guest blog: worship, justice & ethnomusicology

Part 2 

Mathew Nathaniel is one of the pastors at New Horizons Christian Fellowship (Hemel Hempstead) and lectures on Worship and Justice at WorldShapers – the educational arm of the church which is currently transitioning into becoming a Christian College. He’s just about to return to India for a four month sabbatical. During it he’ll spend time with his family in Tamil Nadu and record an album which will bring together modern western worship music with traditional classical Indian music – it will include the first worship song about justice written in Tamil.

Liz caught up with Mat following a Worship and Justice Day he was running to find out about his journey as a Christian and a worship leader; what he has seen about God’s heart for justice and the nations; how his views on worship have changed; and what he wants to see change in the wider church as a result.

Mathew Nathaniel

I am challenged not just to be a believer in Christ but a follower of Christ. James 1 tells us what makes us distinct… our actions. To believe in Jesus isn’t enough – even the enemy does that.

Jesus is our role model – we need to get our hands dirty in the community. We’re not just called to the spiritual, we’re called to society and politics.

The church should go beyond the spiritual and not draw the line there. It should flow through everything from challenging the Sanhedrin to ministering to those on the outskirts who are rejected.

After my masters I was asked to pioneer a Worship and Justice teaching track at WorldShapers. I was starting to understand what being a prophet to the nations might actually mean – influencing young worship leaders.

We started with eight students. Eight more disturbed people from all over the world! Writing songs; getting theological grounding…

And then I started asking how can we reach different ethnic groups? So I studied a course in ethnomusicology at London School of Theology where I learnt from Ian Collinge who spent years living in and studying the culture of Nepal and then wrote the first evangelistic song in Nepalese.

I started to see how justice could be stirred up through ethnic music and the power of protest songs as heart music.

This has set me on a new part of my journey – to explore a fusion of authentic Indian classical music into modern western worship music.

I love Western music and I don’t want to lose it – it feels natural to me now but somehow people have equated civilisation with western music and so we’re in danger of letting go of our music in India – which is some of the oldest in the world – because we don’t believe something can be civilised if it’s indigenous.

But diversity is such a blessing! God deliberately made us different. He didn’t forget to put colour in Liz’s face, or forget to take it out of mine.

I’m really excited about the album I’m going to record – it’s going to be called ‘The Seven’ and is inspired by the idea of completion embodied in Jesus. It’s going to include the first justice song in my native language – Tamil – and I’m bringing together an Indian musical director with two musicians from England. It’s been about ten years coming but I feel I’m ready now.

Currently in India about 30% of the songs sung in churches are imported but often the translations dumb down the theological richness of what’s being said. I am actually working on a new translation of Jarod Cooper’s “King of Kings, Majesty” into Tamil to get back some of this richness.

Of the 70% written in India, the emphasis on me and God is even higher than over here.

When I first heard Liz speak one thing that struck me was her challenge that we are singing lots of love songs to God but where are the love songs for our neighbour?

I’m praying about finding strategies to influence worship leaders in India and impart my heart for worship and justice.

To me now, worship is anytime that the created meets the Creator. It can be anywhere – it’s the freedom to praise him by helping the poor or holding your tongue as well as singing.

And justice is about three levels – relief, development and social reformation. I love Martin Luther King’s writings about transforming the Jericho road and the similar one from Desmond Tutu about the need to apprehend whoever is pushing people into the river upstream, as well as pulling out those already needing rescuing from downstream.

We can’t just treat the symptoms – we have to treat the causes too. Jesus hammered the causes. He did bring relief too but he stopped Zacchaeus causing more oppression.

Some of the places we’re sending relief to wouldn’t need it if the powerful had chosen the path of justice. If you influence the powerful, the chances of oppression and suffering will lessen.

And what is the cause? We have to wake up to the fact it’s the deception of the enemy. And it’s us. The church. By being part of the oppression by being a silent ear.

By being passive the church has allowed so many things – even the image of God – to be distorted. That’s where we allow the enemy in whether it’s expressed and outworked in unethical practices, poverty or an imbalance between rich and poor and social status.

Out of the top ten richest people in India, three or four of them are brothers.

The richest man in the world is Indian and yet we have half of the world’s hungry. Meanwhile there is a consumer mentality in the church – rather than a contributing one – we need to turn the camera out from ourselves and on to others.

The UK has a long way to go with worship and justice but if you look at the few justice songs emerging, the UK is leading the way. I don’t think anywhere else is doing as much.

India has more fundamental things to address before we even get to the songs. We are apathetic and lethargic about responding to need and prosperity teaching is worryingly influential. We have mixed up thinking and we need to critically examine our theology.

And we need to get past messed up systems and do what is right in the sight of God.

I once went to an orphanage in India where three babies who were just a few weeks old were dying of malnutrition. They had been rescued from a sugarcane field; a rubbish bin and a train but they were just lying there on the floor not being helped.

There was only one woman in the room looking after thirteen children and she wasn’t really doing anything for these three. Some of the children were tied by their feet with string to make sure they didn’t wander off.

I got angry and I was blaming her  and the government but then I thought hold on, what has the church done for these children? The government is having to take the place of the church.

I felt I mustn’t just mourn the situation but I must do something about it. Can we save them? Maybe. There was a way if we could get to a doctor twenty minutes away but we would have to cross a state border.

I wasn’t allowed to take them because if they died on route I would be prosecuted. A few minutes later they died.

There is so much bad practice and so much need and we need to have our hearts broken again.

We need to get our hands dirty. I need to get my hands dirty. I don’t know how yet but I know right now I’m not even qualified to write justice songs actually. I grew up comfortable and I don’t know what it means to be hungry… I feel like I need to experience a slum, a war-torn country or a drought…

I’m asking Lord when I’m ready, take me somewhere where you can show me your heart.

Meanwhile, I’ve just finished my final teaching week with the Worship and Justice track I have been part of pioneering over the last two years. The result is eight more people challenged and disturbed in the same way as I am, to seek justice.

They have now started to think of ways they can be prophetic through their lives and have started writing and recording songs on justice in their own languages!

A change is beginning…

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