Over the past five years, I’ve sat in churches and hotel lobbies, stood in rice fields, and crouched cross-legged in dimly lit meeting rooms as I listened to believers in Nepal share why it is so important to have worship music of their own.
In the past, Christians in this region have gotten flak from local Buddhists and Hindus for surrendering their cultural identity when they became believers. But indigenous worship music—music written in the local style with lyrics in local languages—testifies to the reality that biblical faith can be expressed within local cultural forms.
Worship using local musical compositions and instruments sends the message that Christianity isn’t monocultural or an import of European colonization. Local believers are empowered to compose songs that come from their experiences and can resonate within their cultural context.
Here are three things I’ve learned about the value of indigenous worship from three encounters with musicians in Nepal.
Indigenous Worship Music Conveys Meaning in the Heart Language
There are approximately 130 languages spoken in Nepal, a country roughly the size of Illinois. For many in the Himalayan nation, Nepali is their second language. It’s the trade language.
Churches in Nepal sometimes worship in Nepali out of necessity, either because there are no worship songs in their minority languages or because they want to encourage unity in the body of Christ. The problem is that singing in a second language is difficult.
“Music is the heart of people.”
When songwriter James Lhomi became a Christian, there were no worship songs in his language. The Bible hadn’t even been translated into his heart language yet.
When I visited with James recently, we met in a room with windows looking out on the largest Tibetan Buddhist stupa in the world. I asked how many songs he’s composed, and he answered casually, “around eighty.” He’s one of the most prolific songwriters in Nepal. And his work testifies to the power and potency of worship music in indigenous languages.
The fellowship James attended when he was young sang songs from a Nepali songbook, but it was awkward and the melody and tune was different than his Lhomi language. James said translated songs from Nepali to Lhomi come across as clumsy and don’t always make sense in the cultural context. For about ten years, James struggled through worship in his church. The real meaning of the songs he was singing was lost. Worshiping in a second language felt more like a discipline than a heartfelt expression of praise.
James sensed the Lord calling him to compose songs in his heart language. Heart language is a person’s preferred way of communicating—it’s the language you think in, dream in, and use to talk to family and friends. He began writing music using his language’s cadence, tune, and rhythm. When he first played some of his songs in front of other Lhomi believers, they began crying. It struck a chord in their hearts.
Language is central to a person’s identity. Language is crucial, not just in communication with one another, but in our communication with God. James showed me that it’s more meaningful and dynamic to worship God in the language of the heart.
Indigenous Music Incorporates Local Instrumentation and Movement
In 2013, I had the chance to watch as believers from sixteen different peoples from the region gathered to compose original hymns and worship songs. Some had walked for miles on foot, others had traveled by motorcycle, bus or shared minivans. They came from mountainous areas and what’s known locally as the terai, or lowland plains at the foot of the Himalayas. Many of the songs they wrote were the first songs ever written in their languages. It was history in the making.
“I listened as languages came to life in prayers and praise, the notes of traditional songs revealing hearts yearning for God.”
During the songwriting workshop, I listened as languages came to life in prayers and praise, the notes of traditional songs revealing hearts yearning for God. Almost-forgotten languages found breath in the lyrics believers jotted on notebook paper. But it wasn’t just the language that made these songs their own. It was also the instrumentation.
The songs they composed incorporated traditional instruments like the damphu, a percussion instrument like a tambourine, the basuri, similar to a flute, and sarangi, a string instrument. Traditional drums of the Limbu people, called ke, were pounded in praise for the Savior. In some cases, local worship music was accompanied by traditional dances.
At the end of the music writing workshop, I waved goodbye to an older couple who’d written songs that incorporated an unusual indigenous instrument—a leaf. Leaf whistling, used in their culture to communicate romantic interest, brought them together as a couple, and it also allowed them to express adoration for their Creator.
After sharing their story, the wife slid onto the motorcycle, sitting sidesaddle behind her husband as they scooted off down a dirt road to head home. I waved goodbye, marveling at the diversity in the body of Christ.
Indigenous Music Can Introduce People to the Gospel
A recent conversation with a local pastor, Pemba Sherpa, taught me another important benefit of having indigenous worship songs: evangelistic outreach. We sat cross-legged on the floor of his church after a service, and he told me how having worship music in the Sherpa language led to the start of a church.
A youth group visited a village where there was no church and played worship songs in the local language. The music drew a crowd. People were surprised to hear new songs in the Sherpa language.
In the past, Christians had been run out of this village. But the youth group was welcomed because the music expressed the people’s shared experiences, struggles, and hopes. People were drawn to church because of indigenous worship music.
“Music is the heart of people,” Pemba said, pointing to his heart. “People who don’t want to come to church, when they hear music, they want to come.”
Music transforms hearts as people express heartfelt worship to their Creator. And God takes pleasure in every tribe and tongue worshiping in their own language.
Caroline Anderson is a writer with the IMB. She currently lives in Southeast Asia. Her childhood in Asia consisted of two important ingredients: braving hot chili peppers and telling people about Jesus.
Andrew Rivers and his wife serve with the IMB in Southeast Asia where he works as a videographer.