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The Purpose of Music in Missions

This entry is part 10 of 14 in the series

"Missions and Music"

Read more posts by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

The purpose of culture is not to reach the lost or give authentic expression for Christians; it is to express and cultivate right worship.

In my last article I addressed the argument for using contemporary music forms based on a missions philosophy that stresses indigenous ministry. I suggested that such an argument is based upon the faulty assumption that all cultural forms are neutral, and therefore a truly indigenous ministry will make use of the neutral musical forms that characterize its surrounding culture. Since this assumption is usually “proven” by insisting that stark differences between music of various cultures reveal a lack of musical universals, I also showed how few differences really exist and how understanding such differences depends upon understanding the deep universals that govern all music.

I would like to to address the issue from a different direction in this essay, namely, what such an argument assumes to be the primary purpose of music in missions. As I see it, such an argument insisting upon the use of “indigenous” music when planting churches may be based on one of two errant understandings of the goal of music in missions.

Music for Evangelism

The first understanding is that music is an evangelistic tool. If the purpose of music in missions is to use it as a tool for the spread of the gospel, then it would certainly be imperative that the music used be common to the target audience.

There are several problems with this view. First, I am aware of no command or example in Scripture of music being used as a way to attract people for a hearing of the gospel or as a way to present the gospel. All uses of music in Scripture are seen in the context of worship–expressions of praise to the Lord.

Granting that there may be other uses of music than those commanded or exemplified in Scripture, however, I see another problem with using music for evangelistic purposes: if a missionary is choosing musical styles does so out of a desire to attract unbelievers or make the gospel more appealing, he is allowing the values and sensibilities of unregenerate people govern the way that he presents the gospel, hardly a biblical practice.

Music for Authentic Expression

If people arguing for “indigenous” ministry don’t root it in evangelistic concerns, the other motivation to which they normally appeal is to say that the purpose of music is to provide an authentic expression of response in worship. If the purpose of music is simply to allow Christians to naturally express what is in their hearts, then giving them a musical language to which they are most accustomed is important.

In my opinion this view has more merit and could even be implied in Scripture. However, I see a few problems with seeing this as the primary purpose of music.

First, this view implies that all Christians, from those just newly converted from a pagan lifestyle to those who have believed for many years, naturally express right worship without ever having been taught. Yet as I will argue more below, right worship is a learned skill; just because someone is converted does not necessarily mean that they will naturally know what is right in worship. Depending upon their background, rearing, and culture, a new Christian may “naturally” express things that are quite contrary to acceptable worship.

Second, this view assumes that those cultural expressions that are most “authentic” for worshipers–even those cultivated amongst people groups who have experience no light of the gospel–are legitimate for expression of Christian worship. Yet since culture is an expression of values, some culture may express values that are absolutely incompatible with worship honoring to God.

Music to Cultivate and Express Right Worship

Rather than seeing the purpose of music in Christian ministry and missions as evangelism or “authentic” expression in worship, I believe the biblical perspective is to see its purpose as cultivating and expressing right worship, that is, worship that is acceptable to God.

This is is based on several underlying assumptions. First, it assumes that there is such a thing as a right and wrong way to worship. This is built upon statements in Scripture such as Romans 12:1 and Hebrews 12:28 that command us to worship God in a way that is acceptable, implying that there is a way that is unacceptable.

Second it assumes that even Christians don’t naturally know how to worship acceptably–right worship must be learned. Christians are certainly indwelt by the Spirit of God and have been given new natures, but they are nevertheless finite and continue to battle indwelling sin, errant presuppositions, and inordinate affections. Worshipping rightly is a learned skill, part of the process of Christian sanctification. It therefore makes sense that someone who has been a Christian for a long time, worshipping acceptably with the body of Christ for many years, would be better equipped to worship acceptably than someone who has just recently been converted out of a pagan lifestyle.

Finally, it assumes that cultures that been influenced by the gospel more will cultivate musical expressions more fitting to acceptable worship. Conversely, those cultures that imbibe sinful values will be ill-equipped for the right expression of worship to the true and living God.

This understanding means that a missionary will not just uncritically accept any musical forms found in his target culture. Rather, he will study the culture around him to determine whether that culture expresses values fitting for right worship.

And this also means that a missionary must know what right worship is.

Next week, I’ll explore how this understanding might take form in a missions setting.

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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.