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Should a missionary simply adopt a culture’s music when church planting?

On Saturdays we repost articles from the archives that apply to current issues. The following article discusses whether a missionary should simply adopt a culture’s music in church planting.


I mentioned in my report on our Brazil trip that I had the opportunity to sit down with a man who grew up in a tribe in the Amazon. His name is Rober (pronounced “HO-ber”) Guerreiro (means “warrior”), and he is a member of a Tikuna (pronounced “chi-KOO-nah”) tribe in the Amazon jungles.

Now as I mentioned, I recorded our conversation using a small mp3 recorder that I had brought with me. However, when I got to the states and connected the recorded to my computer, I found . . . nothing! I’m very disappointed that I won’t be able to share the actual audio with you, but I will at least relate the content of our conversation, which I think will be interesting to you and very instructive.

Christian missionaries reached Rober’s tribe about a generation ago. Prior to the coming of the missionaries, the Tikuna’s culture was filled with rites, ceremonies, and music that communicated their values of spiritism, witchcraft, and other expressions of paganism. When the missionaries first arrived, they witnessed a young girl endure a rite of passage ceremony, in which all of her hair was plucked out. This ceremony was acompanied by days of drunken orgy, drumming and ritual music. Such was the Tikuna’s “indigenous” culture. You can read about one of the first missionary’s work with the Tikunas in Port of Two Brothers by Paul L. Schlener.

I asked Rober if the missionaries imposed their culture upon the tribal people. His answer was simple: No, the missionaries did not change their culture; the culture of the Tikuna tribes was changed by the gospel. He said “little by little we realized that our culture did not fit with what the gospel teaches.”

After the gospel permeated Tikuna villages, their culture naturally changed. Even though certainly not every individual in every village came to Christ, the villages that were “Christianized” saw marked changes. Rober told me that they began to dress differently. Their music, rites, and ceremonies changed. He said they still observe some of the holidays that they once did, but these days are now treated more as times to instruct their children about the kinds of things they used to do and how things are different now. Their old culture was an expression of their pagan value systems; the gospel changed their values, and therefore their culture changed.

This real life example flies in the face of popular missiologists’ definition of “contextualization” today. Did the missionaries “contextualize”? Well, certainly. They converted the Tikuna language into a written form and translated the Bible. They didn’t make the Indians wear suits to church, although their dress certainly changed. They communicated the gospel to the Tikuna culture and as a result, their culture changed. And ironically, some may say that those changes look “western” or “European.”

This certainly doesn’t mean everything changed. There was certain kinds of weaving and jewelry making that continues to this day. Rober said that he believes that it is actually the Christianized villages who are really preserving the legitimate “folk” culture of the Tikuna’s, not the un-Christian villages. The pagan villages are forgetting these beautiful artistic skills because they are being enamored by another kind of culture, a truly imperialist kind: pop culture.

American culture has already “invaded” the tribes, and it is not because of the missionaries. Rober related that Indians travel hours to secure TVs, radios, and generators, they hook up elaborate antenna systems, and they hunger to partake of whatever pop culture they can through those media.

So to insist that American missionaries should try to somehow “preserve” indigenous cultures fails on two points: First, that “indigenous” culture is debase and expresses pagan values that contradict gospel living; and second, that “indigenous” culture has already been invaded by American pop values anyway. Pop culture destroys legitimate folk cultures. There really are very few purely indigenous cultures anymore, and where there are, they are probably so cut off from any gospel influence as to render them entirely anti-gospel.

The really interesting thing is what Rober said about all this. He said that growing up, he listened to a Christian short-wave radio station while he and his father worked. Sometimes the station played hymns, and sometimes it played Contemporary Christian Music. And remember, it’s all “western” (as if there are any other kinds of Christian music that would be played on a radio station).

Rober said that his favorite music to listen to was always the hymns because they just seemed to best express Christian sentiment, though at the time he could not understand the words because he could not speak Portuguese yet. His conclusions came not from some radically conservative, American imperialist missionary. No, when Rober surveyed the music of his own culture, western pop culture, or the western Classical tradition, his regenerated heart discerned “western,” “Classical” hymns to be the best expression of Christian values and worship.

In fact, years later when Rober was deciding what seminary to attend to prepare him to return to his people in order to continue the spread of the gospel, he made his decision based on music. Because Rober is a Tikuna Indian, he was very attractive to seminaries. Several schools offered him full scholarships if he would attend, but he chose Seminario Batista Regular do Sul (with no financial incentives) because when he visited they sang the kind of hymns he had grown to appreciate and love. The other schools had typical “western,” pop Christian music. Again, this decision was made not under the influence of conservative Americans, but out of his own discernment. Rober plans to take those same western hymns back to his tribe because of all the music ever created in the world, these forms seem to this Brazilian native to best befit the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This enlightening discussion with Rober confirmed something that had already been growing in my understanding: In missions endeavors (both in the States and abroad), the question is not whether or not we should use western culture in the expression and cultivation of the gospel. The question is what kind of western culture we are going to choose to use, either western pop culture (which has likely already invaded the “indigenous” culture) or culture from the western Christian tradition.

And as Rober so eloquently yet simply expressed, it won’t be western imperialist missionaries who change the pagans’ culture, the gospel will handle that all on its own.

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 Culture, 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 four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

6 Responses to Should a missionary simply adopt a culture’s music when church planting?

  1. Its a wonderful thing that God led Rober to the decision that the music of his culture and western "pop culture" COULD NOT be used to worship God. It is also a wonderful thing that other missionaries and indigenous church planters have been led by God (through thorough study of the culture and God's Word) to the decision that particular aspects and entire styles of the music of their cultures CAN be used to worship God.

  2. I agree with Philip T and Salzo. putting our western culture onto these indigenous people is crazy. This whole battle over the music should be a non issue. Speaking as a conservative bible believer, I find it insane that the opinions of many in the fundamentalist movement have been taken as bible truths when in reality they are opinions. They are not doctrine, and certainly music is not on the same level as the fundamentals of the faith. There are many good,godly men and women on both sides of this issue. And there is a LOT of biblically sound music being written today that is not coming out of BJU or the Wilds. And there are many good godly christians, listening to that music that is not out of BJU and the Wilds. I know its hard to believe. I used to think that unless it was approved by the Frank Garlocks of the world it had to be sinful, and anyone listening to something written in the 21st century was in sin, but I have since come to a more balanced biblical position. I applaud men like Matt Olson that is helping to bring sound biblical teaching and balance to this area, as well as some sanity and common sense. 

  3. Wonderful article Scott! Great to hear it from that perspective. Joe D and Philip T … are you missionaries, or have you studied this out with missionaries working in a non-western culture? I find it so amazing that people like Matt Olson are applauded because as theologians they make a bold statement about another area of study (sacred music) and disregard the theologians/musicians/missiologists who have studied and applied the Word of God on the mission field in the area of music. I wonder if they have even asked for or considered a position from the conservative musician/missiologists spread throughout this world? I found out the first year I was on the mission field (some 30 years ago) that it is not all about BJU, The Wilds, or Frank Garlock. But it IS all about a basic Bible doctrine called "separation from the world" that both James and I John deal with so aptly. Unfortunately, most of our western culture Christianity has deleted (or at least greatly "softened") this doctrine from their practice. Philip T … as long as those church planters can use the culture's music and follow Biblically teaching such as the instruction we receive from I John 2:15-17, then I can agree with you. If the foundation of the culture was established without a knowledge of God, most likely their music will reflect the "god of this world" rather than the God of the Word. My last statement is the result of my studies as a theologian/musician/missioligist these past 30 years.

  4. @PaulV. I think the difficulty is not in whether or not we apply I John 2:15-17, but in how we define the term "world." Does it refer to culture in general? Does it refer to clearly (chapter and verse) sinful acts/behaviors of cultures? Does it refer to current fads or trends in culture? My point is not to diminish the import of the text at hand, but to insist that terms such as worldly, fleshly, and sensuality need to be defined when used. What then is separation from the world? Is it the separation of the Amish? Or is there something else involved? My point is not that separation should be thrown out, it is just that core issues such as these should not be brandished without explaining exactly what they mean. If you seek credentials, I could offer mine, but I would refer you to one of the best conservative theologians/musicians/missioligists I know – Steve Davis of CBTS and Grace Church Philly. You can check out his posts on Sharper Iron. He is very insightful and would agree with the direction of Matt Olson.

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