WORSHIP & How Missionaries Approach Musical Styles

by Bob Whitesel, D.Min. Ph.D., 11/12/15.

“It is a tough job being a missionary, fraught with opportunities to fail and fall.  But, it must be done.”

A student once asked a very common and poignant question, stating “It does seem that about every six to ten years the contemporary music scene changes. Although I was a classical musician (yes, even in high school), I can recall as what was “in” changed from rock to rap to metal to grunge to alternative, with more variations than I can even find to name within the iTunes library. If we are going to try to accommodate culture in terms of musical styles, we will be constantly renewing our liturgy. We will never be able to keep up with the marketplace pace of change for what’s popular. The question becomes should we?  Do we really need to try to compete with society (as a way to transform it) or do we need to imitate it and redefine the terms (like early Catholic Christianity subsuming pagan festivals and “Christianizing” them)? I don’t have the answer, but as a musician I still struggle with this area – I guess I’ll always really appreciate things written before 1900 more, even my spouse’s beloved Gaither songs.”

I answered thus.

Hello;

You make some good (and common) critiques when you said, “If we are going to try to accommodate culture in terms of musical styles, we will be constantly renewing our liturgy. We will never be able to keep up with the marketplace pace of change for what’s popular. The question becomes should we? (Next) do we really need to try to compete with society (as a way to transform it) or do we need to imitate it and redefine the terms (like early Catholic Christianity subsuming pagan festivals and “Christianizing” them)?”

I agree with you.  And, I want to delve into this a bit further.  To address your first question, “We will never be able to keep up with the marketplace pace of change for what’s popular. The question becomes should we?”  Let me say I think we must translate our message, not because of the marketplace, but because of culture changes.  The young people that relate to rap are a culture, as are the Goths that might prefer Metal.  The marketplace helps create them, just the way that the market for cows among the Neuer People in Africa make them a distinct culture.  Market pressures lead people to want to have enough money to feed their family and to live comfortably.  These market pressures come from what Abraham Maslow described as a pyramid of needs.  I don’t think we can change the affect of the marketplace in aspects where it is designed to help people live healthier and more comfortable lives.

But, we can see that each culture emerging because of marketplace forces, whether cow herders in Africa (Neuer) or head-bangers in Denver (Scum of the Earth Church), that both have emerged as a separate culture in response to marketplace forces.  And thus we must foster culturally sensitive missionaries who will translate the Good News into this culture.  Now, the properly trained and motivated missionary will not fall into the sin of that culture, but will “sift” that culture (do you remember who said that?) for the transformation of the whole.

Thus, I think this addresses your second question, “Do we really need to try to compete with society (as a way to transform it) or do we need to imitate it and redefine the terms (like early Catholic Christianity subsuming pagan festivals and “Christianizing” them)?”  A well trained and called missionary would never imitate the sinful practices of a culture, but through dialogue and explanation lead to the culture to understand how Christ is superior to their former beliefs.  In some ways the Catholic Church has done a great job of taking care of basic needs of disenfranchised people.  But also, the Catholic Church and Evangelicals have sometimes failed when we went too far and compromised some of the teachings of Christ out of supposed sensitivity to that culture. Thus, sifting is a difficult and ongoing task.

It is a tough job being a missionary, fraught with opportunities to fail and fall.  But, it must be done.