Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Cultural Divide

One phenomenon I am seeing in Latin America in particular, and to a lesser degree in Africa, is a separation between church music and the music of daily life. This is deeply concerning to me because I believe worship is a way of life we are all called to. It is our primary purpose for being. And so we need to learn to worship in every word we say, every action we take, every thought. How can we do this if we see worship as something we do in a specific location or on a specific date and time? This is where having this cultural divide leads.

The cultural divide between Sunday Christianity and everyday living is wide already in the United States. And churches have been fighting against it heavily for a decade now. In Ghana, West Africa, at least they still have the holistic view, arising from African traditional life and beliefs, that all of life is spiritual and therefore, who you are spiritually, relates to who you are in every moment. This is helpful in fighting off the cultural divide. But in Latin American churches, particularly in Brazil and Mexico, what I see too much of is American songs from Vineyard and Integrity, translated into Spanish or Portuguese, using the same instrumental style and arrangement as the original American recordings. In the meantime, the rich musical traditions of Brazil (bossa nova, forro, samba, etc.) and Mexico (mariachi, nortano, etc.) are being treated as outside and worldly. Christians see these as things Godly people do not associate with, and this is to the great detriment of the church's relationships with the world they live in. It is leading them into the cultural divide. Now Christians listen to this music at work, shopping malls, street corners, on the radio, etc. But they just associate that with the secular half of their lives.

Why is this a problem? Because the Bible teaches that Christianity is a way of life. You cannot be a Christian in one area of your lives and not others. And because of the rich musical culture of these countries, and the connections people make with music to various activities, this creates a divide. Anyone who avoids these traditional types of music as sinful will have trouble relating to everyone else. And those who try and move between the two worlds find themselves pulled in two directions. Even worse, Christians lose touch with their own culture. And this not only hurts witness by creating a sense that Christians are set apart, different, or even "geeks" but it creates a situation where Christians find themselves unable to relate culturally to those whom they feel called to witness too. Furthermore, people being witnessed to often think they have to leave the music they love and everything associated with it to become Christians. And that is a very challenging thing to do. So... many give up.

Ever since our first workshop in Ghana in July 2000, I have worked to help natives look at their music through new eyes and critical eyes, but not culturally critical, asking questions about quality: How do the songs we sing match up with the Biblical message we are promoting? How does the musical setting/language/style match with people's daily experience? How does it further the teaching of the pastor? How can we use songs more effectively? Do the lyrics tell us everything we need to know or leave unanswered questions? And so on and so forth. And I have encouraged them to write songs for congregational use. Some have been successfully adapted into the churches, including some I wrote or cowrote with students. And some have been retired because of failure to answer questions.

As I prepare to work in Brazil and Mexico, I know of movements that are started in Brazil to use traditional musical styles and redeem them in Christian's eyes. There are people teaching the truth that all creative gifts are from God even if they are used sinfully by depraved humanity. But the styles themselves are not evil and if used with good lyrics and written with care, can be useful to churches. I hope this movement has started in Mexico also. I hope they can make the music their own and really use it to connect people more fully to the church and to their daily lives. This can only serve to make them stronger Christians and be a stronger witness to the world. And the world needs that more than ever.

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