February 8, 2019

Off the page and into hearts

Written by  Glenna Sollenberger
Glenna Sollenberger displays a pan flute. Glenna Sollenberger displays a pan flute.

Ethnomusicology is the study of musical styles and their respective cultures around the world. As an ethnomusicologist, EMM worker Glenna Sollenberger is passionate about helping every culture understand the Scriptures in ways that are meaningful to them. Glenna invites you to explore mission work through music among five different people groups.

Have you ever had a song get stuck in your head? Music is a powerful tool for remembering important messages — or maybe what an advertiser wants you to remember! It affects us physically and emotionally in ways that cannot be accomplished through words alone. Since music is such a powerful form of communication, we encourage people around the world to develop Christian music in their local music styles — the styles that communicate best in their culture.

Quechua | Peru

Romulo Sauñe was a national Bible translator for the Ayacucho Quechua language — he was also a musician. He knew that the Psalms were originally written to be sung. His wife, Donna, shared with me that when he translated the Psalms for his people, he made the words fit the rhythms of the Andean music style. For example, in his translation of Psalm 121, each verse has the same number of phrases, words, and syllables. All eight verses can easily be sung to the simple melody he wrote for the psalm.

Yanomani | Brazil

Steve Anderson is another Bible translator who recognized the value of music and other cultural forms of communication. The Yanomami have a means of communication called “trade talk.” They recite the news in a rhythmic style to make it easier to remember. Steve wondered if trade talk could be used to communicate Scripture, so he set the book of James to trade talk and sent a recording to a Yanomami village. Several months later, when he returned to the village, he was greeted with a recitation of James 1 in trade talk.

Jamamadi | Brazil

The Jamamadi people are another group that has used music to transform their culture. Missionary Bob Campbell shared that when they began to “walk the Jesus trail,” they didn’t have Christian music in their language. So they began to compose Christian songs for their ceremonies and rituals. For example, when a girl matured physically into a young lady, the village would celebrate the occasion. When they became followers of Jesus, they wrote new songs for the ceremony and transformed it into a time of dedicating her life to God.

Also, the men would sing hunting songs as they left the village. After their conversion they wrote new hunting songs, “I am walking the Jesus trail. Won’t you come with me?” By writing Christian songs for all occasions, the Jamamadi made their Christian faith a part of their everyday lives.

Nomads* | a sensitive location in South America

One group in the Amazon region could only be reached through singing. The Nomad people have a unique language and culture. All new information and important messages are sung, not spoken. Through the years, several missionaries had tried to share with them about Christ, but the people couldn’t seem to remember much of what the missionaries had told them. Then, Susan* learned how to sing in the Nomad musical style. She wrote simple songs and began singing her testimony about her love for Jesus and His love for all people, including the Nomads. Whenever she sang, people would come running to listen. For the first time, someone was sharing the gospel with the Nomads in a culturally appropriate way.

Then, Susan took an even bolder step. Before they believed in Jesus, the Nomads would stay up all night when the moon was full and worship the spirits of the jungle. After much prayer, Susan began worshiping Jesus at night during the full moon, just like the Nomads did. When they heard her singing to Jesus, they stopped worshiping the spirits and started singing with her as she shared her faith in Jesus. Before long, Susan was singing Bible stories for them — the people understood them and talked about what they meant. Now that they have finally heard the message in a culturally appropriate way, there are Nomads who follow Jesus.

Hindus | India

This final example comes from a Hindu context. Peter Hicks and Chris Hale grew up in India as missionary kids. They were familiar with the Hindu practice of worshiping the gods through bhajans, simple songs that help the singer connect emotionally with the Hindu gods they are singing to. Peter and Chris recognized the value of bhajans for worship, so they began arranging and performing Christian bhajans. They also began to host Hindu-style worship nights where people of all religions could come together to sing bhajans with them. These bhajan singing events are a meaningful form of worship for Christians as well as a culturally appropriate way to introduce Hindus to Christ. Their Hindu friend asked, “Why do you sing only to Yeshu [Jesus]?” Peter and Chris replied, “Yeshu is the only God who has saved us, so how can we sing to another? We long to share our own experience of Yeshu with anyone that wants to know.”

Your culture

What about your culture? Are there music forms that you could use for Christian purposes? The goal of Christian ethnomusicologists is to find creative ways to get Scriptural truths “off the written page and into the hearts and lives of the people.” Christian music forms in a variety of cultural styles are great ways to help us grow spiritually and live out our faith every day.

*Names changed for sensitivity reasons.

Glenna Sollenberger serves as a library cataloger for Dallas International University (formerly known as the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics). She and her husband, Marty, are associated EMM workers, serving along with their son Paul with Wycliffe Bible Translators in Dallas, Texas. To support their work, contact Barry Freed.

This article appears in the January/February 2019 issue of Missionary MessengerSign up to receive more inspiring stories like this one in our magazine.