Praying for the World: Exploring Asian hymnody

The gospel came to us as a potted plant. We have to break the pot and set the plant in our own soil.

— D. T. Niles

During the summer of 1996, I attended a conference with Asian Christians in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Approximately fifty Asians gathered from over twenty countries to investigate the topic “Doing Theology with Asian Resources.” I was the only non-Asian observer at this event sponsored by the Programme for Theology and Culture in Asia, a theological forum growing out of the Christian Conference of Asia. As we listened to the diverse stories of those assembled, a recurring theme emerged: How can we be Christian and still be Asian?

Asian Christians experience a conundrum between feelings of gratitude to Euro-American Christian missionaries for a legacy of the good news of Jesus Christ and a sense of frustration because they often feel like cultural aliens in their own land. Euro-North American influences remain stifling to some, especially in the areas of liturgical ritual and congregational song.

At one point in the conference, a Malay woman stood and reframed the dilemma this way: “We need to remember that Jesus was born in western Asia and sought refuge in northern Africa. He never visited the United States.” Not many of our liturgical practices in the United States reflect the cultures in which the gospel originally took root—Asia and Africa.

The Sounds of Asia

While Christianity is growing rapidly throughout Latin America, Africa, and Asia, Asia is different from the other two in many ways. First of all, Christians generally comprise no more than 3 percent of the total population of the vast territory we call Asia (exceptions are the Philippines, which is largely Roman Catholic, and South Korea, which is at least one-third Protestant—primarily Methodist and Presbyterian).

Second, regardless of how broadly one considers Asia as a geographic entity (some include the South Pacific Islands and even Australia and New Zealand in Asia’s sphere of influence), it is culturally the most complex and diverse region of the world. And Christianity is not new to this region; the good news first took root here through the early missionary movement, not long after Christ’s ascension. The Church of South India, the Mar Thoma Church, the Nestorians, and others are evidence that the gospel reached deep into Asia.

From a musical perspective, many Asian cultures have long traditions of art and folk music. Ethnomusicologists generally recognize five major musical notation systems complete with written theories and philosophies. One is from the West, three are from eastern Asia (India, China, and Indonesia), and a fifth, the Persian system, is from the Middle East (Iran and surrounding Middle Eastern countries). Viewed within the broader perspective, Western musical traditions do not begin to reflect the diversity or, in many cases, the complexity of those found in Asia.

When visiting Christian churches in various parts of Asia, however, the lack of Asian musical resources used in worship and the similarity of respective liturgical traditions to those in the United States might be surprising. The quotation that begins this article by D. T. Niles, the great Sri Lankan churchman and ecumenist, expresses a minority position concerning the incorporation of indigenous Asian musical traditions into Christian liturgy. By the middle of the twentieth century he suggested that Asian Christians needed to find their own voice. Niles cultivated the liturgical soil of Asia by writing hymns and developing the first hymnal to make significant use of Asian music and original texts. I-to Loh, president of the Tianan Theological College and Seminary in Taiwan, has assumed the mantle of D. T. Niles, collecting and developing indigenous Asian hymns for over thirty years. The results of his efforts to set the plant of the gospel into indigenous musical soils throughout Asia appear in many recent hymnals (see box on pp. 32-33).

Comparing the number of Asian hymns in recent Euro-North American hymnals with those from Latin American and African sources, one may draw several conclusions:

  • There are relatively few of them.
  • While many appear to imitate Western musical styles extensively, others are extremely foreign to Western ears.
  • The process of translating Asian texts, especially from languages that use characters, makes it difficult to produce singable, accurate translations.
  • Western musical notation is often inadequate for indicating complexities of rhythm and melody, especially for those musical styles that incorporate glides when approaching notes.
  • Harmonizations found in current hymnals often eliminate distinctive Asian sounds by using standard Western harmonic progressions.
Praying with Asian Christians

In spite of these potential difficulties, some wonderful Asian hymns that are quite accessible to Western congregations can enhance our understanding of sung prayer. Although compromises always take place when music is borrowed from its original culture and incorporated into a new context, we can gain insight into the aesthetic sensibilities of many Asians and, in doing so, enhance our ability to pray for the world. I have found that congregations are more open to attempting music that is far from their cultural experience when they think of it as sharing sung prayers with Christians from around the world, and, in doing so, learning to pray in new ways.

While many Asian church musicians are highly influenced by Western harmonies and hymn styles, especially gospel songs, a growing body of literature draws more deeply from the roots of Asian musical soil. It is impossible to summarize the complexity of the diverse musical styles of Asia in this short space. But I would like to offer some recommendations that might enable worship leaders to help their congregations pray for the world through Asian song and with some understanding of Asian aesthetic sensibility. My comments will focus on suggestions that are most appropriate for traditional music found in northeastern Asia (China, Japan, Taiwan, and Korea) and some parts of the Indian subcontinent (Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Pakistan, and India). To date, most of the Asian music that appears in hymnals published in the United States comes from northeastern Asia. As an introductory guide, I offer the following four general guidelines:

  • Much traditional Asian music is monophonic, using only a single melodic line. While this may seem stark to the Western musician who is oriented to vertical harmonies, congregations can appreciate the simplicity of monophonic, unaccompanied singing and its power to unify the body of believers gathered (ekklesia) for worship. Asian hymnody often calls for us to listen to the “still, small voice,” a welcome alternative to the contemporary Western emphasis on fuller volume, more instruments, and more technological sophistication.
  • When harmony is used, it is best to use a more polyphonic texture rather than traditional homophonic chords. (Examples will be given below.) Furthermore, if instruments are used, especially string and woodwinds, rather than playing traditional Western vertical harmonies, the effect is one of heterophony, with each instrument embellishing the melody idiomatically according to the nature of the instrument, the scale of the melody, and the style of the music. This is usually not written down, but is done in a semi-improvisatory manner.
  • Many of the melodies, especially in southeastern Asia, make use of glides, most often sliding into a tone from below. These are part of the style and should be taught intentionally. With the appropriate introduction and repetition, I have found that many people are moved by the quiet power and authenticity of these sounds, especially when supporting the text of the Kyrie (Lord, have mercy) or some other prayer text.
  • Percussion is often used, but I would avoid it unless it is indicated on the page.
Three Asian Hymns

Let us look briefly at a few examples that illustrate these points to some degree. Both the text and the music of “Here, O Lord, Your Servants Gather” (see p. 28) are Japanese. In this case the pentatonic (five-tone gapped scale) melody has been harmonized by the composer himself. Note the use of open fifths in the bass part and a simple counterpoint, especially on the second score. This accompaniment is suitable for the organ and might be enhanced by use of reed stops. I have found this hymn to be one of the best poetic exegeses of John 14:6. It is perfect for occasions such as World Communion Sunday.

“Sheep Fast Asleep” (see p. 30), also from Japan, uses a complete diatonic major scale as a basis for the melody. This melody is supported by simple half-note progressions with occasional restrained counterpoint.

Perhaps the best place to find music in the style suggested by the guidelines above is in the hymns of I-to Loh. Dr. Loh enjoys setting hymn texts, especially those of New Zealand hymn writers Shirley Erena Murray and Ron O Grady, in various Asian traditional musical idioms. “A Loving Spirit” (see p. 29) derives its melody from an Indian scale (similar to the “gypsy” minor in the West). The added drum part is reminiscent of the tabla, a pair of drums played with the fingers and palms found in India. The meter (3+4 over 8) symbolizes the mystery of the Holy Spirit. Note the polyphonic character of the accompaniment.

Experience the Mystery and Awe of God

By all means, avoid the temptation to add organ or piano to monophonic material and then harmonize the melodies in a Western manner. When encountering Asian hymns that appear with Western harmonizations in some hymnals, try singing them unaccompanied or in a monophonic manner (melody only).

Even these simple steps may seem somewhat daunting and risky at first. However, Asian hymns may be a vehicle for experiencing the timeless God of mystery and awe. News reports from Asia range from political strife and natural disasters to recent democratic elections and the resolution of deep conflicts. Singing a Christian hymn that has been nourished by the rich aesthetic and spiritual soil of Asia allows us to pray in solidarity with these Christians, lamenting their sorrows and celebrating their joys. Though different from us in worldview and far removed in geography, we are united in Jesus Christ.


1 See works by John C. England for an introduction to the early spread of the gospel to Asia including “The Hidden History of Christianity in Asia: the Churches of the East before 1500 C.E.”; Doing Theology with Asian Resources, John C. England and Archie C. C. Lee, eds. (Programme for Theology and Cultures in Asia, 1993), 129-161; and “Early Asian Christian Writings, 5th to the 12th Centuries: An Appreciation,” The Asia Journal of Theology 11:1 (April 1997), 154-171.

2 I-to Loh, “Transmitting Cultural Traditions in Hymnody,” Church Music Worship 4:3 (Sept.-Dec. 1994), 2.

3 See Ion Bria and Dagmar Heller, eds., Ecumenical Pilgrims: Profiles of Pioneers in Christian Reconciliation (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1995), 168-171 for an introduction to D. T. Niles. In addition to writing many hymns, Niles edited the E.A.C.C. Hymnal in 1963 for the East Asian Christian Council, an organization he founded. His translation of a Philippine hymn, “Father in Heaven” (also translated “O God in Heaven”) is found in many North American hymnals (e.g. Psalter Hymnal 252).

4 For an introduction to the work of I-to Loh, see C. Michael Hawn, “Sounds of Bamboo: I-to Loh and the Development of Asian Hymns,” The Hymn 49:2 (April 1998), 12-24. This article also notes the inclusion of hymn tunes written by Loh in current North American hymnals.

5 I recommend Simon Broughton, et al, Eds., World Music: The Rough Guide (New York: Penguin Books, 1994), chapter five: “The Indian Subcontinent,” 205-240, as an excellent readable introduction to the broad range of styles in this region. A helpful discography is also included.



Jesus, You have helped me.
Because of You I don’t have to be right all the time.
I don’t have to pretend I know all the answers.
I don’t have to win every game.

Now I feel good about myself.
I am at peace—
like when I was a little kid
sitting on my mother’s lap.

—Eldon Weisheit, Psalms for Teens Book II (Concordia, 1994). Used by permission.


Note: All examples listed are set to Asian tunes;

some of the texts are from other sources

Key to Hymnals Cited

BP: The Book of Praise (1997)
CH: The Covenant Hymnal: A Worshipbook (1996)
HWB: Hymnal: A Worship Book (1992)
NCH: New Century Hymnal (1995)
PH : Presbyterian. Hymnal (1990)
PsH: Psalter Hymnal (1987)

RL: Rejoice in the Lord (1985)
SFL: Songs for LiFE (1995)
TWC: The Worshipping Church (1990)
UMH: United Methodist Hymnal (1989)
VU: Voices United (1996)
WOV: With One Voice (1995)

C. Michael Hawn is associate professor of church music at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas.


Reformed Worship 52 © June 1999, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.