ.)
These young Chinese praise songwriters—all of whom are in their 30s and 40s, years below the average Chinese church leader—recently spoke with CT about why they felt compelled to write new Chinese worship songs and how they handle commentary that their music is too inspired by pop.
Why did you want to create new Chinese praise songs?
Jiang: I was called by God to serve a Chinese church made up mostly of young Chinese students and young professionals. We worship with songs translated from English as well as songs written by other Chinese songwriting teams, and we’re grateful for the Chinese songs we already have. But I still have the desire to create new songs in our own language.
Just as we often say that prayer is as necessary to Christians as breathing, singing and worshiping are as natural to Christians as eating and drinking tea. I love Chinese food and tea culture, and I have the gift of cooking and making tea. So in my ministry, I cook and make tea for the young Chinese brothers and sisters and seekers in our church. This is a down-to-earth way of ministry that also allows me to use my gifts. The same is true for writing praise music.
Before I became a Christian, I loved playing guitar and tried to make music, and I was interested in Chinese literature. Now when I look back, I feel that God had already prepared me for the calling of hymn writing.
Chen: To be honest, I’m not sure how capable I am of writing Chinese praise music. But I come from a musical background and have had professional training in music. I am equipped with a theological education, and in my understanding, praise music composition is a good exercise and expression of personal worship to God and reflection on faith.
As a campus minister, I also consider it an important ministry for me to use creative writing as a way to encourage brothers and sisters and to help them reflect and practice their faith. So, praise music writing is really a part of my ministry.
What do you feel is the most difficult part in your creative process of praise music writing?
Cui: Finding the balance between serving the church and self-expression. A person who writes Christian songs naturally wants to use the best words and phrases to express their innermost and deepest thoughts and feelings. If they can find an understanding audience, they will be happy. But if not, they are not willing to go against their original intention and express a voice that is not their own, just to suit the aesthetics of those around them.
On the other hand, God has also called us to serve the church. Sometimes our works may be so focused on self-expression that they are difficult for the congregation to understand. We want our works to be comprehensible, to move, encourage, inspire, and comfort people and ultimately help them mature in their faith and get closer to God. If we write praise songs that only serve to express and move ourselves but lose the function of communal worship, they will not have real value.
Chen: I used to be a pop songwriter, so writing music isn’t the hardest part for me. Rather, I find it challenging to create lyrics, which are the main carrier of the message. I have yet to create the kind of lyrics with layers and depth that I idealize.
Can you share an example of your spiritual experience in worship music creation?
Hao: The first praise song I wrote was called “New Life.” Its chorus came to me one day while I was praying. I was deeply struggling that day, feeling greatly disappointed and disgusted with myself. But during the prayer God showed me what I looked like in His eyes—a person who had been renewed by the blood of Jesus, with a life guided by the Holy Spirit.
I just went with what moved me and typed the lyrics down on the computer. The process of writing that song was a devotional experience for me, allowing me to realize in prayer that God had given me a new life so I could live a life that was no longer wrapped up in sin. Even though I still have weaknesses, God sees me as flawless and beautiful in Jesus.
When working with each other, how do you handle the conflicts that come from differences in personal styles or preferences?
Chen: Usually we have some common basic principles for writing praise songs, such as theological rigor and clarity of the gospel message. It’s healthy if we argue over issues involving these principles and keep a serious, rigorous approach to song creation. But we need to be patient and flexible about differences outside of these principles and respect personal style and preferences to the greatest extent possible.
Luan: We are taught that Christians should practice submitting to one another. But in the artistic matter of making music, it is often very difficult to compromise. It is difficult to “submit to one another” when there are many differences of opinion on the style of the arrangement. When that happens, our approach was to revise it over and over again to try to make it as satisfying as possible for teammates with different preferences. I remember one time we wrote 27 versions of one song!
Chinese Christians often criticize modern Chinese worship songs for sounding like pop songs. How do you view tradition and innovation in songwriting?
Cui: I actually encourage us to look at all kinds of Chinese worship songs today with an open and appreciative heart. Even if they sound like pop music, I don’t dismiss them easily. These kinds of songs may be suitable for many young and new Christians. They can be used to encourage young Christians in their spiritual growth in a musical language they can quickly accept. It takes time for them to mature in their musical choices.
A spiritual elder once shared with us that intergenerational ministry is also, in essence, a form of cross-cultural mission. It requires us to minister to the younger generation in a culture and language that is familiar to them. If you force your own generation’s culture and language on them, you will create a cross-cultural barrier for your ministry.
Of course, we can’t just stop with songs. Worship music should be rich in content and form because God’s grace and his works in our lives are rich. We need to allow the art form that is worship songs to express this richness as much as possible. Music is capable of providing an infectiousness that words cannot provide. We should not abandon traditions, yet we need to create Chinese worship music that belongs to our time and also contains profound theological connotations.
Chen: I think we need to look at lyrics and music separately. In terms of lyrics, I personally think that the lyrics of many Chinese worship songs that are currently popular in Chinese churches are indeed rather monotonous and repetitive, as if they were created by using a formula. The theology often lacks rigor and orthodox.
But in terms of tunes, there are actually many historical Western hymns that use the melodies of popular songs of the era. The tunes of those works possess the characteristics of being memorable, easy to learn, and easy to sing. This is a good thing. But the role of lyrics in hymnody is primary, and the creation of lyrics needs to be done with more care, to an extent that it should even be seen as preparing a sermon that needs to be finely crafted word by word.
Luan: Much of modern Chinese worship music is not really like pop songs. The problem is that the music is boring, the tunes are unpleasant, and the musicianship lags behind that of pop songs. Many unbelievers can hum a few lines of “Amazing Grace” or “Joy to the World” because the Christians back then made the hymns popular by achieving a high standard of music. My hope is that Christians today are able to produce worship music of a musical standard that rivals the popular music of their contemporaries.
This requires both innovation and an inheritance of tradition. I myself will experiment with different styles of modern music—I wrote probably the first hard-rock style and the first metal-style Chinese worship songs ever. But the lyrics we write should tell the story of the ancient gospel, just like those classic Western hymns did. That is inheriting the tradition.
Jiang: Inheriting tradition is not the same as copying Western Christian music. Since we are writing lyrics in Chinese, we should also write them with the unique beauty and rhythm of the Chinese language. I have tried to write lyrics in a more elegant style similar to Tang poetry and Song lyrics in ancient Chinese literature. I think that modern Chinese lyrics can be written to be easily understood, but they can also pursue the literary beauty and gracefulness of the traditional Chinese language.
Improving the quality of composing requires greater professionalism. After we had been composing for a while, we were able to see shortcomings in our music. I intentionally became friends with some experienced, professional music producers and asked them for advice. We asked them to help us improve the orchestration and harmonization, record and do some professional treatment for the songs we composed, and also give us some training in music production. Since we are called by God to write worship music, we have to do it professionally and try to make a good product. Not only the lyrics and music should be good, but professionalism is also part of the calling.
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