When a people develops its own hymns with both vernacular words and music, it is good evidence that Christianity has truly taken root.
—Vida Chenoweth and Darlene Bee from “On Ethnic Music” in Practical Anthropology
ELKHART, Ind. (Mennonite Mission Network) — Mission workers strive to reach across cultural divides to communicate the gospel, but Christian music from one culture imposed upon another can become an impediment. However, when music is created within a culture, the seeds of Christ have taken root.
“If people feel like they have to learn someone else’s language or they have to sing somebody else’s music in order to worship, all you’ve done is created an unnecessary cultural barrier for people to become followers of Jesus,” said James Krabill, senior executive for global ministries at Mennonite Mission Network.
Krabill was a co-author of Roberta King’s (associate professor of communication and ethnomusicology at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, Calif.) new book Music in the Life of the African Church. Other authors on the team were Jean Ngoya Kidula, associate professor of music at the University of Georgia, and Thomas A. Oduro, senior lecturer and principal at Good News Theological College and Seminary, Accra, Ghana.
“The role of music in Africa and among Africans is like the role of blood to the human body,” said Oduro. “There is no life in Africa without music.”
Krabill spent 14 years living and teaching in the Ivory Coast with his wife, Jeanette. For 3½ years, Krabill collected over 500 original compositions by members of the Harrist church among the Dida people—his first exploration in the field of ethnomusicology*.
Krabill worked with local church leaders to transcribe the hymns in the Dida language before translating them to analyze the lyrical content and theology. His work was some of the earliest Western efforts to explore the music of this indigenous African Christian church.
Especially in oral societies, music is a vehicle for communicating biblical truth, personal faith issues and church history, explained Krabill.
“What people sing in church becomes at least as or more important than what is preached,” said Krabill. “[Music] is what they carry back to their courtyards and houses.”
For a long time, mission workers have used music to communicate the gospel.
However, there is a crucial distinction between the approach to music during earlier, colonial-style missions and a modern, culturally-sensitive approach being taken by many mission workers today.
The former linked Christianity to Western culture by using traditional European or North American hymns and styles of music. This creates a dilemma for new African Christians.
“Using only Western music does not communicate to the personality of the African,” said Oduro. “Singing from a book, reading music notations and using a foreign language inhibits the African form of expression.”
Krabill said, “The mission of a gospel communicator is to learn enough about the culture to communicate effectively. This means knowing the language and knowing what the culture values so you can connect. Music becomes an important part of that.”
The field of ethnomusicology provides a critique for the colonial approach to mission. Music becomes a tool for Africans to fully express their faith in culturally-appropriate ways.
In one village, for example, residents had a plethora of praise songs to honor their chief. As they became followers of Christ, the community began to adapt the songs and traditions to praise their new leader: God.
At each worship service (worship is not reserved for Sundays) the entire congregation meets at the house of the head preacher to sing and dance him to church. After worship, they accompany him home again.
“It’s a way of saying ‘we’re going into God’s house to go hear the word of God and this is our messenger from God,’” said Krabill.
The recessional can last three hours and may be longer than the actual worship service.
It is something that North American Christians would never do—most drive to church on Sundays—but becomes an important form of worship for this African church, explained Krabill.
According to Music in the Life of the African Church, in 1900 there were 10 million Christians in Africa, only 9 percent of the population. In 2000, there were 360 million Christians, roughly half of the continent’s inhabitants.
“The growth of Christianity in Africa … is unprecedented,” said Oduro. “The greatest impetus of [this growth] is the use of African music, rhythms, music instruments and lyrics. Music has revolutionized the face of Christianity in Africa.”
As the church continues to grow in Africa and other parts of the world, Krabill’s work is a reminder of the importance of contextualizing the gospel.
“As new churches develop, the tendency is to bring in Western stuff,” said Krabill. “Ethnomusicology provides you a critique of that. We work with the leadership to encourage worship forms that make sense for them within their own culture.”
In Music in the Life of the African Church, Kidula wrote, “Different organizations often promote the types [of music] they think are most appropriate for worship. Because God cannot be contained by human limits, his creation cannot begin to understand or circumscribe the boundaries of the sounds that best speak of, or to, him.”
*Music in the Life of the African Church defines ethnomusicology as "a musicology that includes the study of music in culture and music as culture in all world contexts."