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The Purpose of Music in Missions

This entry is part 12 of 16 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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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.

9 Responses to The Purpose of Music in Missions

  1. Following the above framework…

    Music for Evangelism:

    – I would agree about 99%. I think there needs to be the admission that our worship and ministry in the Church, though primarily for the use of praising God in the Christian community, has a secondary effect on the unbeliever as well. Sometimes in attempting to avoid being "seeker-sensitive" we become "anti-seeker" in our worship. In the words of a particular Fundamentalist pastor in Greenville SC: "I want the lost to feel uncomfortable with our worship…they should find it distasteful." In my understanding of Scripture, neither approach is biblical. The "anti-seeker" view just appears to be a reaction to the abuses of the archaic and faulty methods of the "seeker-sensitive" movement.

    Music for Authentic Expression:

    – I would agree about 50/50 with your articulation here. In regard to your first point ("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") I would argue that this is not entirely the case. I would argue that worship in it's individual sense needs no instruction per se. Worship in the corporate sense involves some sense of order (i.e. I Cor). So, I would agree that some manner of learning (possibly via observation of other believers in worship) would be necessary. What I feel to be a straw man in your point here is the sense of the word "naturally." No man "naturally" knows how to express worship properly. There has to be an element of the "Spiritual" involved. So, as stated, the point seems to misrepresent the argument to some degree. I also feel a measure of concern with this point in that there are some further implications that I am uncomfortable with. Implications such as: does God value the more "instructed" worship of my brother who can sing beautiful solos better than me? Does God value the better trained worship of my Fundamentalist church in the suburbs than that of the vibrant biblical inner-city church plant 30 minutes away? Too much emphasis on "instructed" worship tends towards an exclusivity in acceptable worship that is not warranted in Scripture (Rev. 7:9-10). This is the slippery slope that I feel we must avoid with arguments such as these.

    – In regard to your second point ("this view assumes that those cultural expressions that are most “authentic” for worshipers–even those cultivated amongst people groups who have experience [sic] no light of the gospel–are legitimate for expression of Christian worship") I would state that I don't see the problem in this point. If there are points in which cultural expressions contradict Scripture, they should be avoided. Other aspects that do not contradict the Gospel can be preserved. This is true of all cultures (whether or not the culture has experienced the "light of the gospel." In fact, the idea that we can import worship from one "gospel-lit" culture to another is a wholly modern concept. Throughout the history of Christianity prior to the reign of Constantine, the chronicles of the people of Israel, and the lives of the Patriarchs, worship could not be imported from one expansive religious tradition, but was rather formed in cultures where barely an ember of the Gospel remained aglow. People transformed by the Gospel had to find ways to express their (often new-found) beliefs in legitimate manners against these backdrops for thousands of years (II Kin. 5:17). Why do we now express concern over such developments of worship? Is it possible that we seek a far more homogeneous view of worship than what God actually desires for His people?


    – I do not disagree at all with your first point. I would only note that leaving the categories of "acceptable" and "unacceptable" must be held to the Scriptural standards as such.

    – I would humbly disagree with your second point. It does not logically follow that due to the fact that nature of sanctification is progressive, that our ability to rightly worship is therefore progressive. I do not recall such a teaching in Scripture (although I will demur on this if I have been too presumptive). Is not worship, as portrayed in Scripture, accepted on the basis of Whom we worship and not necessarily the Skill with which we do so? It also does not logically follow that simply because someone has been involved in Christian worship for a long time they are better at worshipping than a newly regenerated believer. Even if we proceed into a qualitative standard for worship (one is good, another is better, mine is best), my concern is that we miss the fact that often those who have been worshipping the longest often worship (in the Gospel sense – the whole man: mind, will, and emotions directly changed by looking upon the God of all Creation) the least, while our newly regenerated brothers often exude these aspects of worship often missing in our own….

    – I would also humbly disagree with the final point. In what sense has any culture been "more influenced by the Gospel"? In the current era, I would likely concur that it is that of the West. In previous eras of history (both biblical and post-biblical) it is the East. In the future, that culture may once again be eastern. The search for a more gospel-impacted culture for use in importing cultural expressions seems rather desperate. Why not just express the Gospel within the context of the culture at hand?

  2. Thanks, Phillip.

    First, regarding Evangelism: I agree that proper worship can be profoundly evangelistic. But the goal of worship is never evangelism, our choice of cultural forms for worship should never take unbelievers into primary consideration, and I do agree that most of the time unbelievers should feel uncomfortable in our worship. Worship should not "feel" normal to an unbeliever, unless that unbeliever has grown up in a Christianized culture.

    Regarding authenticity: I still insist that a new believer will not naturally know how to worship. Of course I am not speaking of being accepted by God; all believers are accepted because of Christ. But there is clearly a biblically acceptable worship (Romans 1, Hebrews 12), and most new believers won't automatically know what shape that should take unless he or she has grown up around good worship. Right worship is a learned skill just like anything else in the Christian life.

    Additionally, I think some of your comments, especially your final one, demonstrate that you are still working within an understanding of culture that sees it as neutral. Sure, if culture is neutral, "why not just express the Gospel wthin the context of the culture at hand?"

    But if culture is shaped by values, then some values do not fit that Gospel we wish to express.

  3. Regarding evangelism: Don't you realize that when you make statements such as "unbelievers should feel uncomfortable in our worship" you are still looking at a man-centered standard for worship which you so strongly oppose?

    Regarding authenticity: Why the dichotomy between worship that is accepted by God and that which is acceptable to God? Please explain.

    Regarding culture: I do believe that culture may have sinful elements that are prevalent within it and that those elements (what the Bible refers to as sin) need to be purged from the lives of God's saints through the process of sanctification. So, in one sense, I do not see culture as neutral; however, in the sense which you seem to be advocating, I cannot agree. It would seem that you are seeking to establish an understanding of culture that is both overly optimistic (i.e. "Western European/American Christian" culture as normative and established by God) and overly pessimistic (i.e. rejection of native cultures as inherently tainted and therefore unacceptable to God).

  4. I'm not saying that we should try to make our services uncomfortable, but they often will be, and we should not be afraid of it. My main point is that unbelievers should never be a consideration for how we do worship.

    I make such a dichotomy because Scripture seems to. On the one hand it is clear that we are accepted by God based upon none of our own merit; it is Christ's work alone that secures acceptance with God.

    But on the other hand there are commands to offer God worship that is acceptable, such as in Romans 1 and Hebrews 12.

    So I think there are both of those aspects of "acceptability."

    My only point concerning culture is that the more gospel influence there is in a society, the more likely it will produce culture that is better fitting for gospel worship.

  5. So…
    – We, as believers, ARE accepted – in spite of our sin and our blemishes and our faults in Christ alone; however…
    – We, as worshipers and the worship we bring is NOT accepted in Christ alone. What we really need is Christ + my musical style, Christ + my Western culture, Christ + my Fundamentalist subculture, etc.

    If my perception is amiss, please correct me. Perhaps it would help if you were to explain your understanding of what specifically makes worship acceptable or unacceptable. Are these things that make worship acceptable or unacceptable objective scriptural precepts or subjective principles that are being applied to culture?

  6. Take my relationship with my son as an example. I accept my son no matter what he does; he's my son. But there are certainly things that he does that are unacceptable with me. Those action do not change his standing in my sight, but they certainly displease me and affect our fellowship. Likewise, there are certain ways of approaching me as his father that would be unacceptable due to the nature of our relationship.

    The same is true for our relationship with God, especially how we approach him in worship.

    How else would you explain passages like Romans 12:1-2 and Hebrews 12:28-29?

  7. I agree that there are ways of approaching God that are unacceptable; however, as indicated in the passages which you wish to discuss, the acceptable way of approaching God is through the Gospel – in Christ. Worship is accepted not on the basis of how good (the subjective quality) our offering is, but how central Christ (the objective substance) is in what we give, for we come not before a throne of works, but a throne of grace. Unacceptable worship is that which rejects the logical response to the Gospel and turns again to an unconverted lifestyle (Rom 12) and/or pride (Heb 12).

    Rom. 12:1-2 – Based on the import of the Gospel (Rom 1-11), it is just logical for me to sacrifice myself to God as this is what pleases Him. The first word which draws my attention is the one which you have emphasized – acceptable. As in Col 3:20, the word indicates something that pleases God. In the context, the corollary (that which displeases God) is when we conform our lives to "this world" (v. 2). The concept of the Gk (latria), which I assume is your second key word, is primarily that of temple sacrifice. In other words, I worship God by giving Him myself (mind, will, and emotions). This sacrifice is in contrast to those that sacrifice themselves to the world and results in progressive transformation into the likeness of Christ (v.2). In summary, when I come to God in recognition of the Gospel, I will find that the only logical action is to offer God myself as opposed to continuing to offer myself to the world (as I did prior to salvation). The passage is an impressive lesson on sanctification, but does not directly speak to corporate worship. If we were to apply this by extension of the above principle to corporate worship, I would argue that the passage makes the point that a Christian, by the impact of the Gospel alone, knows that the logical outpouring of worship is sacrifice to God. This is not a learned process that comes through importing one culture into another, but a response of the heart of a believer to the Gospel.

    Heb. 12:28-29 – Once again, the context of the Gospel floods the passage. Once again, the passage describes a natural response to the Gospel ("since you have received…then give thanks"). Once again, the writer urges us to offer a sacrificial service (latria) that pleases God. No corollary is given to tell us what kind of sacrifice does not please God. Whether this passage could be applied to corporate worship directly is more debatable, in my mind, than in Rom. 12. So, if we apply it to corporate worship, it would appear that someone who has experienced the impact of the Gospel will naturally understand that he or she must give thanks in a manner that sacrifices (worship, praise, self?) to God in the way that is pleasing to Him, namely, worship that approaches Him with "reverence and awe." If I were to go beyond the text even further and were to create a corollary, I would state that worship that does not please God (i.e. worship that has lost its focus on the Gospel) would likely be worship that approaches God with pride (the opposite of reverence – a sense of shame) and triviality (the opposite of awe – caution and care). If I were then to argue these extensions of this passage (the warrant of which I know to be somewhat weak), I would say that the "veteran" believer likely has more of a danger in this respect. He can become proud in his worship (i.e. pride in style or quality of liturgy) and slowly bring casual worship to the Most High. This is not an epidemic of one culture vs. another, evangelicals vs. fundamentalists, westerners vs. easterners, "Christianized" nations vs. indigenous cultures, but an epidemic of Christianity as a whole. This has nothing to do with culture or aesthetics, but everything to do with hearts that are not directed towards the Gospel.

    So…why not just take the Gospel into the culture in question? Or is the centrality of the Gospel not sufficient to make our worship acceptable?

  8. I thought that it was interesting when you explained that Christian music allows Christian to naturally express what is in their hearts. I would imagine that Christian music would act as common ground among people who don’t know each other but share similar beliefs within the same religion. I would consider using music to express my Christian beliefs and to help gain a connection with other Christian in order to gain more love for my fellow man.

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