Music and the Mission Field

Music and Dance in Cordilleras (Northern Philippines)

Today, we had our third practice for our seminary choir. We are performing tomorrow. There is somewhere around 18 of us. We represent people from the Philippines, United States, Thailand, India, and Myanmar (I think that is all). It is hard to imagine a song that could be selected that would be culturally relevant to all parties. In fact, the decision was to do a song that related to no one in the group. We are doing an African-American (Black Gospel) song.

I am not a huge music person. I sing, I play the saxophone, I can dabble at the piano and guitar when necessary… but music really isn’t very important to me. BUT THAT IS NOT TRUE WITH MOST PEOPLE. In the mission field, music cannot be considered irrelevant. When I first started leading Bible study groups, the first thing I did was dump the singing… since I found it distracting. I know better now than to do that. Here are a few issues in the area of music.

1. What is “God’s Music”?  One of the purposes of religion is to separate between the “sacred” and the “secular”. But religion is not always very good at this. Within Christianity that can even be tougher since Jesus and the Twelve point to the heart as the battleground of the sacred…. not material stuff. Nevertheless, music is drawn into this field of battle. The fronts can be:

-Theological. Here in Baguio City, we have a group that came from the United States that does not use musical instruments. Their argument is essentially theological, although they might say that it is biblical. The argument is that there is no mention of the use of musical instruments in the New Testament. However, the underlying theological argument is that that which is not explicitly permitted or blessed in the Bible is condemned. Of course, some take the opposite view– that that which is not explicitly condemned in the Bible is permitted. (Both extremes are rife with problems.) Is there a healthy theology for music? Should it mirror society? Should it react against society? Is there a solid theological base to accept or prohibit certain music?

-Biblical.  Some look for Biblical models for music in church. The book of Psalms is essentially a songbook… but it was for Jewish believers in the Temple over 2000 years ago. Some think that if one quotes Scripture to music, it must be good. Is that the case? Some seek to create songs that follow (or so they think) the music structure and musical instruments of the Bible. Nothing wrong with that, but does that make it Biblical?

2.  What is the “Devil’s Music”? When I was young, I was told that Rock and Roll was the Devil’s music and it drove people to sexual promiscuity (to be honest, the term “rock and roll” has sexual overtones). I was told that Disco music led to homosexuality (it seemed logical). I was told that guitars and drums had no place in church (of course, I play the saxophone, which was thought of as being a devilish instrument back in the Prohibition and Jazz age).  I was told that rap is full of evil words… and is frankly not even music (I must admit that I still find that argument somewhat convincing).

-Battleground #1. New versus Old music. People who connect with a certain type of music often like to demonize other music forms. A few years ago here in Baguio, some of us visited a different Christian denomination (not evangelical, but not cultic). We were treated quite nice and we joined them in the service. Afterwards, we were critiquing the service (it was for a class we were taking). One classmate mentioned that she did not like the music because “the Spirit wasn’t in it”. I must be honest, I did not notice this. Frankly, I have my doubts that one can tell that sort of thing. My personal feeling is that the classmate had problems because this church used hymns, rather than P&W.  In class a number of students would giggle about the older generation’s insistence on hymns over P&W. I suggested that the students show grace and mercy since they would want their children to show them that same grace and mercy years from then. It is curious that even in the last 7 years, this is coming true. The P&W music that was so popular a few years ago is becoming the music of the old folks (my old classmates are not happy to be reminded of this). Now there is also a counter-reaction as well. Hymns were considered old are now sometimes looked at with new eyes. Some are definitely old and irrelevant. But some are showing a timeless quality that should be used.   Some churches set up different services to accommodate different style preferences. Some think that a church is not truly united if they don’t share the same music (I have never understood this). Others have sought a blended music style… although some charge this is simply getting everyone to a point of being equally unhappy. Others focus on one style and make it clear that everyone better appreciate that style.

-Battleground #2.  Cultures. I was a bit unhappy when I first came to the Philippines. I was hoping to hear good Philippine music in church. What I heard was Hillsong and Don Moen. What a great disappointment. Often it got worse since the music in churches here were typically led by the youth, and so the music leaders would TRY to mimic what they saw on the Christian music videos. What often counted as Philippine music was P&W songs from elsewhere translated into Tagalog. Attempts to come up with contextualized Christian music has often been hit by derision, and even charges of incorporating the works of the devil in music. The highlands of the Philippines is full of great music tradition and instruments. It is the land of the adivayan, the canao, the gong, the nose flute. It is also the land of American country music. This has led to a lot of conflict with Filipinos from the lowlands, denominational traditions, and music styles from the US and Australia. Some charge the music and styles from the highlands as being syncretistic and pagan. Others countercharge that highland churches must use native worship styles to be effective. Otherwise, they are overrun by post-colonial cultural imperialism.

My thoughts?  I have no answers. I would love to see more contextualized music here. In some parts of the world, missionaries trained in ethnomusicology have done interesting things to ensure music relevancy and cultural preservation. However, some of the people most opposed to local music styles are local people. I guess I would say…

          1.  Respect the old and the new. Both the old and the new have something worthy for us. Current music trends will always stay a step or two ahead of the church, so attempting to always be current means, ultimately, to always be a little outdated. Instead of trying to be current… grab the best from the now, the past, and even the ancient. Music can be our tie to our Christian family back thousands of years. We should not reject our past. Be both an agent of change and of preservation.

          2.  Seek to educate people musically. Music is NOT worship, but it can help us in our corporate worship experience. We would seek to help people be inclusive of different cultural music expressions of faith. Help the people understand music, not simply mimic what the music team presents.

          3.  Show grace and flexibility. We don’t like the same music, we don’t feel worshipful with the same music. My favorite worship music is Gospel bluegrass… that doesn’t do me that much good here in the Philippines (although bluegrass does exist over here if you know where to look). Don’t mock different forms of music and don’t force everyone to conform blandly to one style. If your feel a certain type of music is inappropriate, come up with a thoughtful reason for this. A liturgical church may simply not be able to appreciate marching music. A charismatic church may not understand Gregorian chant. That’s okay… but don’t assume that one can gain something from different styles.

4.  Seek culturally relevant church music, but remember that the church is worldwide. Just as music can connect us with both the past and the present, it can also connect us to Christians around the world. I love hearing Christian songs that are done in styles from South or West Africa. I enjoy Christian anthems with bossa nova chords and rhythm. But even if it is a style I don’t care for, the style can still connect me with Christians from that culture.

One of the greatest Christian songs I have heard was a friend here in Baguio who sang a Christian song in the style of the people in Mountain province. It was a a cappella chant expressing a Christian message. The words he made up as he went. Although I have no cultural connection with Mountain provice, I felt connected to the Christians there when I heard it. I have other friends from Nagaland, India. They sang a Christian song in their own dialect and style, including things that I would have to describe as War Whoops. Once again, it is good to find connection across cultural barriers, and music can help do this.


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