When Chinese Christians around the world worship God through music, chances are they are singing a translated Western hymn or a hit from established worship music creators. Flow of praise (赞美之泉), celestial melody (天韵合唱团), or clay music (泥土音乐). Several cult songwriters are interested in adding something that better reflects young people’s tastes.
Jiang Shaolong, Cui Yu, Jane Hao, Chen Ming and Luan Xin all grew up in China before moving to the United States for college or higher education and share a passion for writing Chinese worship songs and ministering to the next generation. They are enthusiastic about using their songwriting talents to help deepen the faith of Chinese students and young professionals they lead or mentor. Except for Chen, who studied music at a conservatory, all are self-taught musicians.
Jiang is pastor of the Chinese-speaking congregation of New Life Community Church Bridgeport, Chicago, and provides spiritual mentorship to Jing Ji Huo (The Burning Bush), which also includes Hao and Yu, the leader of the group. Chen Ming and Luan Xin are both campus ministers. (Ming works with the Chinese Diaspora Ministry Ambassadors for Christ.)
These young Chinese worship songwriters – all of whom are in their 30s and 40s, years below the average Chinese church leader – recently told CT why they feel compelled to write new Chinese worship songs and how they handle comments that their music is too inspired. by pop.
Why did you want to create new Chinese praise songs?
Jiang: I was called by God to serve a Chinese church composed mainly of young Chinese students and young professionals. We worship with songs translated from English as well as songs written by other Chinese songwriting teams, and we are grateful for the Chinese songs we already have. But I still have the desire to create new songs in our own language.
Just as we often say that prayer is as necessary for Christians as breathing, singing and worshiping are as natural for Christians as eating and drinking tea. I love Chinese food and tea culture, and I have a knack for cooking and making tea. So in my ministry, I cook and make tea for young Chinese brothers and sisters and seekers in our church. It is a down-to-earth ministry that also allows me to use my gifts. The same goes for writing worship music.
Before I became a Christian, I loved to play the guitar and tried to make music, and I was interested in Chinese literature. Now, when I look back, I feel like God had already prepared me for the call of hymn writing.
Chen: To be honest, I don’t know how good I am at writing Chinese worship music. But I come from a musical background and I had professional training in music. I am theologically trained and in my understanding, composing worship music is a good exercise and expression of personal worship to God and reflection on faith.
As a campus minister, I also consider it important to me to use creative writing as a way to encourage brothers and sisters and help them reflect on and practice their faith. So writing worship music is really part of my ministry.
What do you think is the hardest part of your creative process of writing worship music?
Cook: Find the balance between church service and self-expression. A person who writes Christian songs naturally wants to use the best words and phrases to express their innermost and deepest thoughts and feelings. If they can find an understanding audience, they’ll be happy. But otherwise, they’re not willing to go against their original intent and voice a voice that isn’t their own, just to suit the aesthetics of those around them.
On the other hand, God has also called us to serve the church. Sometimes our works can be so focused on self-expression that they are difficult for the congregation to understand. We want our works to be understandable, to move, encourage, inspire and comfort people and ultimately help them mature in their faith and draw closer to God. If we write praise songs that only serve to express and move us but lose the function of communal worship, they will have no real value.
Chen: I was a pop songwriter, so writing music isn’t the hardest part for me. On the contrary, I find it difficult to create lyrics, which are the main vector of the message. I have yet to create the kind of lyrics with layers and depth that I idealize.
Can you share an example of your spiritual experience in creating worship music?
Whoa: The first praise song I wrote was called “New Life”. His refrain came to me one day while I was praying. I was struggling deeply that day, feeling very disappointed and disgusted with myself. But during the prayer, God showed me what I looked like in His eyes – a person who had been renewed by the blood of Jesus, with a life guided by the Holy Spirit.
I just went with what moved me and typed the lyrics on the computer. The process of writing this song was a devotional experience for me, allowing me to prayerfully realize that God had given me new life so that I could live a life that was no longer shrouded in sin. Even though I still have weaknesses, God sees me as perfect and beautiful in Jesus.
When working with each other, how do you handle conflicts related to differences in styles or personal preferences?
Chen: Usually, we have a few common basic principles for writing worship songs, such as theological rigor and clarity of the gospel message. It’s healthy if we argue about issues involving these principles and keep a serious and disciplined approach to songmaking. But we must be patient and flexible about differences outside of these principles and respect style and personal preferences wherever possible.
Louan: We are taught that Christians should practice submitting to one another. But in the artistic field of music, it is often very difficult to compromise. It’s hard to “submit to each other” when there are a lot of differences of opinion about the style of the arrangement. When that happens, our approach was to revise it over and over again to try to make it as satisfying as possible for teammates with different preferences. I remember once when we wrote 27 versions of a song!
Chinese Christians often criticize modern Chinese worship songs for sounding like pop songs. How do you view tradition and innovation in songwriting?
Cook: In fact, I encourage us to watch all kinds of Chinese worship songs today with open and grateful hearts. Even though they sound like pop music, I don’t easily dismiss them. These types of songs may be appropriate for many young and new Christians. They can be used to encourage young Christians in their spiritual growth in a musical language they can quickly accept. They need time to mature in their musical choices.
A spiritual elder once told us that intergenerational ministry is also, in essence, a form of intercultural mission. This forces us to serve the younger generation in a culture and language that is familiar to them. If you impose on them the culture and language of your own generation, you will create an intercultural barrier for your ministry.
Of course, we can’t stop at the songs. Worship music should be rich in content and form because God’s grace and works in our lives are rich. We must allow the art form of worship singing to express this richness as much as possible. Music is able to provide contagion that words cannot provide. We must not abandon traditions, but must create Chinese worship music that belongs to our time and too contains deep theological connotations.
Chen: I think we have to look at the lyrics and the music separately. In terms of lyrics, I personally think that the lyrics of many Chinese worship songs that are currently popular in Chinese churches are indeed rather monotonous and repetitive, as if they were created using a formula. Theology often lacks rigor and orthodoxy.
But in terms of melodies, there are actually many historical Western hymns that use the melodies of popular songs of the time. The tunes in these works possess the characteristics of being memorable, easy to learn, and easy to sing. This is a good thing. But the role of lyrics in hymnody is paramount, and the creation of lyrics should be done with more care, so much so that it should even be considered as the preparation of a sermon that needs to be finely chiseled word for word. .
Louan: Much of modern Chinese worship music isn’t really like pop songs. The problem is that the music is boring, the tunes are unpleasant, and the musicianship lags behind that of pop songs. Many unbelievers may hum a few lines of “Amazing Grace” or “Joy to the World” because the Christians of the day made the hymns popular by reaching a high level of music. My hope is that Christians today will be able to produce worship music of a musical standard that rivals the popular music of their contemporaries.
This requires both innovation and a legacy of tradition. I will experience different styles of modern music myself – I probably wrote the first hard-rock style and the first metal-style Chinese worship songs. But the lyrics we write must tell the story of the ancient gospel, just as those classic Western hymns did. It is inheriting the tradition.
Jiang: Inheriting tradition is not the same as copying Western Christian music. Since we write lyrics in Chinese, we should also write them with the unique beauty and rhythm of the Chinese language. I tried to write lyrics in a more elegant style similar to Tang poetry and song lyrics from ancient Chinese literature. I think modern Chinese lyrics can be written to be easily understood, but they can also pursue the literary beauty and grace of the traditional Chinese language.
Improving the quality of composition requires greater professionalism. After composing for a while, we could see gaps in our music. I intentionally befriended experienced professional music producers and asked their advice. We asked them to help us improve orchestration and harmonization, to record and do professional processing of the songs we composed, and also to give us training in music production. Since we are called by God to write worship music, we should do it professionally and try to make a good product. Not only must the lyrics and music be good, but professionalism is also part of the vocation.