KATHMANDU, Nepal – Emotion was palpable amid cautious but fervent prayers as Nepalese women dabbed tears with their shawls and men let intense worship furrow their brows.
One man lifted his shaking hands in worship during the music workshop in Nepal.
“If you’ve never worshipped from your heart tongue, I want to give you an opportunity to now,” workshop leader Deepak Nepali* told the participants.
For many, it indeed was such a moment to worship Jesus in their own language in a land where Nepali is the official language in schools, the workplace and churches.
As languages came to life in prayers and praise, high notes of traditional Tibetan songs revealed a heart yearning for God. The almost-forgotten languages found breath in the lyrics that participants jotted on notebook paper. Traditional drums pounded praise for the Savior.
IMB photo by M.B. Harris
Limbu people group pastor Bikram Yekten (left) and a fellow Limbu believer perform the “Ke Lang” dance while singing a worship song they wrote in the Limbu language. The “Ke” drum is famous in Nepal for its powerful bass sound that carries across the Himalayas. Yekten said six people in his community became believers as a result of listening to worship songs in their native language.
International Mission Board ethnomusicologist Ethan Leyton*, who helped coordinate the four-day workshop last fall, said it was history in the making, as 16 people groups composed 120 songs in 18 languages.
“[God] wants everyone here to use their mother tongue, the language of the heart, the language they pray in, the language they dream in, the language they talk to their family members in,” Leyton observed.
Participants discovered the music hidden in their hearts – music that had been forgotten, stifled, never realized or never given the wings or words to fly.
Deepak Nepali is passionate about music, language, culture and passing this fervency on to his countrymen.
Deepak hopped from one foot to his other at times, leading the group in singing, “I need Jesus, you need Jesus, Nepal needs Jesus.” He bounced his way over to less-enthusiastic participants and, with his energetic facial expressions, succeeded in eliciting a smile and wholehearted participation.
“How often do you use your mother tongue?” he asked two young men from the Tamang people group.
“When we are out cutting grass,” they answer, laughing. The men soon found that they could talk with God and praise Him in a language that had been beyond the bounds of worship for many years.
“We’re here to write new songs, but we’re also here to start a new history,” said Nepali, whose teaching varied based on the audience and what he sensed the Holy Spirit telling him to say.
He broke with his plans and spontaneously opened the floor for believers to pray in their heart language. In Nepal, like many places in Asia, believers pray out loud and all at once.
“Even if you don’t have the vocabulary, ask the Lord to release that and give you the words,” Nepali said.
One Tamang believer began praying in Tamang but faltered, switching to the Nepali language during the impromptu session.
There’s a power in worship and in song, Leyton said. For people who’ve never done so in their tribe’s language, it’s a life-altering experience.
Unity in diversity
Churches had encouraged the sole use of Nepali in worship as a way of unifying the people, Leyton said. For the most part, churches in Nepal do not encourage incorporating other languages or traditional instruments into worship services. “The church was the place you can feel equal,” he said.
Leyton and Nepali were nervous about bringing different people groups from different castes together for fear it would become divisive. It did not.
“It actually unites people because everyone feels validated and everyone is seeing that Jesus can be worshipped in all of these languages and they are appreciating that and realizing that it is important,” Leyton said. “It’s beautiful to watch everyone come together.”
Leyton said he loved listening to four older Lorung Rai believers write and perform songs rich with the history of their people group.
“This is soul. This is the soul of the Lorung Rai people coming out of this song praising Jesus. It really did feel like I had stepped back 50 or 100 years or more,” Leyton said.
A song Anila Rai sang moved him.
“She hit this high note … I felt it was better than Aretha Franklin,” Leyton said. “That note is still in my head. Even though I had no idea what she was saying, knowing that she was worshipping Jesus and she was doing it with the music of her heart…, that is one of a few seconds that I am going to keep in my heart for a long time.”
Many people groups worked late into the night, crafting songs that wouldn’t allow them to sleep until they’d been penned. One man said he dreamt of some lyrics and woke up, wrote them down and then went back to sleep.
In addition to praise and worship songs, the believers wrote Christmas songs, wedding songs, songs of personal testimony and evangelistic songs. The Sampang Rai attendees wrote the first songs ever written in their people group’s language, secular or religious.
Participants took seriously the responsibility to share their worship music with their people.
“We didn’t have any Christian songs in our language; now we have eight,” a believer from the Dimal people group said. “Now, we are asking how we can use these songs to share the glory of God with our people.”
Another goal of the workshop was to use the newly written songs as a ministry tool.
“I hope God puts in your heart a prayer that every language, every tribe will be able to sing and preach the praise of God,” Nepali told the believers.
In the months following the workshop, Bikram Yekten, a pastor from the Limbu people, reported that six Limbu became believers after listening to the worship songs.
An older Nachhiring Rai man collapsed into a bale of hay, exhausted after 30 minutes of dancing at an outreach event in a neighboring village. He removed his baseball cap to release the percolating heat. He couldn’t stop smiling.
The man had danced from his heart, singing the worship songs he helped write in the language of his Nachhiring Rai forefathers.
*In Nepal, individuals’ last names are often the name of their people group.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Caroline Anderson writes from Asia for the International Mission Board.)