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Effective music ministry requires grasp of cultures, missionary says

GLORIETA, N.M. (BP)–Music is universal, but it’s not a universal language, an International Mission Board missionary told participants at a July 14 workshop at LifeWay Conference Center, Glorieta, N.M.
Kirk Bullington, who is assigned to the Baptist Spanish Publishing House in El Paso, Texas, explained his claim with the following true story:
A missionary to a South American country sang a rousing version of the popular hymn “He Lives” to members of a local Indian tribe. After he finished, several approached the minister to comfort him. Since such high-pitched, emotional singing is viewed as mourning in their culture, they assumed he was distressed.
“There are 6,800 ethnolinguistic groups around the world, and each of them has their own form and style of musical expression,” Bullington said. “Music affects different people differently. What sounds happy to some people is sad to others.
“Music is a lot like humor,” he added. “Have you ever tried to tell a joke in another language? Usually it just doesn’t translate. Our response to music, like humor, is learned within our individual cultures.”
That concept also applies at home, Bullington said, pointing to the numerous cultural groups in the United States, such as African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans and Asian Americans to name only a few. All of these groups, as well as subgroups within each category, have musical expressions of their own.
Bullington, who grew up as a missionary kid in Africa and later served as a missionary in the Dominican Republic, led the seminar “Music, Missions and Me” during the 1999 Church Music Leadership Conference at Glorieta. He told participants effective music ministry both at home and abroad in the 21st century will require an understanding and application of “ethnomusicology.”
“A missionary who is an ethnomusicologist doesn’t go to another country to teach Western musical practices,” Bullington said. “He learns how that culture expresses itself musically and then serves as a catalyst for the creation of Christian music indigenous to that culture.”
Applying ethnomusicology principles at home might mean a classically trained music minister assigned to a rural American church would have to change his musical style to meet the needs of the community he is trying to reach.
“It basically boils down to asking the question, ‘What is ministry?’ To me, it is meeting needs. So, if you are going to minister to people through music, you have to find out what appeals to them. Just because a particular style moves you doesn’t mean it will move or inspire someone else.”
Failing to understand the musical practices and expressions of the culture a person is ministering to can lead to several problems, Bullington said. Among them are syncretism, when people attach indigenous meanings to the Christian form of music or ministry shared with them, and imperialism, when a person imposes his/her cultural Christian forms and musical expressions on another culture or people group.
Bullington said he believes progress is being made.
“The International Mission Board and other groups have made significant strides in recent years in focusing on understanding not only the language of the people they are trying to reach, but their cultural practices, too. And that is so important, because once the gospel becomes ‘indigenized’ to a local culture, it spreads like wildfire because Christianity ceases to be a ‘foreign’ religion.’
“Music is one of the most important tools we have in sharing the gospel,” Bullington added. “One of its powers is that it helps the Word of God make the trip from your head to your heart.
“If we can become ‘bimusical’ ministers by learning the heart music of another culture, it will greatly enhance our effectiveness in missions.”
Bullington said people with musical interests and talents can find numerous short-term and long-term opportunities for service on the mission field both overseas through the International Mission Board and at home through the North American Mission Board, as well as through numerous other evangelical Christian ministry organizations.
“I’m excited about the future of music and missions,” he said. “I look forward to the day when people all over the world will join together to sing about God in their own language and style. Now, that will be a heavenly choir.”
The 1999 Church Music Leadership Conference was sponsored by LifeWay’s music ministries department.

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  • Chip Alford