United in Song

Bilingual Singing as an Expression of Pentecost

In an age of unprecedented division, when so many people around us experience racism, hatred, deportations, and fear, the church is called into unity and a spirit of Pentecost hospitality, working toward the day of re-creation. On that day everything will be made new, and all will join together around the heavenly throne, singing praises to the heavenly King in a beautiful chorus of many languages: “‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty,’ who was, and is, and is to come” (Revelation 4:8).

The universal church can do many things to stand against the social evils of our time. The season of Pentecost presents a unique opportunity for the church to unite through song as the body of Christ. One of the greatest gifts we have is the ability to worship our Lord together as the body of Christ. At its root, unity is the ability to say “If you belong to Jesus Christ, you belong with me.” Romans 12:4–5 says: “For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.”

But singing in other languages might make some of us fearful. We fear we’re not doing it correctly, that we’re mispronouncing words, or that we’re appropriating the song or its cultural heritage. But stepping into this vulnerability and trying songs from all times and places, some in other languages, is better than letting our apprehensions keep us from sharing in the gifts of the worldwide church.

Many churches traditionally speak or sing in other languages on Pentecost as a way to re-create the story of the first Pentecost in Acts 2. What if we use the day or season of Pentecost as a launching point for gradually adding more songs from the worldwide church into our local repertoire? (Gradually is the key word here!) This article focuses on songs that are in Spanish and English, but we can and should learn songs in many different languages and from all times and places. If Spanish isn’t the best on-ramp language for your congregation, start with a language that makes sense for your context. Perhaps your congregation shares a space with a Korean congregation; consider starting with a song from Korea. If your congregation has a lot of bilingual families who speak both Mandarin Chinese and English, start there. With a little research you should be able to find resources for congregational singing in most languages and perhaps models for bilingual worship similar to those described below. You could also encourage composers from your community to create new bilingual songs for your context.

In many communities in the United States, Spanish is spoken as much as English, and there are models of Spanish- and English-speaking Christians sharing their lives: bilingual families; churches with two congregations sharing one room, each speaking a different language; and neighborhoods or businesses with people speaking multiple languages. Singing in a variety of languages welcomes our neighbors and reminds congregations that the church is larger and broader than their immediate contexts.

Santo, Santo, Santo: Cantos para el pueblo de Dios / Holy, Holy, Holy: Songs for the People of God (SSS) is a new hymnal with more than seven hundred songs in both Spanish and English. This hymnal is designed to help God’s people sing together, encouraging both Spanish- and English-speaking Christians to offer praise and prayers to God together, bilingually, as the body of Christ.

A hymnal might be perceived as a book for those singing in a congregational setting, but we hope SSS will inspire learning and be used in many settings beyond Sunday services. As the hymnal came together, we editors, in partnership with many friends, actively learned about bilingual worship (Spanish/English) in the United States and around the world. Though we are still learning, this hymnal is one way to share what we’ve learned so far. Its contents illustrate the breadth of worship practices we’ve witnessed, showcasing many variations in styles from many different centuries, more than thirty countries, and more than thirty denominations and Christian traditions. It also explores a wide range of biblical and theological themes. Individual denominations or congregations might emphasize some themes more than others, but this book invites them to develop a beautifully balanced and integrated approach to congregational song.

Many different models for bilingual congregational singing are found in this hymnal. Here are some examples that could provide ways for primarily English-speaking congregations to gradually introduce bilingual (Spanish/English) singing into worship for the first time—perhaps even on Pentecost!

  1. Bilingual song: through-composed. These songs were originally written bilingually with the intention that congregations sing both languages. “Nuestra ayuda viene del Señor / Our Help Is in the Name of the Lord” Colón and Tel, SSS 385 (based on Psalm 124) is one such example written for SSS.

  2. Bilingual song: two distinct melodies. These songs, written bilingually with two distinct melodies, could help a choir or praise team to lead the congregation in singing bilingually. The two melodies exist because it is sometimes difficult to say the same thing in two languages with the same number of syllables or syllabic stresses. Some authors and composers chose to be creative by writing complementary melodies meant to be sung together. Congregations can learn each melody individually before singing them simultaneously. “Nuestra ayuda viene del Señor / Our Help Is in the Name of the Lord” Colón and Tel, SSS 385 also provides an example of this approach.

  3. Coritos (short songs). Coritos are short “heart songs” with origins in the oral/aural tradition. They’re meant to be repeated many times so your congregation can learn them by heart. Consider singing a corito through a few times in English before singing the Spanish, if Spanish is something that will stretch your congregation. Because coritos were originally learned orally/aurally, they sometimes sound different in different communities. “Yo quiero ser, Señor amado / I Want to Be What You Would Make Me” Anonymous, SSS 617 & 618 is one example for which two different versions appear in SSS.

  4. Short, cyclical songs. As with coritos, short songs that can be sung multiple times are a good way to start singing bilingually. There are many shorter songs throughout SSS that are not coritos but are still easy for congregations to latch on to. Consider teaching first in English and then later introducing the Spanish.

  5. Songs with many languages. While SSS focuses primarily on bilingual songs, it does also contain songs with many languages. Worshiping communities around the world publish frequently in many languages. Taizé, Iona, and the World Council of Churches are a few examples. Many songs from Taizé are in Latin because it’s a “neutral” language—not spoken in day-to-day life, but nevertheless a language of the ancient church. Because Latin is a language often associated with the Roman Catholic Church, and due to many unfortunate divisions between Catholic and Protestant believers throughout Latin America, SSS doesn’t include Taizé’s Latin lyrics but instead provides translations in many other languages. Songs from Iona are found in communities around the world. The World Council of Churches hosts large-scale, multilingual worship events, frequently commissions people to write songs in many languages, and publishes resources such as Hosanna! Ecumenical Songs for Justice and Peace, edited by Andrew Donaldson. Using a song from one of those resources and singing in multiple languages would be appropriate for Pentecost. Perhaps members of the congregation could choose which languages to sing.

    A few hymns in SSS were printed in multiple languages—“All People That on Earth Do Dwell / Oh pueblos todos alabad” Kethe, SSS 416, GtG 385, LUYH 1, PfAS 100A, PsH 100, PH 220, TH 1, WR 661 and “Praise God, from Whom All Blessings Flow / Al Dios de toda bendición” Ken, SSS 696, GtG 606, LUYH 964, PsH 637, CH 166, PH 592, WR 34 are two such examples. The latter is short and likely very familiar, so it could be a good introduction to multilingual congregational singing.

  6. Refrains of familiar hymns. One of the difficulties of singing in another language is not always understanding what you are singing. Consider choosing a familiar hymn with a refrain. The congregation will likely know the words to the refrain by heart, allowing them to sing it in a different language while still understanding what they are singing.

  7. Songs with repeated phrases throughout. For similar reasons, consider choosing a song that has a repeated phrase throughout, like “Perdón, Señor / Forgive Us, Lord” Lockward, SSS 505, LUYH 642. A leader could sing the stanzas, and the congregation could respond with the same phrase throughout.

  8. Short songs to add to each week of a series. As you approach Ordinary Time after Pentecost, consider choosing a song to sing over multiple weeks that corresponds with a sermon series. You could also consider this during a liturgical season, changing a few words each time. For a series on unity, try singing a different stanza of “O-so-sô / Come Now, O Prince of Peace / Príncipe de Paz, ven” Lee, SSS 235, GtG 103, LUYH 905, WR157 each week. You could try different combinations of languages or repeat the refrain multiple times at the end, each time in a new language. For a series during Advent, consider “He Came Down That We May Have Love / Él vino su amor a darnos” Cameroon traditional, SSS 88, GtG 137, WR 402, in which all the words except one would stay the same each week. This allows the congregation to familiarize themselves with the tune and text over the course of a few weeks.

  9. Familiar tunes, new texts. Each congregation or worshiping community has tunes they are familiar with. Consider choosing a song with a familiar tune but a new text for your congregation. There are a few songs found in SSS originally written in a language other than Spanish or English. Some were then translated at about the same time to both Spanish and English, resulting in two very different translations of the same song. This journey happened to “Nun Danket Alle Gott,” which in English is traditionally known as “Now Thank We All Our God” and in Spanish as “De boca y corazon” Rinkart, SSS 485, GtG 643, LYUH 543, PsH 454, CH 788, PH 555, WR 14.

The Spanish and the English for this German text do not work well together, though, so what appears in SSS are new translations, from “Now Thank We All Our God” to Spanish and from “De boca y corazon” to English. Consider using this new English translation, “Lift Heart and Voice to Heaven,” the next time you want to sing “Now Thank We All Our God.”

A hymnal is a treasure trove for learning and equipping Christians in all different settings with the tools and resources to worship together, be it in congregational worship, choirs, church committee and staff meetings, youth or children’s groups, Christian day school gatherings from kindergarten through college and seminary, summer camps, or any other place where God’s people sing together. A collection like this serves as an invitation for worshipers to speak not about “their music” and “our music,” but rather about the unity found in the diversity of a common body of song. We hope this hymnal can encourage future generations of songwriters, poets, translators, and arrangers representing the 6,500 languages spoken around the world to imagine ever richer and deeper ways of joining voices with the church of all times and places in bringing praise to our God and Savior through the power of the Holy Spirit.

May all of our worship and daily living be examples of Christian unity and Pentecost hospitality, where we speak to each other with arms opened wide in welcome—eager to interact with each other, eager to learn from each other, and eager to sing praises to our Lord, together, as the body of Christ.

For more information about this hymnal, see bit.ly/2Z1IgqE.

For more resources on bilingual worship, see bit.ly/305lRKm.


Rebecca Hoeksema Snippe is program manager for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, focusing on the PreachingandWorship.org project and music-related projects. She served as a co-managing editor for the hymnal, Santo, Santo, Santo / Holy, Holy, Holy (GIA Publications, Inc., 2019). She is a graduate of Calvin University and holds a Master of Arts and a Master of Theological Studies in worship from Calvin Theological Seminary.

Reformed Worship 135 © March 2020, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.