Transforming Worldview through Song

by Wendy Atkins

Atkins shares how music can be used to confront issues within a believer’s worldview.

The role of music in God’s program to build his Church is an important one. From the time of creation, when the angels sang for joy (Job 38:7), to the end of time, when all creation will sing hymns of praise to the Lamb who was slain (Rev. 5:8-14), scripture teaches that God values song (cf. Deut. 31:19-22; Judges 5:1-3; 1 Sam. 16:16-23; 1 Chron.16:8-9; 2 Chron. 20:20-23; Pss. 47:5-7; 96:1-3; 105:1-2; Isa. 12:5-6; Eph. 5:19-20; Col. 3:16; James 5:13).

But can the Church of Jesus Christ truly be edified through the use of culturally appropriate songs that address cultural practices and beliefs that do not align with biblical teaching? 

This article will attempt to explain how music can be used to confront issues within a believer’s worldview through song. I will share experiences from ministry in local churches with musicians of the Evangelical Community of Churches in Central Africa (Communauté des Églises Évangéliques en Centrafrique or CEEC)—the church Africa Inland Mission International (AIM) planted and has partnered with in Central African Republic (CAR) since the early 1920s.   

Early Missionary Attempts
When early AIM missionaries began working in CAR, music was used in conjunction with evangelization and to help develop early churches. Western hymns were translated into the mother tongue of the main people group in the area, the Azande, and were taught and sung in new fellowships of believers. Plastic flutes were brought from the United States and distributed to students in the schools. Soon, Western hymn melodies were being played and sung throughout the geographic area where the missionaries worked.   

In the 1950s, a hymnbook, Abia Tambuahe (Songs of Thanks), containing 175 Western-translated hymns, was published. Along with classic hymns of the faith and more contemporary gospel songs translated into the vernacular, it included attempts to confront through song cultural practices inconsistent with scriptural teaching.

Grumbling. One such practice was that of complaining. An American folk song, “The Grumbler’s Song,” was translated into Pazande (the local language) and adapted to present biblical teaching. The refrain of the song in English reads,

“Oh, they grumble on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, grumble on Thursday too. They grumble on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, they just won’t stop grumbling.”  

The song was quickly memorized by churchgoers since the melody was easy to learn and the words fun to sing due to the pronunciation in the Zande language. Missionaries used the song to teach early believers the importance of living the Christian life with joy, instead of complaining about difficult circumstances caused by economic hardship. Even today, the song is often spontaneously sung whenever believers are together and someone starts complaining.

Fatalism. Another original song for which a missionary wrote new words to a traditional African melody deals with the issue of fatalism (which affects much of Zande thinking). The first verses state:

“Oh, oh, I’m not even thinking of saying to my foot,
Let’s go to church so that my mouth can give thanks to the Lord.”

Following verses encourage the believer to go to church, give thanks to the Lord, help the poor, teach a friend about Jesus, and learn the word of the Lord and practice what it teaches. Instead of adopting the more common attitude of letting things happen as they will and not taking initiative, the song teaches that Christians have a responsibility to gather together for times of worship and to share their faith with others through words and actions.  

Death rituals. Since the events before, during, and after the death of a member of the Zande people group are very complex and are interlaced with traditional practices, early missionaries realized that it was essential to explain Christian teaching concerning death. Another song, “Bia Pati Mura” (“Song for Near the Grave”), was composed to be sung as believers stood around the gravesite, lowering the body.

Non-believing Azande practice many activities involving the care of the dead body, some taking place near the burial place. “Bia Pati Mura” was composed to guide those assisting at the gravesite in a distinctive Christian experience that emphasized the hope of heaven. Not only were the words contextually specific, but the song used a call-and-response style which was culturally appropriate.

Newer editions of the Zande hymnbook saw missionaries translating other Western hymns and choruses. Songs composed by Zande believers were also included. Texts emphasizing the basic truths of the gospel were put to the melodies of secular songs and Afro-American spirituals such as “Deck the Halls” and “Somebody’s Knockin’ at Your Door.” The Azande propensity for expressing themselves through singing was used by even the earliest missionaries as an effective method to confront non-biblical worldview issues.

Later Attempts
Missionaries in the 1990s began to compare the music used in the Zande churches in southeastern CAR to that which was being propagated in the evangelical churches in Zaire (now called the Democratic Republic of Congo). Zairian church music was more lively and expressive. In cooperation with the CAR church (CEEC), missionaries invited an ethnomusicologist to work with church musicians to begin the development of a new musical style which would reflect the contemporary music scene in that region of Africa.  

In 1997, the late Graham James, working with the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), was invited to hold music composition workshops in CEEC churches in southeast CAR. In order to determine the melodic and rhythmic distinctives of Zande music, James began compiling tape recordings of traditional Zande folk songs.

He taught church musicians how to compose songs using the indigenous musical styles. Workshop participants were encouraged to compose songs using actual verses or words derived from scriptural principles in their newly-composed work songs, lullabies, hiking songs, and game songs—genres commonly used by the Azande in everyday life. The theme of the workshops was that God has created song for believers to use in every aspect of life as a way to further integrate the truths of Christ into their life experiences.    

After three workshops were held, the CEEC church musicians asked that thirty-three of the songs composed be compiled into a book that would not only codify the new songs, but would include teaching on basic music theory. This book became the basis for workshops that took place throughout the area from 2000 to 2004.  

At these workshops, lessons included the biblical basis for church music, worship, music theory, and scripture song composition. The thrust of the composition lessons was to capture traditional Zande song styles and genres for the gospel. These workshops encouraged church musicians to compose songs for corporate and private worship: songs of praise, confession of sin, and thanksgiving. Songs were also composed for major events in the church calendar: Palm Sunday, Easter, Pentecost, and Christmas.

Emphasis was placed on using scripture verses as texts for these songs. Musically, composers were encouraged to explore the use of traditional song styles, to determine how traditional song genres could be adapted for use in the church, and to mirror the rhythmic and tonal aspects of Pazande in the rhythmic structure and the melodies of the newly-composed songs.  

This training was intensified from 2004 through 2008 as three sessions of a School of Music and the Bible, attended by thirty-four different students from CEEC churches, were held. Eighteen of the students who attended the third session received more advanced training. Song composition formed a large part of this month-long curriculum.

Along with further studies in music theory and more personalized Bible study, the students who attended the third session composed songs for corporate worship, evangelism, and the edification of believers. These students were also challenged to identify Zande worldview issues, determine what scripture teaches about these issues, and compose songs based on those verses.  

Confronting Worldview Issues
In his book, Transforming Worldviews, Paul Hiebert describes the term worldview as the “fundamental cognitive, affective, and evaluative presuppositions a group of people make about the nature of things, and which they use to order their lives” (2008, 15). To determine their current worldview and how it affected their faith, the students were taken through a brainstorming process in which they answered the following questions:

• What problems are you dealing with as a Christian in the society in which you live?
• What do any of these problems have in common? (The larger list developed in response to Question #1 was divided into groups based on commonalities.)
• What is the root problem of each group of problems?
• What scriptures give you a response to each of these root problems?

Students identified problems such as a lack of commitment by choir members, criticism of choir leaders, and choirs dissolving after regional choir festivals as main deterrents to the development of church choirs. These “surface” problems were discussed and found to be a result of jealousy. Through group discussion, it was determined that jealousy affected much of Zande society, not just musicians.  

Jealousy. Among the Azande, many efforts to advance have been hampered or destroyed by others wanting to halt any attempts at progress. The concept of limited good (Pike 1980, 449-454) was found to be a worldview filter that affects social interaction among the Azande. Even among church choirs, jealousy between members and their leaders, between choir leaders of various choirs, and between different choirs (some of whom may have acquired electric guitars and keyboards while others continued using traditional drums and shakers) was producing discouragement that resulted in choirs disbanding and attempts made to discredit members of the other choirs.

After discussing the problem, the students divided into small groups to discover what scripture teaches about jealousy. Once a group found applicable verses, members were asked to compose a song based on those verses. One of the songs composed to confront the problem of jealousy in the Zande worldview was based on Colossians 3:12 and 1 Corinthians 13:4. The text, based directly on those scripture verses from the Zande Bible, can be translated as:

“Holy, dear, close friends, as you are the ones chosen by God,  Clothe yourselves with a heart of mercy and goodness, And humility, and gentleness, and much patience. Love is patient and it is not jealous. Do not practice jealousy!”

The music was composed in a contemporary musical style using the traditional form of solo-response, thus making it easy to learn and sing. The song is already being sung in many CEEC churches.  

Infidelity. Another group of problems facing the Azande today is the breakdown of fidelity in marriage. Immorality and polygamy among those professing to be Christians are on the rise. Even with the reality of the HIV-virus spreading throughout the area, many in the churches are unfaithful or sexually promiscuous before marriage.

Several songs were composed urging fidelity in marriage. One, composed in the traditional Zande musical style using the call-and-response form, was accompanied by drums and traditional shakers. The text of that song, based on Genesis 2:24 and Colossians 3:18, uses phrases from these passages in the solo part that are then repeated by the group as a response, making it easy to teach to church congregations.  

Other. Songs were also composed to deal with situations the Azande face in their daily lives that have as root causes a lack of humility, a false concept of what it means to love one another, the importance of rejecting a syncretistic lifestyle and fully committing oneself to following Christ, and the rewards Christ is preparing for those who endure in the faith. In each song, the words came directly from scripture with the melody and rhythm of the song springing from proper musical interpretation of the normal rhythm and tone of the text.

Plans for Future Compositions
After several years of encouraging composers to write songs for worship and evangelism, it has become evident that worship “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24) and true evangelism can only be accomplished as those composing and performing the songs live transformed lives.

Unfortunately, several of the students who attended the entry-level and advanced training sessions are no longer ministering as choir leaders and some have left the church due to immorality and other issues. Even though their situations have brought discouragement, we have seen people moved toward deeper commitment to Christ as culturally-relevant, scripture-based songs have been composed.

Entire churches have been challenged to confront syncretistic practices in their villages as appropriate songs have been taught during Sunday morning church services. The edification of believers is taking place among the Azande as these new songs are shared.

Future plans include doing further research on the Zande worldview through dialogue with Zande church leaders, focusing these discussions on traditional beliefs of the Azande in the areas of birth, economics (farming, fishing, hunting, and commerce), male and female relationships, and death.  When traditional practices and beliefs—and the impact they have on Zande society—are brought into the open, the next step will be to discover scriptural answers that deal with each issue.  

Groups of composers will then become involved in the process as scriptures found to confront the cultural practices will be used as texts for new compositions. Workshops will then be held in local churches to teach the new songs and to encourage the application of the truths in the lives of Zande Christians.

Recordings of the songs will then be made available on cassettes and CDs. Radio stations broadcasting into the Zande region from Southern Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Central African Republic will be contacted to encourage the use of the recordings of these songs on their radio programs.  

As in many places in Africa, the gospel has been proclaimed in the Zande region for almost one hundred years. But, again quoting Hiebert, “If behavioral change was the focus of the mission movement in the nineteenth century, and changed beliefs its focus in the twentieth century, then transforming worldviews must be its central task in the twenty-first century” (2008, 11-12).

Music is a force long known to be an effective tool for evangelism and more recently for encouraging worship in African churches. As we reflect on the importance of music according to the Bible and the power and prevalence of music in every society, let us use scripture-based songs to confront worldview beliefs and practices not in line with biblical teaching. If this happens, we will encourage true transformation in the lives of believers not only in Africa, but throughout the world.  

Hiebert, Paul G. 2008. Transforming Worldviews: An Anthropological Understanding of How People Change. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic.

Pike, Eunice V. 1980. “The Concept of Limited Good and the Spread of the Gospel.” Missiology: An International Review 8 (October): 449-454.


Wendy Atkins, a missionary with Africa Inland Mission,
ministers in eastern and central Africa, encouraging believers to use
“heart music” to glorify God, to tell others about him, and to
strengthen the Church.

Beyond Song
Transforming the Reality of God’s Kingdom through All the Arts

I felt a heaviness in my heart when I read the start of Wendy Atkins’s piece. Not only were Zande churches founded on Western hymnody, but then came a diet of American folk songs and spirituals, followed by the pronouncement that Zairian evangelical church songs would be appropriate for Zande church use. Nowhere to this point do we hear the voices of the Azande people, only the decisions made by cultural outsiders. With this denial and denigration of Zande music, it comes as no surprise that nearly one hundred years later, ethnomusicologist Graham James needed to teach the CAR church musicians how to use their own indigenous song styles.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to know which term to use in describing cultural practices. “Tradition” is no longer in favor among many younger, educated Africans who consider it to be old-fashioned. Those who still use the term in relation to their own artistic heritage are initially hesitant to use it within Christian contexts due to the lingering perceptions of unworthiness bestowed on African art forms by early missions.

Yet, once such barriers are removed, song styles associated with traditional beliefs and practices can provide powerful redemptive analogies for God’s kingdom, and the church can greatly benefit from challenging negative associations others try to avoid.

The term “culturally appropriate” is now common parlance, but it can suffer from assumptions on our part. For example, we are told the song structure known as call-and-response is culturally appropriate for the Azande, but this does not tell us whether it was borrowed from elsewhere, along with body movement, clapping, and harmonization.

Such “Africanization” of songs is now commonly applied to hymns and choruses in many parts of Christianized Africa, often being the first sign of churches seeking to indigenize their worship and override existing local practices.

That Zande church leaders are now starting to define their own choices in worship is a dialogue long overdue. It is exciting to see the positive and redemptive aspects of local songs now being appreciated by Zande churches.

However, most African cultures are richly endowed with a range of communicative art forms, and songs seldom exist in a vacuum. They are intertwined with language, poetry, narratives, and riddles, accompanied by movement and instruments, found within dramas and stories, and partnered by visual arts such as masks, body ornamentation, costumes, and illustrations.

I am curious whether the suppression of Zande songs through history has discouraged the use of other art forms. I suspect God might dearly desire to redeem these too for his purposes. Although confronting individual problems relating to a believer’s worldview is essential, why not use all the gifts of artistic communication relevant to the Azande to transform their understanding of God’s ultimate kingdom in their lives? It is through arts that such scriptural truths are connected to lives in memorable, motivating ways.

Julie Taylor is coordinator of anthropology and ethno-arts for SIL International in Africa, lecturing in cultural arts at the Wycliffe-ETP campus (U.K.) and prior to that at Daystar University (Nairobi). She has been based in Africa since 1993.

EMQ, Vol. 48, No. 1, pp. 36-43. Copyright  © 2011 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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