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Exploring the Richness of Liturgical Music in the Bilingual Church

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In my youth in Venezuela, we often met at church to sing and play songs of praise in Spanish. We used to sing various coritos like Alabaré, No hay Dios tan grande como, and Una mirada de fe, accompanied by the cuatro, güiro and drum. Later, when I came to the United States to study, I learned English hymns and songs, singing in choir and sometimes playing the guitar. But for a long time, liturgical music in my life was divided between my world in Spanish and my world in English. Every so often we would sing El pescador de hombres at an English service or have a separate Spanish service. But in that period of my life I did not encounter something more unified.

But that separation is beginning to change. Little by little we are developing more opportunities to have bilingual and multicultural liturgical music that offers us the possibility of worshiping God together as one whole body of Christ. When I realized that God was calling me to ministry in bilingual churches, I began to reach out to several people across the United States working in the area of bilingual liturgical music. In my first year at Princeton Theological Seminary, Dr. Martin Tel introduced me to the hymnal Santo, Santo, Santo/ Holy, Holy, Holy: Cantos para el pueblo de Dios/Songs for the People of God, published in 2019. Despite having a pandemic in the midst of this work I have found the hymnal extremely useful in offering a variety of liturgical music in both virtual and in in-person settings.

The development of a bilingual service is not something that can be produced without reflection and is really a labor of ministry that happens with the congregation. I have found the work to be like a road that we are building which requires what Paul describes as the Spirit helping us to produce “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). The act of creating the work of liturgical music really offers us the opportunity to practice what Christ calls us to do in building the reign of God here on earth.

Here are a few things that have helped me in this journey with my congregation:


First: Know your congregation

In order to utilize resources like Holy, Holy, Holy it is important to know the congregation well. For example, recently I had the opportunity to serve as a seminarian in a Presbyterian congregation.  It was important to know that we had members that came from all parts of Latin America, including Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and the Andes. They came from diverse worship traditions and denominations. Some families also had that diversity within their family. Within the congregation there was also a range of levels of education, although the majority were raised Roman Catholic. These variations give us the opportunity to explore the richness of worship music.

Many times, the parents or grandparents spoke primarily Spanish, while the children and grandchildren spoke primarily English. It gave us an opportunity, through music, to create bridges between generations. There were also members of the congregation that were part of the church when it was founded and only spoke English. They brought the institutional memory and a desire to see their church renewed with the spirit of the new immigrants.


Second: Be inclusive of the congregation in the planning, development, and implementation

Sometimes it is easy to simply play the music that you know or that has been sung for some time. But when you make the effort to combine the known with the new it fosters spiritual growth. Especially when the music enables us to connect with other members of our community.

For example, not long ago we had several people in our congregation that had their confirmation. One of those people was originally from Korea. We chose a Korean hymn for the service entitled Ososo, that was available in Holy, Holy, Holy in English as well as in Korean, and that was easily translated into Spanish:

Ven O príncipe de paz, haznos un solo cuerpo

Ven O Señor Jesús, reconcilia a tu pueblo

It was easy to do this song in three languages without losing the power of the Korean music and in a way that enabled the inclusion of all the members of our community in Christ. Liturgical music has the capacity to support our community in a more inclusive way while also connecting us to the universal Church.


Third: Introduce the music in an intentional way

It is important to take your time, ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to learn the songs in both languages in a way that is not too rushed. For example, Dios está aquí is a song with a message easily included in liturgical planning and that has good translations in English, while Just as I Am is a classic English hymn with effective translations in Spanish. During the course of a few weeks the hymns can be sung in the Spanish and English services so that when there is a bilingual service all the members of the congregation will recognize the music even when part of it is sung in Spanish and another part in English. If a bilingual service lasts too long, there will be moments when half of the congregation will get lost. But with effective planning and practice it is possible to foster connections and space for the Holy Spirit to move. Here are some options that I have seen in bilingual congregations:

  • A service in both Spanish and English, and another just in English;
  • A service in English and another in Spanish, with a combined service once a month;
  • All the services in both languages.

It is important to have frequent communication, especially when there is something like a change of time or type of service. Remember the goals, have patience, pray often, continue listening, and remain attentive to the spiritual needs of the community. These are just some of the goals in developing liturgical music in a bilingual setting. And if something is not working, it is important that the members of the congregation work together to come up with creative solutions. Connecting with other bilingual congregations can also foster learning and growth. We are not alone in this effort; we are members of the universal Church of Christ, and God is calling us to open our hearts to the many ways of worshiping our Savior.


Tanya Regli Witte de Cedren, MSS/MLSP

Candidate Senior, MDiv,

Princeton Theological Seminary

Postulant, The Episcopal Church of Pennsylvania

Tanya Regli is a MDiv student at Princeton Theological Seminary. Her field education for ministry has been at Nuevas Fronteras Presbyterian Church in Plainsfield, New Jersey, and at St. John’s Church at Diocesan Center in Norristown, Pennsylvania, her current placement. Regli comes from a thirty-year career running non-profits in Philadelphia and Mexico City. Originally from Colombia and Venezuela, she came to the United States for her bachelor’s degree at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. Afterwards she worked with immigrant communities in Boston and later got her master’s in social work and another master’s in law and social policy from Bryn Mawr Graduate School of Social Work and Social Policy. On completion, Regli ran a microlending organization in Mexico City. Eventually returning to the US to be the executive director of The Arc of Philadelphia, a disability rights organization. When she is not working, she enjoys spending time with her family, playing music, and cooking together. Regli feels passionate about her call to serve in ministry to bilingual communities which greatly enrich the Christian Church.