Lord, how do You invite me to worship You as a Malaysian?
It’s food for thought, says Dr Leon Lim, pastor and academic passionate about local church worship. “Until today, we seem to be very colonised in our worship styles, believing that anything from the West, even worship songs and styles, is better,” he says.
Dr Leon believes that if we don’t realise the imperialization of styles seeping into our worship, and fail to worship the Lord in our cultural and context-appropriate ways, it makes us less the people God has meant us to be.
In recent years, he has observed a uniformity trend towards the contemporary worship style amongst Malaysian churches, and it’s a concern because it’s not reflective of the diversity that he believes God intended worship to reflect.
The way we worship, he challenges, needs to draw people around us to God. Is our Malaysian Church, and the wider Asian Christian community, doing so? If not, why?
Worship is not a revamp or revival, it’s renewal
Dr Leon, who holds a doctorate in Worship Studies, shares that worship over the years has never changed in its content (who God is) and structure (He reveals Himself and invites us to respond), but evolves in its style.
“Our diversity is reflected in the different styles of worship that exist, and it’s something we need to cherish. In today’s context, that’s where worship renewal comes in,” he explains.
Worship renewal is when the way we worship provides a renewed understanding of who God is. When it becomes static, archaic and forgets its God-given meaning, it loses its relevance.
When we worship God the way He intends for us to, we help people see who God is and respond to Him. And our culture, background and personal experience all have a part to play in the way we worship.
“The Malaysian style of worship is a gift from God”
When Dr Leon stepped into the Robert E. Webber Institute of Worship Studies to pursue his doctorate, the presidential address moved him to tears.
“The president said, “We are making worship very narcissistic because we are colonising people’s worship instead of helping them worship in the styles that God has given them (paraphrased).” I started weeping, because it was the first time I truly realised that the Malaysian style of worship is a gift from God. Who we are made to be, matters to God,” he says.
It was an eye-opening experience for Dr Leon, as he had always felt that with the Western worship style, he never felt fully represented as a Malaysian.
As an example, Dr Leon points out that West-influenced worship songs tend to be more individualistic in nature, focusing on the personal experience between God and the worshipper.
“But in Malaysia and Asia, we’re very communal and relational even in our shared experience of worship. Growing up, I used to sing “Hari ini, ku rasa bahagia, berkumpul bersama saudara semua (we’re together again, just praising the Lord),” all the time. Today, we don’t have enough songs reflecting this togetherness that is unique to our culture,” he says thoughtfully.
His goal is to help local churches understand that their worship matters to God. In his opinion, East Malaysian churches seem to retain their local worship styles more, which brings their worship to a whole different level.
“Worship is Trinitarian, which we forget often because there ends up being hyperfocus on the person of Jesus. There is a need for renewing our understanding of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit — not just in songs, but in our sermons, Scripture reading and so on,” he adds.
Bringing worship renewal to the Asia Pacific
In line with his heart for local church worship, Dr Leon is spearheading the Asia Pacific Worship Summit, an inaugural worship conference hosted by the Asia Pacific Theological Seminary (APTS) Global Missions Centre.
“I truly hope Malaysians will come for this conference. You can be a worship leader, planner, musician, anyone involved in the church worship experience. The conference will always be like that, for anyone, even for every worshipper in the church,” he says enthusiastically.
This year, the team is primarily being run by Malaysians but over the years, Dr Leon hopes to have Asia Pacific representation. Our contribution as Malaysians, he says, is to kick this off and pave the way forward.
The three-day conference will be held onsite at APTS in Baguio,Philippines from 29 June – 1 July 2023. It is part of the seminary’s Global Summer Programme, and is the first of its kind in the region.
Aside from Dr Leon, the two other plenary speakers are Penang-based Rev Dr. Tony Chuang (Taiwanese/Canadian speaker, writer and pastor with a PhD in Intercultural Studies) and his wife, Dr. Esther Shin Chuang (Korean/American award-winning concert pianist with a doctorate of Worship Studies).
Some of Malaysia’s top-notch Christian musicians will also be taking afternoon workshops, incorporating both technical and spiritual lessons:
- Aubry Chong (drummer)
- Alex Kok (bassist)
- Carson Ng (guitarist)
- Brandon Shia (guitarist)
Night sessions are full worship services and will be open to the public.
“Our focus this year is biblical and theological worship. We hope to inspire worship renewal for the people. We’re using the vehicle of music, definitely, but we hope to incorporate creative writing, responsorial psalms and more,” Dr Leon shares.
So far, around 86 participants from Malaysia, Sri Lanka and the Philippines have registered, with interest from Cambodia. (Some participants are seeking financial support. If you feel led to contribute, click here)
The pastor and academic firmly believes the conference will enrich every country that’s represented as multicultural worship has always been part of God’s plan, hence the focus on the Asia Pacific.
Our Asian worship matters to God
“God is renewing worship for Asia, showing us that our worship styles matter,” says Dr Leon, and this conference hopes to spark the start of something fresh in the way we worship. He is excited to see what God does at the conference, and what will happen next.
He also hopes to rally the support of Malaysians, and that one day, Malaysian ground will be ready to host a similar conference so that “Malaysian diversity will be reflected.”
Dr Leon’s heart for local worship is apparent and his burden is especially for smaller churches in Malaysia; he goes to four churches on a weekly basis to train the worship team, and travels to other churches to help set up their sound systems, instruments and offer technical support.
But his heart extends beyond Malaysia, and as a worshipper, he hopes to see more local communities in other Asian countries rise up to worship God in their own styles.
“In the churches I go to preach in, they’re often embarrassed by their worship. But we don’t have to become like Hillsong or Bethel or come up with albums to matter to God,” he says.
“We may just be worshipping with a guitar and vocals because that’s all we have, but it reflects our genuine best and that matters to God. Our Asian worship matters to God.”
The Asia Pacific Worship Summit is prayerfully seeking financial support to enable interested participants from throughout the region to attend the conference. If you or your church wishes to contribute, click here. For more information on the Asia Pacific Worship Summit and to register, click here.