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Should we use Western music when planting indigenous churches in other cultures?

Here is a question about culture and missions I recently received by e-mail:

I am intrigued by this idea of culture and music. It seems a number of people are suggesting that it’s close to racism to suggest that one culture’s (Western) is superior to that of others. I’m sure you’re familiar with the charge. How do we account for the divergence of aesthetic appreciation between cultures. Say, the Chinese: they prefer the falsetto voice with melody only (and at that a rather unpleasing melody from my Western tastes) and no harmony. While certainly there are other things we can all agree are aesthetically pleasing (the grand canyon), are aesthetics as universal as some claim? I’ve been doing some reading on culture, missions, and the indigenous principle, and I’m finding it tough to weed through what is and what is not legitimate cultural adaptation.

Here’s my answer:

Culture is a visible expression of worldview. It is religion externalized. If you want more to read on that, read T. S. Eliot on Culture. He’s spot on.

So if culture is an expression of worldview, then it follows that those societies that have been more influenced by a Christian worldview will have cultures that express more Christian values. On the other hand, societies that have been for centuries shaped by immoral or anti-biblical values with have cultural idioms that reflect that. Cultures are not created in a vacuum. Societal influences and values shape culture.

I think it is undeniable that Western culture by and large has been influenced by Christian values more than perhaps any other in the world. That is not to say at all that there haven’t been anti-biblical influences as well; there certainly have been. But by God’s common grace we haven’t been influenced by Satanism or Eastern mysticism to the same extent as other societies. That has influenced the development of culture.

So each culture (Western, too) must be parsed for its meaning. What worldview does it reflect?

Then, of course, there is certainly room for difference of preference between one culture and another as long as what is preferred reflects Christian values. There is nothing inherently superior about Western culture over another culture that has been shaped by Christian values, but I wonder if there really is, at this time, another such culture in the world. But if there is, they certainly may sound quite a bit different from one another, although there will be many similarities since art is based on the created order itself.

There is a difference, in other words, between saying something sounds strange to our ears and saying something is immoral or objectively ugly. The latter is universal, the former is subject to background.

So do I think Western culture is better than, say, some Satanism-influenced, tribal African culture? Well, I would say in many ways yes, and in others probably not. The high art of Western culture, at least, has been shaped and developed in a crucible of Christian influence. Western high art as we know it was nurtured in the Church; Romanism to be sure, but Christian theism nonetheless.

On the other hand, there are aspects of Western culture that are deplorable, especially with the influences of secularism and commercialism. There might be some aspects of tribal African culture that has escaped those influences and are therefore superior. At the end of the day, I believe that the inner culture of the Church will never sound exactly like the culture around it. Christians always have to pick and choose (and sometimes invent) the best forms for the expression of Christian sentiment. It’s just the case that in some culture that have been influenced for centuries by Christian values, there may be more from which to choose.

When speaking in terms of missions, I do think that probably most cultures have some folk forms of art that fit a Christian worldview. But again, if there have been absolutely no Christian influences in that culture, then there may just be none.

If I were a missionary and that were the case, I would seek to create a new, indigenous Christian culture; not transplant Western culture – that would be crazy. Western culture developed over centuries in particular circumstances with particular people in a particular development of history. Perhaps in hundreds of years, as Christianity influenced the pagan area where I was ministering, the culture would turn out to look something like Western culture, but I would never suggest simply transplanting Western art forms into another culture.

But I would probably start where Western Christian culture started in terms of church music – plain chant. Don’t think Gregorian when I say, “chant.” I’m talking pre-Gregory. The simple intoning of Scripture. That’s where Western Christian music started, and I think plain chant is almost as a-cultural as you can get musically. The tonal system is simple, built off of the naturally-occurring harmonic series, so it is natural to all humans. And because it’s chanting, the melody and rhythm follow that natural intonation and rhythm of the indigenous language. Then I would see where it went from there, remembering that Western cultured developed over a long, long time.

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.