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Is using pop music in church the same as incorporating indigenous music in missions contexts?

One of the most difficult issues church leaders face today is whether necessary (and historically practiced) “inculturation” of Christian worship applies to contemporary American pop music.

This article is an absolutely fascinating attempt to answer that issue.

Now, huge disclaimer first: This is written by a Roman Catholic expressly for a Roman Catholic audience and specifically rooted in Roman Catholic tradition and practice.

However, I do believe this author’s underlying argument is one that needs to be carefully considered and is certainly applicable to how Protestants navigate this issue as well. Bottom line: The Roman Catholics are having the same kinds of contemporary vs. traditional debates that we are, and so the main points this article makes are well worth adding to the conversation.

The author’s argument is that, while missionaries have historically adopted and adapted certain aspects of indigenous culture into the Christian worship tradition, we cannot do the same thing with contemporary pop culture. He bases his thesis on three points:

  1. Historically, the church’s doctrine and historic practice were the standard by which the indigenous forms were evaluated to determine whether they could be incorporated into the church. He argues that contrary to this historic practice, proponents of contemporary pop worship do not start with the established tradition and beliefs; rather “they are more likely to ignore, marginalize, or exclude such things, failing to see how they could ever be relevant to our contemporaries.”
  2. “When the missionaries came to the pagans, the latter had no Christian heritage at all.” Not only did they not have a Christian heritage, they were also not atheists; they at very least believed in and worshiped deities, and so they perhaps had musical forms in their tradition that showed due respect and reverence and were thus fitting for Christian worship. On the other hand, “the history of modern music, whether atonal or jazz or rock or pop, is a history of deliberate rebellion and revolt against the great tradition of Western music, against its high art forms, its slowly-developed musical language, its explicitly or implicitly Christian message. . . .  This music is not naïve raw material waiting to be Christianized, but highly articulate anti-Christian propaganda. It rejects the ideals of lofty beauty and grandeur, spiritual seriousness, evocation of the divine, openness to the transcendent, and artistic discipline, in favor of vapidity, frivolity, profanity, sensuality, and banality.”
  3. “The pagans had a genuine folk culture—a culture that was, so to speak, of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Thus much (not all) of pagan folk culture expressed values that fit Christian worship and actually helped to enrich it. On the other hand, “today’s pagans are largely passive consumers of mass-produced, low-quality sonic junk food that earns huge profits for capitalist corporations who know how to manipulate the feelings of poorly educated, emotionally volatile audiences.” Thus, he argues, “the prevailing Western popular culture is impervious to and, at times, subversive of, the process of Christian inculturation.” In other words, it is actually impossible to incorporate contemporary pop culture into Christian worship without that culture pushing out traditional Christian expressions. Contemporary pop culture cannot be subsumed into the church’s tradition because it is expressly anti-traditional.
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His conclusion: “Due to its origins in a repudiation of the Christian cultural inheritance, its continual appeal to the appetites of the flesh, its negation of the dimension of mystery, and its consequent poverty of artistic expression, contemporary popular music cannot be suitable matter for the process of inculturation; rather, it is a formidable obstacle to the conversion of souls and the creation of a true Christian culture.”

Well worth reading and considering: Is There a Proper Role for “Contemporary” Music at Church? – The Imaginative Conservative

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Cutlure, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and three children.

2 Responses to Is using pop music in church the same as incorporating indigenous music in missions contexts?

  1. Thanks Scott!
    Good ideas throughout. I especially liked the last line “Contemporary pop culture cannot be subsumed into the church’s tradition because it is expressly anti-traditional.”
    I think that is what everyone will find rather quickly in some cases and a little more slowly in others. The very things we are attempting to hand down / conserve will be undermined.
    RLW

  2. Exactly. Incorporating indigenous culture into the church’s tradition is a noble ambition, unless the culture you’re trying to incorporate was specifically designed to rebel against that very tradition!

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