Seeing local arts redeemed

A musician shares how traditional music is building bridges to tribal villages in the Philippines.

Matt Swanton (Australia) has been working with OM since 2010, spending two years with OM’s Ship Ministry before a decade working with the creative arts team in Belgium. He and wife Femke (Netherlands) have two daughters, both born in Belgium).

Here, he shares his experiences of a trip to Palawan, a large island in the Philippines, with Inspiro Arts Alliance, a ministry of OM that serves to cultivate and empower artists globally to spark beautiful worship and witness among the least reached.

On this trip we were to train tribal church leaders in redeeming their traditional art forms for worship. Every culture on earth has its own embedded stories and art forms, this is a reflection of a creator God who made us in His image as creative too. But, just as Jesus Himself used first century language, customs, celebrations, dress, food and songs, we must do the same in every culture. Local art forms that rejoice in the Lord from their lived cultural identity can have significantly more impact than art forms from Western sources. 

Consider popular worship songs for instance. Almost any English-speaking church will be familiar with “How Great Thou Art,” and rejoice as we magnify the Lord together with power. But translations rarely carry the same lyrical ‘punch’ as the original does, and many cultures use entirely different scales, tunings and instruments that don’t intersect with Western music history at all. We must encourage believers to sing from the scriptures in their own languages and styles, as, as Wycliffe bible translators have noted, “When indigenous believers sang the scriptures in their own indigenous languages, the church flourished. Where they didn’t, they stagnated.”

Equipping tribal churches

We were based at Ethnos Training Centre, nestled deep in a valley on Palawan. Ethnos is a ministry of OM, equipping church leaders with basic theological training for leading their communities faithfully, while also teaching sustainable farming practices to cultivate renewal in their tribes.

There, we met the 25 participants, who came from three major tribal groups across the island —the Palaw’an tribe in the far south, the Batak tribe in the far north, and the Tagbanua tribe in the centre. Many had travelled for hours to come – northern Batak friends navigated 16 river crossings on their 250km motorbike trek to join us! Many of them were under the age of 30, and leading ministries while working typical tribal farming rhythms, so the timing of the training was in between farming seasons.

As a group, we worked through Vibrant Communities Through the Arts (ViCTA), a curriculum developed as an online training within OM ministries across the world. It was the first time these online materials have been adapted to an in-person context.

Beginning with a broad survey of worship in Scripture, we immediately saw the cultural distinctiveness of the participants’ relationships with the Lord: trusting in His provision through harvest seasons, feeling His strength and protection in crossing fierce rivers, sheltering in Him in the midst of typhoons, and feeling His affection as He adopts us as sons and daughters.

Heart arts

As the week progressed, we dug further into the group’s ‘heart arts’, discovering what creative forms move them to their core. Some shared worship songs, instrumental pieces, nature sounds —even a punk rock song! This song prompted a lively discussion led by Philip, one of the ministry leaders. He said, “Imagine you’re not a Christian, and a Jesus follower came to your village and shared the gospel with you, but then said you must also sing punk rock songs. Do you think you would have followed Jesus?” The trainees answered with an emphatic no, of course not, that music doesn’t connect at all with tribal culture! “So why do we do this with Western worship songs?” he asked them.

This was one of those wonderful ‘lightbulb’ moments where we saw people realise the significant influence local arts can have in gospel comprehension. We went on to explore the kinds of arts their own communities love, and the blessedness of each person and tribe having a unique engagement with beauty.

We heard how previous missionaries had discouraged the use of traditional arts, storytelling and instruments and replaced them with hymn books and a piano. As we re-evaluated these traditional art forms together in the light of Jesus’ Lordship over all creation, participants recognised how some traditional art forms and musical instruments could be redeemed and restored as fit for worship.

Philip noted that for various reasons, some of the smaller tribes were assimilating into the dominant Filipino culture, abandoning their own tribe’s unique art forms and stories in the process. “Back in Cebu, we had forgotten our cultural history and identity,” Philip told me. “We don’t want the communities on Palawan to make the same mistake we did.”

Every tribe, tongue and nation

At the end of the week, the participants led the Sunday service at a nearby tribal church. They found ways to use their own recovered art forms to tell gospel stories: a toltol (an interactive storytelling form) and a war dance recounted David’s victory against Goliath, an oyman (improvised song of thanksgiving) was used as a corporate prayer, a kudyapi (a kind of two-string guitar) was used to perform a piece inspired by birdsong as we reflected on Jesus teaching how God cares for the sparrows.

One church member was so inspired that he ran home to pull out his homemade ukulele, that had been hidden away, and proudly showed it off to us. The buzz of activity around the church that day was enough for some locals to engage with the church community for the first time.

The trainees have since returned to the communities they minister amongst, inspired to recover traditional art forms for worship and ministry. Pray with us for the participants, that they might see deep comprehension of the gospel as Jesus is seen not as some foreign imported God, but as the Lord who redeems their history and culture as well.

We’re hoping to return in 2024 to follow up with the participants, see how the training has shaped their local ministries, and (hopefully) capture some of the creativity that has emerged, so they might have resources for further inspiring their communities in the future.

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