by David Nelson
The converted Muslim imam closed all the windows, dropped the shades, and quietly, cautiously played the forbidden tape—an ancient psalm of David in the style of the minaret so familiar to him. With an exhilarating mixture of fear and joy he allowed the missionary to share this unique and wonderful moment with him.
The converted Muslim imam closed all the windows, dropped the shades, and quietly, cautiously played the forbidden tape—an ancient psalm of David in the style of the minaret so familiar to him. With an exhilarating mixture of fear and joy he allowed the missionary to share this unique and wonderful moment with him. How he loved the beauty and truth of God’s Word, especially nestled within the music that he loved.
This true story was part of our mission’s orientation in 1983 to prepare my wife and me for our service overseas. The emphasis of our classes regarding cultural integration always focused on lifestyle, clothing, language acquisition, and Bible translation. However, for the first time music was the object of our attention. I still recall the veteran missionary who shared this with us, glowing at its retelling. The memory of his experience and the principle of cultural adaptation which it demonstrated to the soon-to-be missionaries visibly animated him.
Ethnomusicology is a fairly recent word for many, though it’s been a scientific discipline for 100 years (since the invention of sound recording). Simply stated, it’s the study of ethnic music. Many fine universities across the nation offer courses and even majors in ethnomusicology. This word has gotten into Intercristo’s missions search questionnaire. We often see it mentioned in the Internet missions information site, Brigada Today. Also, at least one Internet forum, AD2000 Worship and Arts, has been created to provide, among other things, ethno-musicological resources.
More and more Christian colleges offer ethnomusicology as an accredited course of study. The Summer Institute of Linguistics in Dallas, Tex., also offers a summer set of ethno-musicology courses, an annual conference for students and missions, plus a resource library for intermission use. Without a doubt, ethnomusicology is a budding “plant” in the mission “field.” Of course, some of us have been practicing it without knowing this seven-syllable word, but with exciting results.
The ultimate goal of most mission endeavor is to work oneself out of a job. You do this by training the nationals in your adopted country, culture, or people group to do the work that you’ve been trained to do in your country of origin. Of course, a good dose of cultural integration should figure into your overall strategy. Why then the recent recognition of the need for ethnomusicology?
First, think about the scriptural tool that God gives us in Ephesians 5.19-20: “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; giving thanks always for all things . . . .” These verses come squarely between two passages dealing first with hindered communion (works of the flesh) and then with unhindered communion (Christ and his bride). This “singing and making melody” is designed for ever-deepening fellowship and intimacy with him.
Imagine your family’s home and then the church where you habitually go for instruction, fellowship, worship, and ministry. Now imagine that the musical instrument of choice in the church service isn’t a piano, organ, or guitar, but rather a whining Indian sitar accompanied perhaps by hollow-sounding bamboo flutes. Or imagine an unaccompanied array of varying sized drums, or a tune with a 44/16 rhythm. If you’ve succeeded in visualizing that, go one step further and put meaningful words of adoration or evangelization to the odd sounds, rhythms, and beats. Now extend this scene from just one special meeting to all of your private devotion, church worship, and outreaches and ask yourself, “Am I comfortable in this setting?” Most likely your answer will be No.
It’s been said that we need to get the “foreign” out of foreign missions. As each culture has its own language and dress, so it has its own musical heritage, current styles, and distinct word syntax. I mention current styles because music often evolves within a culture, or forms of music may be introduced and accepted into a culture as a whole. Spain has a richand diverse heritage of dynamic musical styles. American and British music, primarily rock, recently have received wholesale acceptance. So several styles could serve as vehicles for the message of Christ to that people, and for use in worship. But don’t give them Southern Gospel or Country Western! It will die in the air and sound like radio static.
This is not to say that God’s eternal message can’t penetrate the noise. A guitar-playing missionary friend started a church in the Madrid neighborhood next to our suburb. Bob began by strumming translated hymns and choruses in the streets. (Often and unfortunately, however, even the best translations lack the syntax or natural feel of the nationals’ language. Too many translations are just plain bad.) Nevertheless, people were gradually won to Christ, and Bob’s church has grown continually. Soon he incorporated the Spaniards into all outreach, with music and drama. Bob was smart. I wish that all the missionaries we know had done that. Some of them labor for years and years with virtually no fruit, blaming their lack of results to the hardness of the country, too rigid or myopic to alter their approach. Certainly God can and will use whatever we have for his kingdom and service. Still, why not facilitate the job and eliminate, as much as possible, the “static” of foreignness?
Our missions director had been a missionary in Zaire and was sensitive to the cultural nuances involved during a recent trip to the continent. One church service he attended was almost American in style; the other was permeated with indigenous expressions of worship. He said that the African brethren in the second service were actually enjoying themselves—a comment that still rings in my ears! Their music became the “instrument” for natural fellowship with their Lord.
Some missions have recognized the importance of ethnomusicology, and some even specialize in it. For example, Youth With A Mission’s School of Worship, at its core, trains nationals in their respective countries to use music for worship.
Back in Spain, where most of our experience lies, a ministry within our church-planting team is called Producciones Nissi (Banner Productions). The team gathers, produces, and records music written in our church and by other believers in Spain, and then disseminates the recordings throughout the country. They are used extensively both in evangelism and in personal and corporate worship. Another ministry is called Arte y Ministerio (Art and Ministry).
It hosts workshops and seminars for artists and musicians, teaching and encouraging them to turn their talent into ministry. In addition, we host and organize outreaches and various national conferences which employ these precious Spanish Christians’ talents to the maximum. The response of the participants and listeners is so different from what we used to know!
The joy of fellowship with the Creator is why we’re created, isn’t it? Ethnomusicology is a tool, made marvelously efficacious by God’s design and initiative. So if I find myself someday in the 10/40 Window with a brother like the imam whose story we started with, I think I’ll just put my Spanish guitar down and, with all my heart, join in his music and joy with “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in our hearts to the Lord.’
David Nelson and his wife Janet planted two churches in Spain between 1984 and 1995. They also participated with fellow missionaries in Madrid to produce and record indigenous church music, which led to an a rtist training school and national conferences and outreaches. David is a career itinerant missionary with Elim Fellowship (Lima, N.Y.).
EMQ, Vol. 35, No. 2, pp. 152-156. Copyright © 1999 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.