Fighting Ethnocentricity with Music

by Dr. Beth Naegele, guest writer

How important is music to you as a Christian? Have you ever wondered why it is used so much in worship? Do you know how to use music in cross-cultural ministry, even when the styles of a local culture are very different from your own?

It can be difficult to use unfamiliar music to worship God, but the Bible is abundantly clear about the incredible scope of the gospel’s reach. From one model of worship in the Old Testament where angels cry, “the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6:3) to the Great Commission where we are told to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19) to an astounding picture of worship in heaven by a multitude “from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9), there is no question that believers from all cultures are welcome before the throne of God.

In recent years, Moody’s Missions Conference has included numerous styles of music and ethnic music showcases to help expose students to the variety of ways that Christians use music around the world. Occasionally, I’ve overheard questioning and even grumbling about some of the music that has been presented. Maybe this is because some listeners are just too ethnocentric, thinking that only their preferred style of music is appropriate. However, I think these complaints stem primarily from the fact that standards for good music can be very different from culture to culture.

Aesthetic ideas that determine what’s beautiful and appropriate in one ethnic group can seem diametrically opposed to those of another group. For example, several Asian cultures cultivate throat singing, which often uses incredibly low-pitched sounds and creates two pitches simultaneously. To my ears, this technique sounded just plain bizarre at first, and some of my colleagues even suggested it might be demonic. However, over the years, I have met several missionaries who skillfully use this music in their outreach and I have even helped throat-singing Christians use it in worship.

What are the biblical mandates for “good music”? What are the biblical mandates for using music in varying cultures? To prepare students for the use of music in cross-cultural ministry, Moody’s music department has a major in ethnomusicology, an academic discipline which studies the music of specific peoples and ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnomusicologists have examined non-Western music only, but in today’s ever increasing diversity, they study music from all people groups, styles, cultures and subcultures. In North America alone, distinct include various Native American tribes, Cajun music in Louisiana, shape-note singing traditions in parts of the South, several different Latin American styles, and traditional Black Gospel, which started right here in Chicago in 1938.

Moody’s ethnomusicology major has three goals: firstly, to expose students to all kinds of music and various cultures’ aesthetic standards for good music; secondly, to emphasize music’s potential to be used as a bridge in building relationships and providing opportunities to share the gospel; and finally, to prepare students to be catalysts who help believers in any culture create and use their own appropriate music styles to worship God.

This fall, three of Moody’s ethnomusicology graduates are working in creative-access countries, where they are officially helping document and preserve music cultures that have the potential of disappearing as modernization takes place. Last summer, senior ethnomusicology majors Justus Cann and Emily Price did internships in Asia where they taught music to children and youth. They will be sharing their experiences in a seminar during Missions Conference and will discuss practical ways to use music in cross-cultural ministry.

The great Christian author C. S. Lewis made this observation in his book, “An Experiment in Criticism”:

“We seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and a selectiveness peculiar to himself. … We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own. … We demand windows … This, so far as I can see, is the specific value or good of all types of music …, it admits us to experiences other than our own … My own eyes are not enough for me; I will see through those of others.”

Hopefully, the variety of music on display at this year’s Missions Conference will give all of us an opportunity to see through others’ eyes and feel with others’ hearts. It will open us anew to fellowship with believers around the world in the here and now and prepare us for future worship in heaven as portrayed in the book of Revelation.


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