When missionaries travel to a foreign land to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, one of the first
things they do is learn the language of the region they are moving to. It’s a rough road to
communicate to people if you don’t speak the same language. It’s one of the consequences of
the Tower of Babel incident.
Music is a powerful mode of communication. In nearly every church, there is music of one
variety or another. However, do you realize music is a language through which you are
conveying the gospel?
In Acts 17:16-34, Paul is standing in the midst of the Areopagus and notes the altar with the
inscription ‘to the unknown god.’ He uses this as a jumping off point to tell the Athenians about
the great gospel of God. God, who is perfect and holy came down to us in the person of Jesus.
Jesus’ perfect life, death, burial, and resurrection are the only hope we broken, sinful people
have before God. Paul seizes the chance to preach using something the people understand.
Paul meets them where they are. The music in your church has the same effect.
I often tell people who are curious about the style of music in our church, “If you’re going to
Mexico to preach, you better speak Spanish.” Just like Paul in Athens, proclamation of the good
news should be in a familiar context and language the people can understand.
Who are the people in your culture you are trying to reach? What musical language do they
speak? We should seek to respond to God’s salvation for a particular people, place and time.
What does this mean and not mean, practically?
First, it does not mean simply badly covering songs in a service because they have some vague
connection and will spark a connection of familiarity.Your church’s band probably can’t pull
off that song by Coldplay without sounding like a third-rate bar band anyway. But, even if they can, what does this accomplish beyond an attempt to be seen as cool? News flash: We aren’t cool.
Secondly, it does not mean blindly importing even CCM songs into your services without thought
to what your culture is, sonically speaking. Hillsong comes from Australia. Passion is coming out of Atlanta and other large metropolitan areas. The same with Jesus Culture, Bethel or any number of
artists we are covering in church these days.
It does mean, though, after carefully parsing the words (the most important aspect of your church’s
music), finding a way to make it sound like something that’s native to your land.
It does mean taking tried-and-true classic hymns and breathing new life into them by making
them sound familiar to the people you are preaching to each week.
If you live in rural southern Indiana, as I do, you are likely surrounded by country and classic
rock radio stations. You are less likely to have KLOVE or The Fish or, possibly, even a modern
rock or pop station.
So, rather than copying note-for-note the Crowder or Chris Tomlin hit of the day by using loops
on your MacBook and the well-worn dotted eighth-note delay, why not take the musical dialects
the people in your church already speak and fit the songs within those contexts? If your culture
speaks banjo, steel guitar, and fiddle, you’re speaking a foreign tongue by copying “Mighty To
Save” note-for-note and not using any of those elements.
Also, why not take a more “classic” song like “Because He Lives,” strip away the southern
gospel quartet feel of its inception in the 1970s, and, in its place, make it a classic rock power
ballad (as big or small, sonically, as you want to push your people) if the people you are
reaching and trying to reach speak the dialect of Lynyrd Skynyrd?
The point is, your music speaks a language. Missionaries are much more effective speaking to
people in a way they can understand it.