Imagine if someone from a more advanced culture came into your place of worship and said, 'The organ is of the Devil, your four-part harmony sounds like animals, and the way everyone sits still holding a book has got to go. Here, take this gourd rattle with feathers and this nose flute. Stand up, shake your shoulders, and sing this song about how God is like a ferocious puma. We'll teach you how to worship God.' "

Paul Neeley, a missionary with Wycliffe Bible Translators among Ghana's Akyode people, explains how similar scenes have occurred in reverse as Christian missionaries have come into contact with people groups throughout the world. "Missionaries often burned traditional instruments in public and banned traditional tunes from church services because they were felt to be too associated with the culture's pagan beliefs," says Neeley. "But they were in effect communicating: 'Your culture has no value.' " This also arrested the spreading of the gospel. "Many in those cultures saw Christianity as something foreign, not theirs," says Brian Schrag, a Wycliffe missionary among the Mono in Zaire.

Today a group of missionary ethnomusicologists is reversing that approach to indigenous music. Building on pioneering efforts of a generation ago by Vida Chenoweth, marimba virtuoso and former Wycliffe missionary in Papua New Guinea, significant evangelistic breakthroughs are occurring using indigenous worship songs.

Reconnection, not translation
A few years ago during the dedication of the first Scriptures translated into Sabaot, the language of people on the Kenya-Uganda border, a group of Sabaot dignitaries stood solemnly at the rear. These vips had been suspicious that translation efforts would undermine their culture. Near the end of the ceremony, two of the translators sat down to play the bukaantiit, a six-string wooden lyre with ancient roots among the Sabaot. As they accompanied words from the Gospel with a traditional tune, the guest elders spontaneously stood and began to sway in Sabaot style to the beat of the music and, as they caught on, to sing the words of the refrain: "God is good, God is good."

"We are intent on being catalysts in reconnecting people's 'heart music' with their Christian faith," says Schrag. This does not mean translating Western hymns into their language, which has often led to deadening worship. It means creating songs in their "musical language" and using their traditional instruments.

"What sounds beautiful to us Westerners can sound awful to people in another culture," says Roberta King, an ethnomusicologist at Fuller Theological Seminary. "It's like hearing another language-we know people are using it to communicate, but for the most part, we cannot make out what it means." Western hymns can sound as foreign to people in the Amazon or Africa as Tibetan chants sound to Western ears.

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Ethnomusicologists who are working to help indigenous Christians unleash the power of their cultural musical expressions into their worship of God have had to battle opposition from both sides. For many missionaries, hymns like "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" have strong associations with how church has always been done, and it doesn't seem right for it to be any other way. And some nationals feel the ethnomusicologists want to keep them from modern ideas and delay their attainment of cultural equality with Westerners.

To counter this, ethnomusicologists and nationals with a vision for indigenous worship are letting the music do the work. When beginning their work in a village, ethnomusicologists learn the songs and musical forms of its people and even learn to play the traditional instruments. Villagers are encouraged to write original songs in traditional forms, using Scripture as the text. In a church songwriting workshop in Ghana, worship songs "that would make you want to shake your body" were commissioned, and in days, dozens of new songs were written.

Is Western music ever useful?
Ethnomusicologists constantly wrestle with issues raised in the music's cultural roots. If some of Luther's hymn tunes came from saloons, can't songs with pagan associations in other cultures also be adapted? If a culture understands a certain instrument's association with evil spirits, can't the instrument be redeemed with the understanding that it can now be associated with the Spirit of God? Should any Western music be introduced or encouraged in tribal settings?

This last question triggers heated debate among ethnomusicologists. Some, like Chenoweth, work hard to discourage any Western influences. Others, like King, feel some translated hymns have become heart music for many urban Christians, and they are striving to see these Westernized churches become "bimusical"-akin to being bilingual. For Schrag, however, this means focusing on the traditional music, because "Western music needs no advocate, as cultural forces are already pushing in that direction. But if someone doesn't champion local music, it will be gone in a generation."

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Christian songs in indigenous forms are often disseminated rapidly once they are tape-recorded. "It only takes one month to sell 100 cassettes," says Neeley. And the music is heard all over. Shrine priests buy tapes and play them. Children sing the songs to accompany their jumping and clapping games. Women forbidden from learning about Christianity hear the cassettes and ask: Are these stories true? Where did they take place? Where is Jesus now?

The Mono are one of many groups hearing Christian worship songs for the first time in their indigenous musical forms. Recently, a group of kundi (a five-string wooden lyre) musicians played a worship song in indigenous style at a Sunday church service, extolling God for "creating us with his hands from the dust." It was the first time this had ever been done in that church's 40-year history. When the kundi choir had finished, there was complete silence among the 200 people in the thatched-roof sanctuary. Schrag's heart sank; he wondered if he had encouraged crossing a barrier that should have been left alone. So he asked some people whether they thought playing the kundi in church was evil.

"Why, no!" they responded. "The music cut our hearts. We couldn't do anything but sit." For the first time they had heard the gospel with the music of their souls.

Last Updated: October 2, 1996

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