What music should be used when planting indigenous churches in . . . the United States of America?
It seems as if several themes have been reoccurring on this site, Paleoevangelical, and a few other places over the last few weeks. These themes have to do with musical associations, indigenous church planting, and musical universals. Here are the posts I’m talking about in case you need to get caught up:
- On Taxonomies of Music/Worship Philosophies
- Should we use Western music when planting indigenous churches in other cultures?
- On Associations
- Irreverent “Worship”
- Is Contemporary vs. Traditional the Wrong Debate?
- Unleashing Your Inner Fundamentalist
- Worship in the Melting Pot – An Evaluation & Response
- Redefining Cultural Engagement
I think all of these lead to what I think is the most important practical questions for us to consider: what kind of music should we use when planting indigenous churches in the United States of America?
There are two primary options, of course:
- Some will argue that by the very nature of “indigenous,” we must use the musical styles with which most people in America culture are familiar. So we use pop/rock forms with rock instrumentation and rock “ethos.”
- Others, believing rock to be a sinful communication medium, and believing classical forms to be superior, will instead argue for the use of choirs, orchestral accompaniment, operatic vocal solos and ensembles, etc.
As Ben Wright has rightly asked, however, are these the only two alternatives?
Let’s return to the question of indigenous church planting for a moment. In my mind, there are three absolute principles we must consider when deciding what musical forms we will use in an indigenous church plant.
- We should not transplant Western, “classical” forms to cultures that have absolutely no connection to such forms.
- Instead, we should seek to package biblical truth in forms with which the culture is familiar.
- However, we must always be aware that not all cultural forms are compatible with biblical truth. So, we must diligently search for those that are, or we must develop new ones if necessary.
So let’s apply these principles to the culture of the United States of America:
- There are exceptions, but most Americans have absolutely no connection with “classical,” “operatic” musical forms. For many unbelievers and new Christians, such forms can actually present a distraction. I’m not denying the superiority of these forms or even that we shouldn’t set them as a goal for a developed church. But in most cases, to plant a church with these forms would be equivalent to transplanting Western “classical” music to South Africa. It may be acceptable in an established church, but probably not a church plant in most cases.
- In a broad sense, Americans are familiar with Western tonal music with lyric melodies. The specific styles within this category that they prefer leads to our next principle:
- Most Americans are familiar and comfortable with the pop/rock styles of our day. But since, in my opinion, these styles are incompatible with the gospel, what alternative do we have?
I would argue, as Ben suggested, that the best musical choice in planting would be to eliminate all forms of performed “special music.” The very nature of performed music implies that it is songs arranged with certain music styles and performed with certain instrumentation. So at that point you have to decide if you will use classical forms or pop forms. Either decision would be unwise for most church planting situations. Remove the performance category, and you won’t have to make that decision. Why is it that we think that in order to be a “grown up” church, we have to have a vocal solo before every message?
Instead, focus on singing only songs that were written to be sung by congregations. And do so with very simple instrumentation (like a piano and/or guitar) that serves to simply support the congregational singing (or have no accompaniment at all). And you must choose songs that are not written using pop cliches, because that ties them to a particular time. This includes most Praise & Worship Songs and most Gospel Songs (the P&W of the turn of the century). Your songs should not sound like the latest pop album, and they should not sound like Vaudeville or Stephen Foster.
Most hymns, sung with simple accompaniment, would be familiar enough for a new convert to benefit from. I’m not appealing to the lowest-common-denominator here, and I’m not sacrificing objective value. Songs like that done simply are valuable in and of themselves. It’s also not about making an unbeliever or a new convert “comfortable.” It’s about worshiping in the language of the times, yet without using forms that are incompatible with the gospel no matter how “familiar” they are.
If we’re going to plant indigenous churches, then we’ve got to use indigenous forms of music. We must make sure those forms are compatible with biblical truth, and if none exist for a given culture, we may have to get creative. But in modern American culture, simple, tonal, melodic hymnody is both good and indigenous.
There is also another reason, though, why it may be wise to get rid of performed “special” music, even in an established church. As I argue in “Worship That Cannot Be Touched,” and as Ben referenced in “Sensationalism,” worship isn’t about some kind of physical sensation. In my opinion, the reason most people like pop music is that it gives them a physical sensation that feels good. The same is true for Christian pop music. But the same is also often true for those who need a large choir and orchestra in order to “feel” like they’re worshiping. In each case there is a tying of sensationalism to worship that I believe is unbiblical.
Why is it that we feel like a church that doesn’t have a choir or special music or a band or and orchestra is somehow inferior? “Oh, they’ll grow up some day.” “When they get more talented people, then they’ll have better music.”
No. Simple congregational singing, along with preaching, giving, praying, and Scripture reading, is all you need to worship.
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.