Heart Music: Assisting in the development of worship materials

Wednesday, October 3, 2018
Lutheran Bible Translators missionary Rob Veith, at right with headphones and microphone, is shown recording newly composed scripture songs in the ǃXóõ language, in Ukwi, Botswana, in 2016.
Contributed image

Rob Veith, vernacular media specialist with Lutheran Bible Translators, uses his skills as a performer, composer, and ethnomusicologist to assist people to develop worship materials using their own rhythms, words, and melodies to bring their indigenous art forms into Christian worship. Since 2006, Rob has assisted in the development of worship materials in 12 languages in three African countries.

The goal is to compose new songs based on scripture, rather than forcing people to use old music scores that are outside of their tradition,” Veith explains.

When Christianity spread from the western nations to Africa and other locations, it came with its own church culture and worship practices. This included hymns and liturgies composed in European and American musical styles and languages. Not only is the language potentially incomprehensible to believers in non-Western churches, but the music itself can present a barrier to worship.

“A song a U.S. congregation might describe as ‘stately’ or ‘majestic’ may evoke nothing more than ‘nonsensical and difficult to sing’ from people of a non-Western culture,” Veith said.

Veith encourages local musicians to compose culturally appropriate worship songs that will speak to people in every sense.

“Art or music,” he says, “allows access to that deeper place of interaction with God. In many areas of the world, there is a viable artistic tradition to draw upon. When believers are encouraged to create art or music, it helps other people to engage on that level, and make worship and the church meaningful and relevant to people there.” This is what he calls “heart art” or “heart music.”

Veith has learned to play many different instruments, including a mouth bow, in the areas of Africa where he has lived and worked. Like some other musical instruments, the mouth bow is designed mainly for the player to enjoy, meaning the sound the player hears differs from what a listener will experience.

“Because of this, many musicians think their instruments have little worth,” says Veith. “But if recorded properly — as the musician hears it — it makes a beautiful sound and can certainly be used to enhance individual and corporate worship.”

The songs being used in Christian worship in the country of Kosovo were translated into Albanian from songs popular in English over 30 years. Moreover, the songs had all been translated by different missionaries in different congregations, meaning that every congregation had their own version of a song. The result: congregations couldn’t have joint worship services because they couldn’t sing together.

Veith participated in a workshop in Peja, Kosovo, where he helped facilitate the composition of 21 new songs in the Albanian language.

“On Sunday morning, some of us went to church,” Veith remembers. “The congregation rejoiced to hear that nine new songs had been composed at the workshop and urged their worship team to learn at least one for the following Sunday.”

A Christian record label in Kosovo will be the custodian and distributor of these new Scripture songs.

Many cultures are oral in nature, meaning the spoken word has always been the chief means of communication. Books are a new idea and may not be the best way to convey important information. Audio Scripture is often the best way to reach people with God’s Word.

Veith has helped record audio Scripture in several languages, including the Dhimba New Testament in Namibia. Each recording session took several hours, then had to be reviewed to see if re-recording was necessary.

“On one occasion the recording team began speaking among themselves in Dhimba after listening to one of the recorded chapters,” Veith recalls. “I thought they must be debating whether the error was big enough to require re-recording or could be fixed with an edit.”

Eventually, Veith asked what the issue was. Rev. Tolu, a member of the team, said the passage was fine, that they were just talking about what they had heard.

“It’s just so lovely to hear the Word of God in our own language,” he replied.

Scripture—whether ultimately read or heard—brings the good news of salvation to people who have never before had access to it in the language they understand best.

As Veith says, “When they hear, they understand.”

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