Article: Revisiting Ways of Contextualization of Church Music in Asia

Theology and the Church,
Vol 30, Number 2. Pages 450-474.

(A journal of the Tainan Theological College and Seminary)

Do not reproduce without permission of the author.


Ever since the word “contextualization” was introduced in the late 1960’s by Dr. Shoki Coe, my mentor and the former principal of Tainan Theological College and Seminary, it has become one of the most important terms to be used in doing theology, planning liturgies and composing Church Music. No theologian, liturgiologist, church musician or educator can ignore the issues of contextualization, if they are serious in dealing with their fields in the contemporary context. By now, more people in these fields have taken for granted that contextualization is the natural and logical way to do theology. But for some Asian church musicians some twenty to thirty years ago it was a struggle to know how to define and proceed with the problem of contextualization. This writer made his first attempt to define contextualization of church music from an Asian perspective in 1984 (Loh 1986:57-66; 1990:293-315; 1991:89-114). Later attempt was made to define the term from a more positive angle (Loh 1999:32- 53). It was written in Chinese, and is here offered in English translation to set the tone for further discussion.

I. The Meanings of Contextualization of Church Music

The term “contextualization” as used by Dr. Shoki Coe is one of the most powerful terms for doing and interpreting theology. There are many different Chinese translations for this term, the meanings of which originate from the word indigenization (tu-zhu-hua ben-tu-hua ) to contextualization (shi-kuang-hua qing-jing-hua chu-jing-hua mailuo-hua ) etc. Since the terms tu-zhu-hua and ben-tu-hua have the implication of returning to the past, they are limited and carry negative connotations, so are inappropriate for the idea of the intimate and complicated double wrestling of the text (the Word of God) with our present context, as was proposed by Dr. Coe. This writer wrote 14 years [1984] ago an article entitled “Toward Contextualization of Church Music in Asia,” in which he tried to interpret the meanings of contextualization from a negative angle. The result was far from ideal. Now let us try to look at the meanings of contextualization from a positive angle.

  1. Contextualization stresses the importance of modernization of the national spirit (ethos) of traditional art forms ( i.e., interpreting the ethos and elements according to the situations of time, space and people to gain and communicate new meanings). This includes composing in traditional musical idioms to express modern issues, using contemporary vocabularies and poetic forms, but does not necessarily require maintaining old musical styles. It is not necessary to use old musical instruments but to utilize traditional musical elements and sounds to communicate new ideas with new techniques and new styles.
  2. Contextualization is the cultivation of self esteem, seeking anew the gifts of God, affirming the values of our own culture and knowing the arts as genuine expression of faith, with the understanding that any search for truth, goodness and beauty in Christian faith is pleasing to God. Therefore, contextualization is like cultivation of Christian faith, sowing seeds in native soil, watering and letting them absorb the contemporary artistic ethos to grow strong, reaching the stage of maturity and bear fruit.
  3. Contextualization widens our knowledge, interest and skills, so that one can appreciate and accept the truths of God’s revelation in other cultures of the world. After objective analysis, digestion and understanding, one may be able to compare these truths with local contexts, and be inspired to find new media, create new works or interpret new faith. Above all, contextualization is the manifestation of the imago Dei in human beings and participation by human beings in God’s continuing creation. It helps us search for the mystery of God’s revelation, letting Christ enter and transform our culture and arts, and utilize fully our contemporary native art forms to interpret and witness the Gospel. (p.34f)

Before dealing with contextualization of hymns and musical expressions, we should lay basic theological foundations underlying the call for contextualization.

II. Theological Foundation for Contextualization

  1. Arts and creativity are primal gifts from God. They may become tools and channels for interpretation and understanding of the revelation, the truth and the mystery of God’s providence, creation and salvation.
  2. Preserving gifts and exercising talent are mandates of God. In so doing, we become faithful stewards fulfilling our duties and actively participating in God’s continuing creation.
  3. Christ is God incarnated in human form, dwelling among all peoples. It is the duty of those “in Christ” to witness and proclaim the Gospel through their native forms of arts, symbols and cultural expressions.
  4. God reveals God’s own self through events, new ideas and human historical phenomena suitable to varied times, spaces, peoples and circumstances. It is the responsibility of all people who bear God’s image to find various means for discerning and interpreting God’s will, respond to God and proclaim God’s Word in their own words, arts, and rituals in spirit and in action. To make Christian faith properly understood by people, so that it might play a vital role in our modern life, music and musical art are integral parts of the expression of Christian faith that may be contextualized.

III. Proces of Contextualization

The core of Church Music is hymns and, to a lesser degree, liturgical responses sung by the congregation in worship. Choral anthems and other aspects of instrumental music are not necessarily universal in Asian liturgical context. (Many churches have no choir nor instruments in worship.) Anthems and instrumental music, are, therefore music, left out of this discussion of contextualization. The search for ways to contextualize hymns in Asia during the last few decades has identified a series of approaches that mark stages and degrees of contextualization. Although one stage does not necessarily lead to the next, there seems to be a natural growth of interest in use of indigenous material, and improvement of skills in handling musical materials. In my 1986 paper I proposed a process of contextualization of hymns in five stages .(See Loh 1986: 57-66)Here I offer some revisions.

Imitation of Western Gospel Hymn Style

Beginning composers often imitate the styles with which they are familiar. The Western gospel hymn style, prevalent in most Asian churches except for India, dictates the way in which many Asian musicians have learned to express their faith. Even though some of the results may be far from satisfactory according to the Western standards of quality, these are the first steps towards the development of creativity. There is, however, a danger in lingering at this stage, lest creativity in producing something truly new becomes lost. (See example 1, East Asia Christian Conference Hymnal (hereinafter referred to as EACCH)#142 “He Called Me, Son,” Japan). Composers trapped at this stage either totally ignore their native culture or simply incorporate certain ornaments or glides that echo a native singing style. In text translations, some native idioms and phrases are added to enrich the local flavor. Cleverly inserted cultural expressions, in spite of their superficiality, usually touch the hearts of native peoples.

Awareness of One’s Own Culture

Increased awareness of one’s own culture enables the integration of native elements and idioms more naturally into compositions. Nevertheless, the texture of the Western style prevails. Hymns in this popular style, decorated with some nostalgic native elements, seem to have immediate appeal, and are easily accepted by the general congregation. Although this approach is far from ideal, it certainly paves the way to contextualization. (See example 2, Sound the Bamboo (hereinafter referred to as STB) #223 “May the Holy Spirit’s Sword,” China.)

Rediscovery of Identity

The actual adaptation of folk or native melodies, with or without alteration, marks a third and important stage in the development of contextualized hymns. Such melodies may reflect the “real” identity of the culture and may be easily identified by the native church circle, and even by those outside. Some of the adaptations may include native instrumentation to emphasize the characteristics of native styles. Others may provide harmony in Western styles. Available resources indicate that most Asian countries have reached this third stage. Once a group has reached this point, the problems of association may sometimes put contextualization on trial. Some cultures have no difficulty singing Christian texts set to secular folk melodies, while others may find the juxtaposition hard to digest. Precedents have been set by the reformer Martin Luther and the church music composer Johann Sebastian Bach. Both adapted well-known folk tunes for use as congregational hymns. A judicious approach would be to observe two principles:

Melodies which today’s congregations closely associate with non-Christian events or functions and those which invite ridicule might jeopardize the progress of contextualization and be better left for later use.

2) The gospel principle is clear: the blood of Jesus Christ purifies and makes us acceptable to God. If we are sincere in adapting “secular” tunes of good quality to communicate Christian messages, Christ will sanctify our intention and effort and transform our fruits into sacred songs pleasing to God. (See example 3, EACCH #139 “The Prodigal Son,” which is a typical Japanese folk melody with simple harmony, and example 4, STB #61 “God of Regions and of World,” from Myanmar, with parallel inverted chords). “The world and all that is in it belong to the Lord” (Psalm 24:1). If we accept God as our Lord, then every aspect of our life, including music making—whether related to or detached from our church activities— are in God’s domain. God is the one to rule what is acceptable to God.


The fourth stage is the composition of new songs in native styles treated with traditional or contemporary Western harmonic idioms. This is a departure from the third, in that it is no longer an adaptation of folk music per se, rather, the elements and idioms that capture the spirit of the culture are skillfully integrated into new compositions. The melodic style may be indigenous, but the harmony remains Western, thereby elements of both are syncretized. A growing number of experienced composers in Asia accept this approach. (See example 5, STB #234 “Jesus Christ, Workers’ Lord,” Korean; example 6, “Ever and Always Be Praise,” EACCH #102, Tamil). Complete realization of contextualization, however, proceeds yet one stage further.

The Mature Contextualized Work

The ultimate goal of contextualization lies in achieving a mature handling of technical skills in which the lyrics exhibit sound theology infused with poetic beauty, reflecting the needs and concerns of the culture. The composition, though born of native ways, is melodically and harmonically, if used, innovative. The hymn expresses the highest level of creativity: unique and contemporary; its style is neither purely native nor Western, yet could be both at once (See example 7, STB#176 “Still, I Search for My God”). It could be a new tradition rising out of the old, and speaking meaningfully with today’s language to today’s people. Beauty in sound set to meaningful statement of faith is the best we can offer to God and God’s people. We have already seen some promises in the Sound the Bamboo: CCA Hymnal 2000.

IV. Contemporary Problems for Contextualization

The above analysis, with the exception of the mature contextualized works, were mainly based on observations of Asian hymns before the 1980’s. Rapid developments of mass media and pop culture during the last two decades have dramatically changed the music scenes of the Churches in Asia. When dealing with contemporary theological issues we frequently pose the question of their relevancy to the present context, which most people can identify. But when it comes to emphasizing the importance of contemporaneity in church music, we enter deep and muddy waters! Church music in Asia today is even more dominated by Western repertoire than previously. Western praise choruses in the pop style are 100% foreign to Asian native cultures, but the young generation has embraced them wholeheartedly. Subsequently, the music has formed young Christians’ new imported identity. This happens not only in Asia, but also around the world. The difference is that Africa and Latin America seem to have maintained more of the substance of their own traditional cultures. It seems that their people are less affected by Western pop culture. In Asia, especially in large cities, anything that happens in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, London or Paris would be on TV at any minute. Western hit songs impact on Asian cities as soon as they are released. To the younger generation the musical context is mainly Western pop. Their concerns are definitely different from those of the older generation. This makes generalization of approaches to contextualization impossible. No matter what we say, there will be exceptions. If we ask young people to state their musical context, the answers would mostly be Western or Western pop, without reference to style. What matters most is whether a certain song is attractive and popular. They do not ask whether the text or musical style is relevant to their native cultural contexts. Their disinterest towards and lack of knowledge of their own traditional music prevents them from associating themselves with their own native culture. A contextualized work utilizing native musical idioms will be more foreign to them than a traditional Western hymn, and will probably be of little meaning to them. But a new composition imitating their Western pop style would catch their attention. They might own it and appreciate it more than any other style. We are in a dilemma of defining both context and the way of contextualization. Undoubtedly we need different approaches to deal with different groups and to search for appropriate ways of contextualization. Putting it simply, this means the interpretation and expression of Text (Christian faith in any artistic form) in a given Context. When dealing with contextualization of hymns, ideally both text and music have to be taken into consideration. On the one hand, the contents and subject matter, style and poetic devices of text are obvious within the culture: The choice of vocabularies; local imagery; particular idioms or expressions; and specific cultural or theological issues. It is therefore, unnecessary to draw general guidelines for contextualizing texts. But it is possible, as a student of composition, ethnomusicology and worship, to formulate certain guidelines to help people in the process of composing and doing theology with music and worship in the diversified contexts of their congregations.

V. Four Types of People in Congregation

Contextualization of hymns today might consider various contexts of the following types of people in the congregation. This classification may be more applicable to the more Westernized Asian countries, namely: Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and modern cities like Shanghai, Bangkok, Manila, Bangalore, etc. For the sake of easy discussion, I propose to classify people into four types according to their general education and interest or orientation in music. I realize the limitations, and dangers of generalization and over-simplification. There will always be exceptions, but this general classification may provide certain clues when searching for ways to contextualize hymns in Taiwan and other modern Asian locales today.

Type I: The General Younger Generation

The reality of present context is the overwhelming Western pop oriented mass culture among the younger generation. Observe people on the streets, buses, and metro-trains, the majority of whom wear head phones and listen to music either from CD players or MP3s. To what are they listening? Is it not pop or songs from movies, performed by local, regional or Western stars? The musical styles may vary, but they are mostly romantic, nostalgic and soothing moods, or heavy metal, rock, and vigorous. Some may be other local pop styles, but even these are imitations of things from the West.

Type II: The Intelligentsia

“Intelligentsia” refers to people who have received higher university education and now serve as educators in primary, secondary and university levels or as white-collar executives in all ranks of businesses and government agencies. Because of their primarily Western oriented education they subscribe to Western value systems and enjoy the Western classical and contemporary music with little or no interest in either pop or traditional folk music. In Taiwan, this phenomenon is exhibited in a few dozens of music schools and graduate programs in universities where thousands of devoted students major in Western music theories, composition, choral and instrumental performances. They will be the future musicians who will create and perform “elite music” for the high society.

Type III: Protectors/Preservers of Native Traditional Music

There is a minority group of musicians and music lovers who are interested in learning, preserving and promoting ancient national musical traditions. These have the potential for developing contextualized church music, and offer hope for the future. One can find them in all Asian countries where devoted students take instruction in Departments of National or Traditional Music in universities or national academies of arts. This is the extreme example of going the opposite direction of those in Type II.

Type IV: Majority of the General Public

The majority of the general public are those who, although having their own preferences on certain musical styles (either native, Asian or Western), are more or less open to whatever possibilities their leaders care to offer. With proper guidance, encouragement and education it would not be too difficult to lead this group towards the ideal of contextualization.

VI. Principals of Contextualizing Hymns

Type I: For the Young Generation in General

Since their cultural context is Western pop and entertainment oriented, and mostly seeks instant gratification, church music for worship or for nourishment of their spirituality would naturally fall on similar styles. Further more, music in classical styles and traditional Western hymns may have little meanings to them, contextualization, therefore, would lean toward composing in contemporary Western romantic or pop style, with the possibilities of incorporating certain native and traditional musical idioms and musical instruments to link the past with the present, and the local with the Western. It would be important also that they be given small doses of other musical styles so that they would not be isolated in their own small eccentric and unreal world but made aware of their being part of the greater and diversified body of Christ.

Type II: For the Intelligentsia

Due to the lack of exposure to their traditional music, or because of the indoctrination of Western values and aesthetic views, the majority of the intelligentsia may have little or no knowledge of their own music. Even worse, some of them may look down on traditional music. For promotion of contextualized church music, we, therefore, may need to re-educate these people theologically and aesthetically, helping them to understand and accept that traditional music is also a gift from God, and that to God, there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles (Act. 10:34-35). All genuine expressions of faith are beautiful and acceptable to God. We can also adopt traditional musical motifs or folk melodies, that carry no other religious or negative connotations and set Christian texts to them either in traditional Western harmony (to create familiarity,) or with innovative harmonic idioms to create works of art that both composers and consumers might enjoy and feel proud of. Original compositions in contextual styles may also widen their perspectives and establish their sense of identity and pride.

Type III: For Preservers/Protectors of Native Traditions:

Musicians who are capable of performing traditional music would probably enthusiastically create and develop new music that would be accepted gradually by the congregation. This was the case in the history of the Western Church. There are several approaches to this.

  1. They may adapt certain traditional instrumental pieces for church use, especially those of moods appropriate for worship, or those which are less familiar and carry no particular religious associations.
  2. They may compose new songs or instrumental pieces for liturgical use, either entirely in the traditional style without adding anything, or as hybrids of the best of the East and the West.
  3. Mature performers and composers might compose new hymns utilizing native idioms, instruments and contextual harmony (the harmonic languages derived from local traditions), or with more innovative multipart treatments, the result of which is a mature and authentic contextualization. An excellent example from Taiwan exhibits the mastery of poetic language, utilizing double adjectives to depict the agony of Jesus’ suffering. Its music also reflects the local wailing song or folk operatic styles to reinforce the pain of the cross. (See example 8, “ Tõ chiâ” jiök-the lâi chhut-sì.”)
  4. One may even combine a melody in a native style with harmonic languages of another style or other ethnic groups from the same country (see example 9, STB #190 “The Rice of Life”) or with other Asian traditions that would match the style.

Type IV: For the Majority of the General Public

Here is an uncultivated area. The general public are normally not that strongly opinionated. They are open to guidance and education. They follow leaders whom they trust. For such a group, one may start with introducing simple hymns with folk idioms (either adaptations or newly composed), then arrange tunes with simple harmony. These could be syncretic and is familiar to them, thus easily acceptable. New compositions utilizing folk motifs or imitating folk styles may be arranged or harmonized innovatively or in non-western styles. (See example 10, STB #252 “Watch the Bush of Thorns.” )

VII. Personal Search for Innovative Panasian Styles

After composing contextualized Taiwanese hymns for over three decades, I have found greater fascination and challenges in setting texts from other countries and utilizing the various musical languages of my Asian neighbors. These may be seen from the following examples:

  1. “Jesus Christ Sets Free to Serve” (example 11, STB #247) utilizes a Korean folk rhythmic pattern with a changgo (hour-glass drum) accompaniment, which is most popular among Korean folk tradition.
  2. “Loving Spirit’ (example 12, STB #220) uses a Gypsy scale: C# =3 4 #5 6, 7 1 #2 3 (mi fa sol# la, ti do re# mi) which is within the family of Indian Bhairav raga, with the characteristics of two tetrachords, each of which has the sequence of a minor second, an augmented second and a minor second again. The melody is constructed in a cycle of seven counts, with the pattern of triputa tala 3 + 2 + 2. Although Indian music does not have harmony, it has drones: the tonic and the fifth. Therefore, the harmony is constructed on the drones, but the higher drone begins to move and creates a counter melody, which develops to its climax at the third phrase, and returns to open fifth at the final cadence. The harmonic language here is neither Western nor Indian. The concept of harmony grows out of both traditions in different ways, and is new to both traditions.
  3. The hymn “God of the Bible” (example 13, STB #255) describes the unchanging faithfulness of God and God’s expectations thats human beings change in order to face the Cross. The tune utilizes musical features to depict these phenomena. Motif A uses D = 3 4 5 7b 1 (mi fa sol tib do) scale with an eight-count rhythmic pattern 3 + 2 +3 (reinforced by drum patterns), and motif B is in Bb= 1 3 4 5 7 (do mi fa sol ti) scale with 3 + 3+ 2 pattern. The time signature of 8/8, meaning the constant eight counts per measure throughout the piece, is intended to symbolize the faithfulness of God which does not change through history. The two patterns of A and B exhibit the changes in the scales, grouping of beats, figures of accompaniment with drones, intervals of fourths and fifths and the formation of independent lines, all of which are my attempt to show the necessity of change on the human part in order to face the Cross. Here again, the musical elements are from India. The concept of accompaniment is neither Western nor Indian, but my own, purposely scored to do theology of change and stability with musical figures.
  4. “Hunger Carol” (example 14, STB #144) is a free imitation of the Indonesian Gamelan style, in which the lower voices punctuate at various points like gongs and kettle gongs, while the treble part doubles or decorates the main melody in a pelog scale ( C = 3 4 5 7 1).The style is not a replica of any particular gamelan orchestration, but the feeling of Indonesian style is evident.
  5. “Mit Allen Meinen Sinnen” (example 15) is my recent composition in a free imitation of Balinese Gamelan style, in which the lower parts in octave play the simplified outline of the main melody like jegogan (large keyed metallophones) in half-notes, while the treble part takes fragments of the main melody in threes to decorate and anticipate the motif in groups of threes like gangsa (high pitched metallophones) and rushes to climax in 16th notes. The setting is by no means authentic Balinese, but it reflects a pseudo-Balinese Gamelan feeling to depict the mystery of our relations with God.

None of the five musical examples above are based on my own Taiwanese context; neither are they purely Korean, Indian or Indonesian. They are my artistic expression of faith grown out of my pan-Asian contexts. The diversified musical heritages of Asia have inspired my imagination to create new music, which, though it may not be classified within any national boundary, is but my personal response to the Psalmist’s call to “sing to the LORD a new song,” and my way to “declare his glory among the nations.” (Psalm 96: 1,2)

Concluding Remarks

It seems too early to draw definite conclusions on the ways of contextualization of hymns in Asia, because all countries and cultures are constantly changing and all have different views and issues of contextualizing their faith. On the one hand, they can contextualize hymns according to their particular issues of the time and their interpretation of the Gospel and Christian faith in their contexts. On the other hand, they can contextualize according to their age groups, educational backgrounds, musical preferences, skills of composition, and the levels of acceptability. No single approach or method is applicable to all. Since most people who belong to Types I and II may claim that Western education, values and cultural environment have formulated their identities, it seems natural that they contextualize their faith and art forms in their Western context. Some of them may feel no need to relate to their traditional native culture. Others may feel that their traditional cultures are associated with pagan practices, hence unworthy for Christian use. Superficially, these views may sound logical, but they are not convincing. They close one eye on their existential situation. They purposefully ignore different cultural aspects surrounding them. They do not care for their own traditional art forms, which, however weak they may be, still exist and act. We can respect their views and preferences, and we are not in any position to force them to retrieve what they have rejected. But if we accept their approaches without conditions we reject God’s unique gifts to different peoples, and fail to be faithful stewards to God’s creation ( arts are gifts of God’s creation). If the majority of the cultures in the third world follow the same approach and give up their unique artistic traditions, the world of music, including church music, may turn into a starved sphere of unified Western or Western pop culture — uniformity without diversity. God’s image would be that of a Western God, and this world would become a very boring place to live.

In addition to digging into my own native traditional musical styles and treating them with contextual multipart textures, my approaches to contextualization are no longer confined within my own Taiwanese context. I believe that no artist or composer should be content with simple imitation of the styles of their forefathers, either native or foreign. God has bestowed on us thousands of diversified cultural and artistic forms. These awaits our exploration into all possibilities and into the unknown. Ultimately, we are to develop the gift of creativity to the utmost as a realization of the imago Dei in us. By composing music in new styles, whether native or international, we participate in God’s continuing creation for God’s glory, which is eternal.

References Cited

Loh, I-to

1986 “Yazhou jiaohui inyueh bensehua zhi quxiang” (Toward Contextualization of Church Music in Asia), in Theology and the Church, 17 (1),57-66. Tainan Theological College and Seminary.

1990 “Toward Contextualization of Church Music in Asia,” in Asia Journal of Theology, IV/1, 293-315. ATESEA (abridged).

1991 “Toward Contextualization of Church Music in Aisa,’ in Hymnology Annual, ed. Vernon Wicker. vol. 1, 89-114. Vande Vere Publishing Ltd.

1999 “Xiang Yehehua chang xinge (2):Linin, xiangin yu guaiin” (Sing to the Lord a New Song (2): Neighboring Tones, Native Tones and Strange Tones), in Theology and the Church 25 (1): 32-53. Tainan Theological College and Seminary.

2000 Sound the Bamboo: CCA Hymnal 2000. editor. Tainan: CCA/Taiwan Church Press.

Niles, D.T. ed.

1963 E.A.C.C. Hymnal. Kyoto: AVACO. 3rd ed. 1968.

(The author acknowledges his gratitude to the Rev. David Alexander for his kindness in improving the style.)

* The writer earned: Ph.D. from the University of California (UCLA), and is a retired Professor of Worship, Church Music and Ethnomusicology at Tainan Theological College and Seminary.