Last month I submitted an article on music and hymns in use at the Lord’s Supper which generated lots of discussion. A response by a number of people was to keep the old hymns and educate the people as to the meaning of words and singing of tunes. I agree that education/teaching is vital but a changing world presents some unique challenges.
A British influence
Traditionally North American Assemblies have had a strong British influence and make-up. Whether from the U.K., from the Caribbean, or they are second or third generation believers out of that background. In the U.K. and the Caribbean, the same Hymn Books are in use so these people have little trouble with words and tunes.
Urban versus rural changes
I am most familiar with the situation in Ontario so I will use the assemblies here as an example. The assemblies in larger cities have a changing population from a variety of backgrounds. The assembly I attend in London, has in the last year gained four East Indian families.
This trend is the same in larger assemblies in Windsor, Hamilton, Pickering, Markham and Ottawa to name a few. The assemblies in rural Ontario generally have static demographics.
English as a second language
As I travel in Ontario and the U.S.A. there are more East Indians in North American Assemblies as opposed to fifteen years ago. There are also an increasing number of people from Egyptian and Asian backgrounds. These first generation North Americans have English as a second language. There are also a few believers from Arab nations, which will possibly increase in the years ahead.
Experientially, in conversation with many of these new immigrants to North America, face to face, comprehension can be a problem. Some are difficult to understand and even those who are fluent may have some difficulty with idioms, poetry, and some have a limited vocabulary.
For some of these people words like “thralldom”, “effulgence”, “indelible”, and “rife” are never going to be part of their vocabulary.
Specific use of English can be tough
In the same way, there are phrases, idioms, imagery, and allusions in hymns that may are hard to grasp. Phrases such as “called to share the rest of God, in the Father’s blest abode” may resonate with many of us but be hard for new comers to appreciate.
Another example out of many possibilities would be “O safe and happy shelter! O refuge tried and sweet! O trysting place where heaven’s love and heaven’s justice meet”. The balance of the verse alludes to the story of Jacob’s dream of a ladder up to heaven.
Those less educated
I am also involved with New Life Prison Ministry marking courses from inmates across Canada. At the office near London, Ontario, nearly 11,000 correspondence courses are marked each year. In the material New Life produces, we aim for a grade seven reading level. A few inmates are well educated but the majority struggle with reading and comprehension.
In our correspondence with inmates, we are very conscious of the need for simplicity and clarity. So many words, terms, and phrases common to us would mean nothing to many of these people. I am reminded of the instruction in 1 Cor. 14 about people coming in and hearing “tongues”, there is nothing that will edify if they cannot comprehend what is being said.
Understanding the masses
Let me give one more personal example from three weeks ago. I was speaking from Phil. 1 and in verse 28 the word “perdition” is found. I stopped and asked if anyone (about 160 -180 people) knew the meaning and could give a definition. Not a single hand went up though I think a few there could explain the concept behind the word.
I gave a definition and explanation but I am sure if I ask the same question one year from now the response will be the same.
All of this to say we in Assemblies need to be conscious of shifting demographics. Traditionally Assemblies have been in suburbs and have been relatively static in their ethnic make-up. The potential for diversity is greater now than ever as more immigrants come to North America. It is good to be aware of the potential and the problems that might be present in coming years.