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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.

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies 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.