In India, songwriter nurtures worship for a diverse culture

Baptist Press
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Posted: May 14, 2012 5:22 PM
In India, songwriter nurtures worship for a diverse culture
INDIA (BP) -- Jeff Bourque made his way to India from Music City USA to share the basics of songwriting.

His mission: to help musicians from several churches in India write songs that speak to their highly diverse culture. In a nation where only one of every 70 people believes in Jesus, Indian Christians are surrounded by Hindu temples full of idols and such sounds as the Muslim call to prayer.

Ethan Leyton*, an ethnomusicologist, and Mani Dutta*, an Indian pastor, invited Bourque, worship leader for Grace Community Church in Nashville, to conduct a songwriting workshop for 18 young men and women from several Indian churches in urban settings.

Leyton and Dutta "dreamed and prayed," as Leyton put it, "that instead of Indian believers singing Hillsong and Chris Tomlin songs all the time, perhaps they could begin writing their own English songs for worship."

These believers have much to offer Christian music, with their distinctive identity in living out their faith in India, Leyton said, voicing a hope that their songs also might be used in American churches one day.

Leyton has organized 20 songwriting workshops for believers around southern Asia during the last seven years. Bourque's workshop, however, is unique because it's the first one in English. In mega-cities where multiple languages are spoken, many Christians and young professionals are more comfortable communicating in English because it's the language they have in common.

Bible college student and church worship leader Amit Dhawan* had struggled to write songs long before the workshop, where he worked with three others to write the song "The Lord is Good."

"Many times I came to know the truth about God through worship songs, and it encouraged me to come closer to God," Dhawan said. " I want people to understand that God still saves, heals and delivers people from darkness."

Like Dhawan, the other budding songwriters also had some musical skill, but almost no experience writing songs centered on God for the purpose of building up the church. Among the participants were a former drug addict, a software developer, a banker, an engineering student, a pastor and the grandson of a witchcraft-practicing village elder.

Bourque, fueled by his 22 years of songwriting experience and a passion for the local church, became interested in teaching a workshop like this in 2005. While leading worship overseas for a group of cross-cultural workers, he heard about the importance of equipping new believers to communicate their experiences with God through song.

Believers from different cultures should be able to sing songs that relate to their experiences, rather than importing songs from other cultures, like the Western-sounding songs sung in American churches, Bourque said.

"When you have an experience of salvation, everyone is saved to Christ, but everyone is saved from something, and that looks different," Bourque said. "So, the people of this country will have a completely different perspective on what it means to be a believer."

Although the workshop was conducted in English, the language barrier was somewhat present, but it didn't stop Bourque from connecting with the students from not just from India but also from Bhutan and Africa.

Impressed by how quickly the group built trust, Bourque credits their bond -- and their readiness to learn -- with knowing that their lives had been greatly impacted by Jesus.

"I mean, it was two straight days of thinking of nothing but songs and songwriting and I started to get fatigued," Bourque said. "But rather than taking a break, the students said, 'Let's write another song!'"

Sanjeet Devar*, a church worship leader, worked with three others to write the song "You're My Friend," expressing God's nature as an approachable friend, drawing from the John 15:13-15 passage in the New Testament.

"He created everything that we see and know and chooses to call us His friend," Devar said. "God is nearer and more approachable than what most people in my culture think."

The last night of the workshop ended with a time of worship. Together, various participants sang the four songs they had completed. No one noticed the myriad of mosquitoes or the building's flickering electricity as they praised God with their voices and with shakers, djembe, guitar and keyboard.

"I looked around the circle as we were worshipping one night just playing guitars and banging on instruments and singing songs," Bourque said, "and their hearts were so humble and filled with love that came from an understanding of who God is and a desire to know more . They were just obviously committed followers of Christ, without any pretense or shells, and that was such a blessing for me to spend time with them."

The experience sparked a prayer in Bourque for the seeds of God's truth in the songs to bear fruit in the church in India.

And in his own interaction with the students, Bourque said, "Their excitement to write songs motivated me to write more."

To listen to the songs created by the south Asian songwriters, go to www.go2southasia.org/?p=6152.

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*Names changed. Torie Speicher is a writer serving among South Asian peoples. Jeff Bourque is online at http://congregationalsongs.com.

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