This is an article from the September-October 2015 issue: Setting the Scriptures Free in a Digital Age

Permission to Worship Creatively

Permission to Worship Creatively

During a recent event in Asia, I was a bit discouraged that the locals leading singing each morning used songs I knew. They did a very good job and I realize that the event had an international audience that used English as the language medium. The irony was that the same people had done a traditional dance/song performance at the beginning of the event—but never used any of those instruments, styles, dress or movements after that point. Somehow, in cultures all over the world, Christianity has not given “permission” to use cultural dress, music and styles in appropriate ways.

I’ve heard the same kind of reports from all over the indigenous world for years.

When I travel to conferences around the world, I always hope I will hear what I think might draw the average person just outside the meeting room toward the Lord. I want her/him to be attracted by the worship. I realize I could be misunderstanding the situation—I am no expert in every culture. And, I realize that the world is becoming so “globalized” that worship is becoming more and more like the pop music culture—with “Christian” words, simple lyrics and lots of repetition. Perhaps that attracts some.

There are, however, many cultures who rightly resist this trend. Yet, we continue to send teachers around the world to put on seminars from a Western worldview. And that includes worship leaders and teams teaching what they know well, but which is often disconnected from the receiving cultures. In fact, one of the specific points our Asian brothers and sisters made at this event was that this kind of training is often done without a clear understanding of the culture where it occurs. Funding from the outside gets a larger audience, whereas a local teacher or worship leader can not do so.

This whole topic may seem like it is not related to “frontiers in mission.” Think about that a little harder. If the only “kinds” of believers that non-believers see are just like what they see coming from the secular west, will that draw them to Christ? Sometimes it does—but not within many of the remaining unreached peoples.

My hope is that you who read this might share it with worship leaders you know to help them grow in their global awareness. Encourage them to consider additional aspects of worship and to think globally—even when they are leading worship here in the U.S. And, there are some great books on these subjects that can prompt our thinking. One published in 2013 by William Carey Library is Worship and Mission for the Global Church (Ed. Krabill). It also has a companion workbook: Creating Local Arts Together (Schrag)

Here are a few ideas.

  • Observe and ask how they sing, celebrate, suffer, struggle, etc. in the broader surrounding culture. What does that tell you about what the emerging fellowships could do?
  • Ask God to give church leaders and global workers insight into what should be done in worship in each situation. Perhaps he will grant something special, like he did in China through the “Canaan Hymns” in the house church movement.
  • Spend time working on how to integrate the reading of the word in worship more effectively. Be sure to practice that also, like worship teams do with songs.
  • Think and plan for the use of creative energies from those in your church—or those you might attract—who have non-musical worship giftings. Is your church “plain” looking? Perhaps that is what you want, just be sure to be intentional. Are there ways to include meaning-filled art or other expressions to prepare hearts and minds for worship and learning—individually or corporately?
  • While I love the great classic hymns of the faith and many Christians around the world feel an ownership of these, they may not work in new cultures where the gospel is just breaking through.
  • Consider how to “sing a new song.” (Psalm 96:1-2) Are we writing Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs ourselves?

Please share your own ideas and stories in our comment section. Look up this issue at and scroll down to my page “Further Reflections” at the bottom.


Thanks for these good ideas, Greg! It’s also very helpful to get training on how to promote culturally relevant biblically-based arts across cultures. Here are some recognized training programs, seminars, and organizations:
IWS Global Renewal of Worship Center, at



Great to hear from you.
THANKS for adding the links. I hope our readers can connect with these resources and people!
As you know, worship is both personal and corporate, and it varies around the Globe.
Grace to you Paul,

In a multi-cultural worship service, occasionally the song leader of the day may choose songs in one language that don’t exist in the other or doesn’t bother to check the number of the song.  unintentionally this leaves some of the worshippers in the dark, unable to join in.  Celebrating diversity.  Quality songs.  ‘Real meat’ instead of just ‘dessert’ worshipper-centric songs that worship God instead of just how I feel when i worship God.  I should not be the focus of my singing.

It’s interesting how learning to worship in another language frees one up to express in a way that would not be “the same” in one’s first language.  That is really Precious.

Thanks for the article.


Great reflections Nathaniel,
I long for worship leaders who really THINK about what is happening and focus on the Lord. We certainly need a “touch” of the body/community in our corp. worship, but—like you (I think)—that comes in the fact that you are worshiping God TOGETHER.
THANKS for your comments.

Greg, I often cringe when I hear Latino churches use Hillsong United worship songs in Spanish. To be honest, the beauty of the native tongue takes a back seat to the foreign tongue that shortchanges the true meaning of worship. Much needs to be done to bring awareness to this issue at large. Thank-you for including it in this month’s edition.


That’s what I was trying to describe…you brought it home!
I have also reacted to two things:

1. A GREAT increase in repetition. I realize some of you will disagree with me, and I’ve been told that by repeating individual lines over and over, it “prepares” them or draws them to the Lord.
I guess that is OK, but we don’t see it in the Bible. When I’ve pointed that out, I was told (indirectly) that the ideas is supposedly supported by Rev. 4:8, where they angels repeat, over and over, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty…”
My response is that: 1) Those are angels and that is the only reason they were created. 2) We are created human, with a purpose. Worship is (not just singing) just ONE of the things that we do.

2. I guess I struggle with the idea that we should have people who ONLY worship. Mainly, b/c I think we worship by witnessing, living out our faith in our families, communities, work/school relationships, world at a distance….
Sorry…you guys got me going!


Hi Greg,

It seems that everything does boil down to intent, doesn’t it?  Last Sunday, our local pastoral staff lead in the song “Jesus, be the centre”, repeated it thrice.  Worshipful.  And normally I am against a whole lot of meaningless repetition [likely if I’m trying to figure out what to do next because I forgot where I was in the order of worship]

This time we had about 5 nationalities and more ethnicities present so basically sung in English and Thai.  One of the visitors commented that there was too much repetition and we had become too emotional.  [Just a small group of us, 20+]

Herein is a little humour.  “I guess the worship leader tends towards “hillsongs”...“I just deflected, oh he’s hilltribes” 
John4:24 “worship in spirit and in truth”  Is there a time we can truly divorce emotion from worship?

So I appreciate your take on Rev 4:8. If all of life is about worship, why do some emphasize that segment of singing as opposed to the rest of worship in reading, offering, prayer, etc.  How about the whole of life as you put it.  “Mainly, b/c I think we worship by witnessing, living out our faith in our families, communities, work/school relationships, world at a distance….”

Great article! Having grown up in another faith, I was confused upon learning that “worship” was used as term for singing hymns. Having been exposed to a different way of worship, I thought worship encompassed so much more. It is praising God whether in speech, song, gratitude, lifting of arms etc. I think worship begins with the preparation of the heart. I have to admit that I have sinned by singing until I am fully capable of worshipping through song. And I hold back because in the culture that I live in, I don’t want to distract others by kneeling, bowing, or being super animated. In a different culture, I may definitely feel free to express myself if the majority is doing so as well. Perhaps that culture will be before the throne when we can fully express ourselves in true worship.

As for worshipping in other languages, it is awesome when one speaks another language and is able to truly worship in song in another language. I grew up speaking Spanish and feel happy when I am able to worship in that language because the words hold deeper meaning for me. And having experienced a trilingual service in Brazil, was so beautiful when all in attendance sang in whichever of the three languages was on the screen. Could we ever get to that point where we live? I’m not so sure. But perhaps we can incorporate this every so often. Frankly, I’m very open to singing a song in Chinese if the words were written phonetically and I knew or had with me a translation of what I was singing. How beautiful it would be to worship knowing that others were getting a more meaningful worship experience by hearing others sing in their language in their style of music and praise. I do look forward when we people of God of every nation and tribe will worship together in our mother tongues and understand each other as we praise Him.


THANKS Camelia, I glad you would share your own story in this. We are all growing and learning…in this area we have much to learn from each other as well as the Word and the Lord.

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