Our Missional Music
Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was being provoked within him as he was observing the city full of idols. So he was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and in the market place every day with those who happened to be present. And also some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were conversing with him.
Acts 17:16–18, NASB
Ethnomusicology is the comparative study of music from different cultures. Ethnomusicologists combine the study of musicology with anthropology to analyze music as a reflection of society and culture. Missional ethnomusicologists encourage the development of indigenous Christian songs produced by the local believers in their own language and music system. Music workshops are presented to native peoples illustrating the value of using local music systems rather than foreign systems, thinking through Scripture passages that might be put to music, composing new Christian songs in their own native style, and recording the new songs. In this way, the gospel becomes incarnate in the musical language of the native people.
A Brazilian missionary reported that a Palikur woman was asked, “Which do you like better, the hymns with non-Indian music, or the ones with the Palikur tunes.”
She replied, “We like them both, but the ones with our music can make us cry.”
Using the heart music of a people connects the gospel with their own legacy. Missionaries have reported that native people, normally apathetic about Christianity, listened with great attention to the words of new Christian songs written by their own musicians in their own style. Putting the biblical message in an indigenous style gives it an authority it would not otherwise have. We, too, must be ethnomusicologists. Worship leaders need to analyze their communities to effectively connect them with God in their indigenous cultures.
Paul was very careful to analyze the surrounding cultural context wherever he went. In the above Scripture, we see him relating to Jews in the synagogue, to Athenian citizens in the marketplace, and to Greek philosophers. In every one of those contexts, Paul saw idolatry alive and well. As a missionary, each of us must analyze our context as well. Who are the people groups in your community/town/city? And what are the idols they have substituted for relationship with almighty God?
The Intercultural Institute for Contextual Ministry offers many resources on its website, http://www.iicm.net, for analyzing the ethno-musical context of our communities. First, we must know the classifications and characteristics of people groups in general before we can analyze who is in our community. IICM identifies these American communities listed below. Plus, according to Arbitron radio ratings, I have listed the most popular style of music each of these communities were listening to by percentage of radio market. These style preferences are the second thing we must know:
- Upscale Communities – Affluent families living primarily in suburbia but also in posh neighborhoods in urban settings = ADULT CONTEMPORARY MUSIC.
- Mainstay Communities – A diverse mix of ethnically mixed singles, couples, and families in established, diverse neighborhoods within small towns and second cities = COUNTRY MUSIC.
- Working Communities – Racially-mixed, lower middle-class blue-collar households living in older towns = COUNTRY MUSIC.
- Country Communities – Rural families with outdoor-oriented lifestyles working in agricultural and mining communities = COUNTRY MUSIC.
- Aspiring Communities – An eclectic group of young, mostly single, ethnically-diverse households living in homes, apartments, and group quarters = URBAN CONTEMPORARY MUSIC.
- Urban Communities – Ethnically-diverse singles and single-parent renters living in struggling-diverse, inner-city neighborhoods = URBAN CONTEMPORARY.
Obviously, this data is limited because it only includes radio listening habits and does not include data from personal listening devices. But despite those limitations it remains useful for analysis of general music trends in our American communities.
Here’s the kicker… Churches far and wide have started contemporary services using popular musical styles that they suppose will connect their members with God and be attractive to the world. Such Christian writers as Chris Tomlin, Tommy Walker, Laura Storey, and Paul Baloche, as well as a multitude of others, have given us wonderful songs of worship. Their songs are in a pop style that relates to those who listen to Adult Contemporary radio. But that’s where this strategy breaks down, and here’s why. The Arbitron ratings show clearly that the leading radio style is Country music in Mainstay, Working, and Country communities. Urban Contemporary music, which includes rap and hip-hop, is the leading style in two communities —Aspiring and Urban—while Contemporary Hit radio leads only in Upscale communities.
The style of music being used in most contemporary worship services best compares with Adult Contemporary secular radio. If we are going to effectively connect all people with God, we must offer worship in other musical heart languages as well. Yet how many churches do you know that are offering a worship service featuring country, rap and hip-hop, top forty, or the myriad of other styles available? Can we truly think we are connecting all worshippers with God when only contemporary and traditional styles are being offered on any given Sunday? — Mark Powers