It’s like a scene from a movie… indigenous people sitting upright in pews as missionaries lead the congregation to sing Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah while they conduct and play the pump organ.
Locals sit there trying to imitate, making little sense of the foreign language or the strange music. What’s produced sounds like a nonsensical cacophony…
“Actually this is a scene from the movie The African Queen, set in 1914, but the scene represents all too well how music was often used by missionaries in the past,” says Maria Custodio, who leads SIM International Arts, as the mission tries to find more opportunities for creative people to serve in places where Jesus is not known.
“Now picture a scene from the present, where a group of believers from the Bla’an tribe are assembled in the southern Philippines,” adds Maria.
“They talk about all the different types of artistic forms music, dance, drama, visual arts and verbal arts that they have in their culture. They think about which artistic forms would be appropriate and effective for teaching people about God.
“Then they start creating — the old ladies start dancing a dance-drama to depict the story of Jonah; the youth start singing in their language a song that teaches about God; and a pastor starts chanting about Jesus in traditional Bla’an style. They comment on how they finally feel that they can be fully Bla’an and yet follow Jesus with all of their lives.”
Maria insists arts missionaries can act as facilitators at events like the creative session with the Bla’an believers “to encourage them to create artistic works for evangelism, worship and discipleship.”
The focus is not necessarily on artistic forms that make sense to the missionaries, but on forms that make sense to the locals they are trying to reach out to.
“This is just one of the many things that a creative person can do on the mission field,” says Maria.
“As missionaries aim to communicate the gospel, we frequently default to the methods of communication that we are used to. But the question is how can a creative person use their gifts meaningfully in participants’ art forms that are deeply connected to their ethnic identities?” she asks.
Maria is an ethno-musicologist — someone who studies music in particular cultural contexts and is an expert in the role music plays in the lives of people living in a particular geographic location.
Maria’s background in music strongly points to the ministry she has ended up in. Back in Australia, she taught clarinet and saxophone and performed in world music bands. She now works in the Philippines among the Bla’an tribe, with her husband and small daughter.
“Artistic expressions are heavily integrated into everyday life in many indigenous cultures, making art forms a great way of spreading Biblical messages throughout the community,” Maria explains.
“In our workshops, participants think through which of their local art forms might be appropriate to use in worship and to spread the gospel (using the Bible as their authority). Although our aim is to spread God’s word, an unexpected outcome has been seeing people working through how their Christian identity intersects with their ethnic identity.
“Participant have learnt that they can be themselves, in the community that God has placed them in, and still follow Jesus,” she says.
For more information about arts ministry, contact Maria at firstname.lastname@example.org
By Kerry Allan
Praise God that artistic expressions are an effective way to spread the gospel in many indigenous cultures.
For God to prompt people with a background in music and other creative arts to use their gifts for his glory.
For more opportunities for creative people to serve with SIM in places where Jesus is not known.