Ethnomusicology and Missions

Over 12 years, Dr. George Patterson, director of the Honduran Extension Bible Institute in La Ceiba, Honduras (Conservative Baptist Home Mission Society) was responsible for the planting of over 70 churches in a 600 square mile area of Northern Honduras. Yet, he has never pastored one of these churches. He has been the only missionary directly related to the project and therefore has had to work always with the adult male leaders of the churches throughout this area. He focused on working behind the scenes with one or two key lay leaders who in turn teach others within their village.

During the growth of these churches, they have simply witnessed their own indigenous music sprout and grow. They have recently invited Artists in Christian Testimony to come in to help record, transcribe, and provide some ideas as to its broader and general use throughout the region. Dr. Patterson has attempted to stay as much as possible out of the way of the natural flow of the culture.

Dr. Vida Chenoweth, a leading ethnomusicologist with Wycliffe and director of Wheaton’s Ethnomusicology degree program, strongly urged that whenever possible the missionary should not stop “the natural flow of the culture.” Where that flow has been interrupted by the introduction of foreign styles or forms of communication the confidence of the nationals in their own norms is undercut. Therefore, she emphasized, “The people do not have confidence in their art forms until the missionary demonstrates the validity of their art forms.” She went on to say, concerning some solutions to this problem, that “. . . throughout New Guinea, in trying to bridge the cultural gaps, the people start producing hymns as soon as they are certain it is approved by the missionaries and when some of the outsiders have some ability to participate.” This same phenomenon can happen in other cultures.

The well-known keys to any effective communication of the Gospel are RESPECT and RELATIONSHIP. And that respect and relationship must be built upon a culturally familiar foundation. We in missions want to build bridges. Since we are the outsiders the burden of responsibility for cultural adaptation is on us. Therefore, our main question in developing strategy must be, “How can I touch these people in terms they understand?” We must then use their dialect, their body language, and their art forms.

I am opposed to animistic occult practices, but not to carvings per se. I am opposed to immoral and frenzied music and song fests, but not to singing per se. I am opposed to the ritual of the Shaman, but not to dramatic presentation per se. I have advocated augmenting literacy, but I do not believe that intelligence and literacy go hand-in-hand. Therefore, let us continue to increase our investigation and then our affirmation to use ethnic art forms to:

  1. Help establish positive relationship bridges (cultural points of contact) that will serve as roads on which the Gospel can travel.

  2. Put across God’s truth in Christ (redemptive and cultural analogies) in familiar terms as a form of expression.

  3. Work as much as possible with the indigenous leadership and do that behind the scenes.

  4. Leave room to allow God’s Spirit to impress upon the indigenous leadership the “forms” and “styles” of communication, worship, and church life familiar to them.

Wherever this has happened the indigenous church has grown. Wherever the Western missionary and his or her “forms” and “norms” have dominated, the growth of the believers and their churches have been held back.

My appeal is simple. Do nothing risky. Begin with the national music leadership which has already surfaced. Encourage them to use their own familiar expressions, while at the same time trying not to introduce them to “foreign” expressions.

Perhaps some simple drama presentations based on passages of Scripture could be developed by natives for natives. Generally, God gives sensitive musicians who are strongly committed Christians. Capitalize on these national leaders as a windfall in helping teach the Scripture and instruct about problems in terms the nationals understand, and through those with whom they best relate, their own people. Couple the above move with an increased emphasis on working through local proven leadership, trained in their own villages behind the scenes (out of sight of most) through extension teachers.

All of this then should point to establishing village churches under the direction of village leadership who will be sensitive to guiding, in specific terms, forms of worship and teaching that are familiar to the local people.

Remember This!

"The well-known keys to any effective communication of the Gospel are RESPECT and RELATIONSHIP."

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