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Evangelical Hymnody in Latin America

Joel Sierra (Mexico)

I. Introduction: The triple task The renewal of the Church for mission requires the renewal of worship as a three-fold experience: Cultural, Counter-cultural and Trans-cultural. American Lutheran liturgical theologian Anita Stauffer has defined these three categories to explain the relationship between worship and the world 1. From her categories it can be inferred that there must be a triple task performed in worship (for which hymns are our main focus). The cultural task: Contextualization is the task of making Christian worship relevant to the people. It derives its theological foundation from the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. The Lord Jesus had to learn a human language and be aware of the cultural nuances of a particular social reality. God made the inscrutable universe-founding words understandable to us by the coming of Jesus Christ. Likewise, the Christian church in every culture must accomplish the task of contextualization of the Good News into the cultural languages and means of expression. In addition, the prayers and songs offered in Christian worship must make manifest the incarnation of the Jesus story in such culture. This entails an undertaking of affirming the culture. Lyrical and musical language of each particular culture must be used in expressing the mystery of divine-human relations. Counter-cultural: The second task performed in worship is a counter-cultural confrontation against the context. Worship is not only an affirmation of the context, but also a prophetic criticism of those elements in the context that must be transformed by the Gospel. Proclaiming the kingdom of Godthe lordship of Jesus Christin every Christian worship service means standing in opposition to all idols.

Anita Stauffer, Culture and Christian worship in intersection International Review of Mission Geneva: Jan 1995 Vol.84, Iss. 332-333 page 1

It is clear that in order to be effective in the counter-cultural task of critically calling the context to repentance, the first task must be performed well. That is, Christian songs and hymns must be written using the cultural elements of the context in order to be able to unmask false hopes and idolatries in the context. Trans-cultural: The third task performed in worship in its relation to the world is the affirmation of the trans-cultural nature of worship. God is present and alive in all corners of the world. There are no cultural boundaries to the One True and Holy God. Therefore the exercise of worship unites the local few to the global millions. It is the true globalization of humanity. As opposed to the false one, offered by the market values and the Babel-like human projects of cultural uniformity under the hollow ethics of consumerism. The human family in all its grand diversity becomes united again as a result of the reconciliation performed by Jesus the Christ on the cross of Calvary. This is what constitutes Christian worship, the proclamation of the kingdom of God in the life and ministry, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. When Christians gather to sing to Jesus in worship there is a series of theological events taking place, as Dr. Christopher Ellis has explained it.2 Christians unite sacramentally in one voice, as they share in one proclamation and one spirituality, and eschatologically enter the Kingdom of God. Something powerful takes place through the use of hymns and songs in worship. In addition to the elements described by Ellis, singing together is a means by which God strengthens the church to perform its transforming mission in the world under the leading of the Holy Spirit. Hymns ought to point us to the world. Therefore there is an urgent need to approach this topic with the theological soundness that warrants fruitfulness in the renewal of the Church for mission.

Christopher Ellis, Gathering: a theology and spirituality of worship in Free Church tradition London: SCM Press; 2004 pages 164-169

I call the contextual dimension of worship priestly. We sing priestly when our song affirms our culture and our context. The counter-cultural dimension of worship I give the name prophetic. We sing prophetically when our song criticizes our cultural context. Prophetic hymns are expressions of Christian stands in prophetic resistance against the current of our context. I identify the trans-cultural dimension of worship as kata-holic3. We sing kata-holically when our song connects us with the broad people of God of all cultures and of all times. Kata-holic hymns include confessions of faith that belong to the global church. II. A Diagnostic view In general, polarized worship experiences can be found across the region and across denominational lines. There are at least three poles or extremes: Formalityinformality; spiritualpolitical; individualsocial. The first set refers to the atmosphere of the service. Most churches are either too formal and ritualistic or too casual and familiar. The second set refers to whether the service addresses the social realities in time and space or if it is merely a way to escape from such realities. The third set refers to whether the worship experience fosters community or individualism. In truth only the first set of extremes is significant enough to be noticed. In the case of the other two sets, only exceptions can be found outside the norm, as most of the churches are in one pole. Most churches develop a worship service that fosters individualism and escapism from the social realities. This has been the effect of the praise and worship movement in Latin America. The impact of the praise and worship style has been tremendous in Latin American Evangelical churches. It has shifted the focus of discussion from its more pressing issues (those of the relevance of worship for the renewal of the mission of the Church) and into whether or not churches should adopt this or that form of singing and dancing or whether this or that instrumental ensemble

This term is used by Justo Gonzlez in Desde el Siglo y hasta el Siglo: esbozos teolgicos para el siglo XXI [From Age to Age: theological sketches for the 21st century] 2 Ed. Mxico: El Faro; 2006

is more suited for worship. Sooner than convenient many churches have substituted the pulpit for a drum set in the center of the front stage, thus signifying that centrality of the worship gathering has moved from the Word of God proclaimed and celebrated to the instrumental accompaniment of attractive songs during the service. We are far from the vision of a worshipping people that is affected by worship. There is an indisputable relationship between worship and ethics, and between worship and mission. American ethicist William May argues that people who have been formed by the worship life of the church should think and act distinctively.4 The truth is that among Evangelicals in Latin America, people have rarely been formed by the worship life of the church. Furthermore, as time passes by, it can be observed that the new generations of Evangelicals do not seem to be ethically different to the rest of the population, nominal Roman Catholics in the majority. Latin American missiologist Samuel Escobar has pointed out the relationship between worship and mission. A rediscovery of the power and holiness of God, moral transformation in the life of Christians and a potent missionary impulse are the substantial elements of spiritual renewal, whereas emotional outbursts and changes in musical genres or styles of communication are only secondary in comparison.5 Escobar holds that authentic mission springs out of worship. Everything begins with God. [Adoracin] es la respuesta reverente y gozosa a la verdad de la Palabra que Dios le enva.6 The worship service is an encounter with God. Gods word has been present in the service in the form of hymns, prayers, silences, enthusiasm,

William May. Liturgy for life: the political meaning of worship. Christian Century August-September, 2001 page 26

Samuel Escobar. De la adoracin a la misin. [From worship to mission] Electronic page of Artencel, Msica en Seleccin. Accessed: June 2005, www.artencel.com/+ff-12.htm, page 1

[Worship is a reverent and joyous response to the truth of the Word that God sends]. Ibid. page 7

preaching and testimonies. Then it is only natural that Christians would want to run every road to announce Gods word to other human beings.7 In view of the relationship between worship and ethics and between worship and missionary thrust, it becomes an urgent matter to pay attention to the renewal of worship life, which at this present moment is not in good shape among Evangelicals in Latin America. III. Singing in the Spanish-speaking worship In Latin American churches, singing takes place at particular times during the service. Most of the songs are used in praise and during altar calls. However, a distinctive feature of the way songs are used is for greeting people as a welcome gesture and for celebrating birthdays. There is wide opportunity for a more varied use of congregational singing and it is possible to implement more singing during the service that is not only praise or altar calls. Throughout the history of the Evangelical movement in Latin America there have been at least four stages in the development of congregational singing. These stages slightly correspond to the development of the Evangelical movement in the region and to the varying theological winds in each era. They do not have inflexible boundaries but they overlap with the preceding and succeeding ones. This is so because the publication of a hymnbook takes several years in the formation as well as in the further distribution among the churches. Because of this, some of the authors that live and work in one stage are known only afterwards. The first one is the translation stage (1880-1930).8 The main purpose in this stage was to provide the newly formed churches with resources for worship that spoke of God in Evangelical ways. The missionary impulse that carried the Evangelical movement south of the Rio Grande was an extension of the Evangelical mission to the Frontier. Therefore, the theology reflected in these
7 8

Ibid. page 8 It begins with the birth of native Protestant congregations in Latin America which needed singing material for their worship services.

collections of hymns is basically Revivalist. Two strong emphases are placed on the need to battle spiritually against the forces of evil in the worldas a Militant Churchand on the hope of meeting again in the beyond where the Lord awaits us after all this tribulation is overas a Glorious Church. This is interesting because these two emphases are marks of a persecuted church. Persecution (many times violent) on the part of the Roman Catholic population and their leaders was not uncommon in this first stage. Thomas Westrup and Ernesto Barocio, Baptist leaders in the north of Mexico at that time, as well as Juan Bautista Cabrera from Spain, were the main contributors to this stage. The representative hymnbooks of that era are the Himnario Popular (a Baptist publication under the auspices of the First Baptist Church of Monterrey), and the Nuevo Himnario Evanglico, published in 1914 by the American Tract Society under the name of Editorial Caribe, a publishing house based in Costa Rica at that time. This hymnal was a renewal of a previous one published in 1893, the Himnario Evanglico. The committee was formed by a combination of American White missionaries and Mexican leaders, and it worked in the midst of turbulence and the social turmoil of the Mexican Revolution. It was a collaborative effort of representatives of several denominations: Baptist, Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian. The second stage is one of pioneering original compositions. (19301970). It is a time when different denominations publish their own hymnals. These are basically affirmations of their denominational identities. The Nuevo Himnario Poular , of the Baptist Spanish Publishing House (1955), the Himnario Metodista (1956), the Himnario Evanglico Presbiteriano (1961), the Himnos de la Vida Cristiana, of the Christian and Missionary Alliance (1967). The Nuevo Himnario Popular maintains a strong funerary message, though the general theological emphasis of this stage is mainly the counter-cultural separation from cultural influences of the rest of society. The foreword of the Himnario Evanglico Presbiteriano explains two criteria for the collection of their hymns: Presbyterian Theology and

Exclusin de toda meloda con ritmo mundano a fin de conservar el espritu de genuina reverencia en el canto sagrado.9 This is the ruling criterion in this stage. It is the stage of the first original composition of hymns in Spanish. However, under such ruling theological criterion, the pioneering original compositions of this stage follow the model and influence of North America and Europe. Important names in this stage are Vicente Mendoza and Epigmenio Velasco, Mexican Methodist pastors who wrote original hymns in Spanish. The third stage is the theological diversification (1970-2000). The hymnbooks in this stage have a more diverse span of theological interests, with more attention to life in this world and the Churches responsibility in ministry to the world. There is more involvement of professional theologians in the formation and edition of hymnbooks. The Himnario Metodista (1973) was edited by personnel of the Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. In Buenos Aires, Argentina, an important editorial effort of collaboration among four denominations brought to life the Cntico Nuevo (1962), which is notoriously deep in theological implications; however, the main source of hymns is still outside of Latin America. This one is the Latin American hymnbook with more European input in it. Important names in this stage are Pablo Sosa, Federico Pagura and Alfredo Colom. Sosa and Pagura, both Argentineans, provided excellent translations of hymns as well as original lyrics for the Cntico Nuevo. Their contribution is a real milestone in the development of original Latin American hymnody. They also wrote hymns that did not resemble the North American or European models but were original in the musical, lyrical, and theological language. However, most of their hymns were not included in the Cntico Nuevo hymnal,

[Exclusion of all melodies with mundane rhythm in order to preserve a spirit of genuine reverence in holy singing] Himnario Evanglico Presbiteriano [Evangelical Presbiterian Hymnbook] Mxico: Casa de Publicaciones El Faro; 1961

but published in smaller collections.10 Guatemalan Alfredo Colom is one of the most prolific hymn writers of Latin America. His compositions used musical languages of Latin America. He represents an effort to popularize Evangelical worship through the use of native cadences and styles. The Himnario Bautista,11 published in 1978, is the most recent (or least old) Spanish language hymnbook published by Baptists. It contains 530 hymns and includes an index of guitar chords. This is notable in view of the tension in many churches throughout the region in relation to the use of guitars in worship. One important feature of this hymnbook is that it was sponsored by the Home Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention and the Baptist General Convention of Texas. This fact is so revealing of the missionary attitude of the SBC as well as the general self-perception of Latin American Baptists during the second half of the 20th century. Latin America was seen in 1978 as home. Local Conventions and other Baptist bodies were influenced by this perspective and so the work of cultural contextualization among Latin American Baptists has been a difficult enterprise which has required much time and effort. We are now in the fourth stage, farewell to hymnbooks. An everincreasing tendency in most churches is to leave the use of hymnbooks altogether and substitute them with memorized texts or song sheets. In more affluent churches, projectors and screens are used for the lyrics. Excellent hymnbooks have been published in this stage. Celebremos su Gloria (1992) collects most of Alfredo Coloms hymns; it has a creative outlook and a variety of resources for congregational singing. Mil Voces para Celebrar (1996), a Methodist hymnal, collects many of the new Latin American hymns

Canciones de Fe y Compromiso, [Songs of Faith and Commitment] (Three booklets) published by Comunidad Teolgica de Mxico; and Cancionero Abierto, [Open Songbook] (Five booklets) published by ISEDET in Buenos Aires. 11 Himnario Bautista [Baptist Hymnal] El Paso, TX: Casa Bautista de Publicaciones; 1978. Also published as Himnario de Alabanza Evanglica [Hymnal of Evangelical Praise] for its use outside of Baptist churches.

that do not follow a North American or European model, as well as many songs from around the world. It is an indispensable resource for any Spanishspeaking church today. Even though this is a time of abundant production of new songs and hymns, there is a widespread practice of disregarding the hymnbooks altogether and substitute them with recordings from the latest Christian artist. This represents the risk of losing the liturgical wealth of hundreds of years of hymns and of the hymns of the global Church. A congregation will lose the historical connection by leaving hymnbooks behind. Christians will be in danger of falling into the trap of believing that there is no history behind them. Spiritual pride and historical myopia can result from such an attitude. Another danger in leaving hymnbooks is the lack of intercultural liturgical breeding in the local congregation. Hymnbooks make available to local congregations those songs and hymns from the global Church. When a local church neglects hymnbooks it is in danger of falling into what Methodist theologian Justo Gonzlez has dubbed heretical in the sense of looking at Jesus only from their own exclusive perspective.12 Thus it is necessary to discern how to use the various hymnbooks available in order to enrich the worship service. New songs must be present as well as old ones, national and international, in order to more faithfully perform the triple task of worship: cultural, counter-cultural and trans-cultural. IV. The need for the production of new hymns In order to capture the feeling of both leaders and people regarding the topic of renewal of hymns, a survey was prepared and sent to a network of Baptist Latin American theologians and applied to members of a local church in


Justo Gonzlez. Desde el Siglo y hasta el Siglo: esbozos teolgicos para el siglo XXI [From Age to Age: theological sketches for the 21st century] 2 Ed. Mxico: El Faro; 2006 page 127

Monterrey.13 Interestingly, a unanimous affirmative answer was given to the question of whether there is a need for new original hymns among the Latin American Evangelical churches. If more than 80% of the hymns you know have been translated into your language, there is a pressing need for more expressions of faith in your native language. Those translations may be beautiful, but they are still translations. There must be a place for international songs in Christian worship, in order to support the kata-holic dimension of worship, but the core of our singing (be it priestly, prophetic or kata-holic) should be produced originally in our language. Furthermore, the current production of Praise and Worship songs is generally too weak in theological foundations.14 This is another reason why more original hymnsthe product of theological reflection and experience must be written and spread throughout the region. Most of the songs used today are focused on the individual and not the community. Most do not address the communal nature of the Christian faith. Most lack any reference to the social dimensions and implications of the Gospel. Some other questions in the survey dealt with the role of the local congregation in the task of renewing worship. Most of the answers in this regard agree that it is a matter which pertains to the local congregation. The experience of worship must be given back to a community of people who know each other and who have gone through phases in life as a family of faith. Huge convocations of masses for Congresses of worship among thousands of strangers do not bring any sort of authentic renewal to the devotional life of the Christian. The production of new hymns may be both a cause and a result of Church renewal. It is a cause when the people of God are sensitive enough to listen to

The network is called RIBET: (Red de Instituciones Bautistas de Educacin Teolgica) [Network of Baptist Institutions of Theological Education]. 14 Refer to the work of Marva Dawn, Reaching out Without Dumbing Down: a theology of worship for this urgent time Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; 1995

the word of God prophesied through the hymns and respond in faith and transformation. It is also a result when as a consequence of Gods transforming power, the hearts and minds of Christians are inspired to proclaim Gods wonders and messages in new ways with new tunes and new poetic images. According to Peruvian theologian Juan Jos Barreda Toscano, if we worship the Lord of Life, we are then compelled to live in community.15 In general, Evangelicals in Latin America have experienced an intense degree of nonmonastic community life through the years, and though a multitude in praise may be quite inspiring and unforgettable, it is in the local congregation that the deeper theological meanings of singing together are experienced. Those who follow the Lamb are described in the book of Revelation chapter 14 as a singing people. They sing a new song which is their identity mark. They respond to the horrendous forces of the monster in the preceding chapter with a New Song. The New Song is the evidence of their strength to stand in opposition to the monster and to announce a New Reality with great certainty. Jesus Christ is the Lord of the entire Universe; therefore there is hope of life and justice and this hope should be put to music and sung with all the fibers of our being.


Juan Jos Barreda Toscano, Hacia una teologa bblica de la celebracin litrgica [Towards a biblical theology of the liturgical celebration] in Unidos en Adoracin: la celebracin litrgica como lugar teolgico, [United in Worship: the liturgical celebration as theological locus] Buenos Aires: Kairs; 2004, page 158.