I’ve felt the call to be a missionary since I was a little kid. Some might say that as a member of Becoming The Archetype, I am a type of missionary. Those people wouldn’t necessarily be wrong, but that’s not the sort of missionary I’ve been called to ultimately be. A great blessing has been that God has also called my wife and brother to the mission field, so we’ve begun discussing possibilities for all going together. Right now I’m in sort of a waiting game as my brother just started getting his Master’s of Divinity and my wife is getting her medical degree. So I bide my time with the band and know that it’ll be a few years before we can really begin the process of getting out into the mission field.
I say all this to start a discussion about something I find fascinating. Missionaries in third-world countries often have an unexpected task that they face after starting a church. That task is corporate worship. The missionary has several options. He could 1) teach his congregants western songs in English. He could 2) translate western songs into the language of his congregants and hope to maintain most of the original message and hope not too much gets lost in translation. Or he could 3) write new worship songs in the language and style of his congregants. What is the missionary to do?
This is where the ethnomusicologist comes in. An ethnomusicologist studies music from other cultures and seeks to understand how an ethnic music style is created and what it’s features are. This service has become very valuable to many missionaries, especially in third world countries and among tribes who are hearing the gospel for the first time. If an ethnomusicologist can get to understand the musical style and its meaning to its culture, then he can create songs for corporate worship that are meaningful to that culture and thus facilitate a comfortable environment in which worship can happen naturally. That is obviously preferable to a worship service with a “forced” feeling to it as a tribe sings western-style songs that don’t make musical sense to them and in a foreign language such as English. So I’m very excited about ethnomusicology right now and would love to serve in this respect on the mission field at some point in the future. If some of you feel the Lord’s call on your life to be a missionary, ethnomusicology may be something that you should look into.
As the Body of Christ seeks to “make disciples of all the nations and baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” great attention to detail needs to be given to music and the corporate worship experience. If Paul was “all things to all men” then perhaps we should strive to understand the culture of those that we are reaching and not only speak their language, but sing their songs.