In African cultures, music is much more than entertainment. Rather than in the West, where music can be more of a commodity to be traded or a soundtrack to our daily events, in African cultures the making of music shapes community.When encountering unique cultures, Christian missionaries generally seek to contextualize the means by which the gospel is shared and the way in which individuals learn to worship Christ. Goals of contextualization seek to maximize understanding of the gospel by matching worship expressions to a culture’s way of life. In several African cultures, music making and other significant parts of their lives involve something called ngoma.What is ngoma? Ngoma is many things: a drum, a means of making music, the experience of music, even the title of a United Methodist Hymnal.Patrick Matsikenyiri wrote, “Music – singing, dancing, playing drums – is a metaphor for and a means of ngoma.”To Swahili speakers, ngomasimultaneously embodies the synergy of music and dance.Illinois Wesleyan University Professor of Anthropology Rebecca Gearhart describes how ngomahas the “capacity to blur distinctions between categories of people and ideas.”Ngomais also recognized as a performance of music for the purposes of ritual healing.”These healing rituals frequently involve combining aspects of Christian worship with indigenous African spiritual practices; often this process leads to syncretism.
Thesis and Methodology
A primary concern in contextualizing the gospel to any specific culture is the issue of syncretism. Syncretism represents a state of contextualization where the amount of non-Christian or pre-Christian culture embraced causes the Gospel to be either significantly watered down or added to – something Scripture expressly forbids.In this paper, I will examine case studies involving ngomaand songs used by African Christians that exemplify ngoma, all with the intent of more clearly defining the nature of this cultural marker. In my exploration, I will attempt to determine if ngomashould be used in African expressions of Christian worship and if so, to what degree. Within my conclusions, I will also attempt to connect issues of ngomainvolving contextualization and syncretism to worship style concerns of many North American churches.
Patrick Matsikenyiri, Zimbabwe, and Ngoma
Michael Hawn’s book, Gather into One: Praying and Singing Globally, thoroughly orients Westerners to ngoma. Hawn points out that the Shona-English Dictionary defines ngomaas “drum.”Hawn goes on to suggest ngomabe “thought of as an active process of experiencing drumming, playing drums, or dancing to drums as well as the name of the artifact.” Patrick Matsikenyiri (b. 1937), a pivotal character in Western introduction to ngoma, is the subject of an entire chapter in Hawn’s book, Gather into One: Praying and Singing Globally.Within these forty-one pages, Hawn chronicles the story of how Matsikenyiri’s life and influence helped shape Zimbabwe and impact Western understanding of the indigenous song and culture of Matsikenyiri’s native land. Throughout his life, Matsikenyiri served as a church leader, school headmaster, District lay leader and secretary of the United Methodist Church, preacher, and music leader. Matsikenyiri’s life experiences acquaint Western Christians with the cultural dynamics and challenges of African Christianity, including contextualization and syncretism. Matsikenyiri’s story also places these two paradigms squarely at the intersection of ngoma.
While serving as a missionary for the United Methodist Church, Robert Kauffman traveled to Africa in order to study indigenous music. After focusing his efforts on Zimbabwe, Kauffman’s primary role turned to analyzing local music for the ultimate purpose of assembling songs for contextualized worship material in a future hymnal to be entitled, Ngoma.While working on this task, it became inevitable that Kauffman and Matsikenyiri would meet. As development of the United Methodist hymnal Ngomaproceeded, Matsikenyiri became Kauffman’s fellow musician and primary consultant. As he and Matsikenyiri attempted to balance contextualization and syncretism, Kauffman’s methods displayed a sensitivity towards methodological conservatism. One example of Kauffman’s conservatism came through “sometimes fitting biblical texts to existing traditional tunes or composing original church music in modified traditional styles.”Church of Sweden missionary Olaf Axelsson, close friend of Matsikenyiri, noted that Kauffman’s method for developing African worship music included the intent to “modify the traditional musical styles and forms to some degree ‘in order to get away from the accusations of being too traditional…being diplomatic so that the new music wouldn’t indicate too much of the traditional African worship.’”In contrast to the more progressive contextualization of worship music championed by Vatican II Catholic missionaries, Kauffman’s work with Matsikenyiri remained more aware of pitfalls that could lead to syncretism.
Kauffman may have staunchly guarded the use of worship music in areas that blurred the lines between faith and culture, but Kauffman was not African. As opposed to the West, where musical expressions of worship are traditionally kept within the bounds of liturgy, the same cannot be said in Africa. African folklorist and author Maurice Taonezvi Vambe notes that in African music, “nation and narration not only implicate the genre of song; songs discuss varying levels of politics and nationalism.”During Patrick Matsikenyiri’s life, political upheaval and cultural turmoil in Zimbabwe (indeed much of Africa) demanded a central place in the lives of every person. Rev. Canaan Banana, a minister and leader in Zimbabwe’s liberation movement who later became Zimbabwe’s first majority-rule president in 1980,sought Matsikenyiri’s help because of Matsikenyiri’s reputation among Christians in his country as a strong musician and worship leader.By helping Banana fit a Ndebele text to a traditional wedding tune, Matsikenyiri “placed the liberation struggle within a spiritual context” and displayed his willingness to use music within the context of worship and for the promotion of a political/cultural agenda. Though the song appears to have no title as such, this translation of the lyrics clearly demonstrates their duality of purpose and their place within the ngoma spectrum between contextualization and syncretism:
The blood of the Lamb
We are experiencing hardship
He, he, a helehe (exclamation of hope and promised victory)
The blood of the Lamb is powerful
The body of the Lord
We are experiencing hardship
He, he, a helele (an exclamation of hope and promised victory)
The body of the Lord is powerful.
Michael Hawn reports that this song, in addition to still being popular in church worship and the wider culture, was also adapted by Christians in South Africa and used in their struggle against apartheid. The South African adaptation of Matsikenyiri’s song is an even better example of how contextualization of worship music can push the lines of syncretism:
Be still O nation, don’t cry
Will fight for you
Freedom, we will get it
Will fight for you
Be still O nation, don’t cry
Mandela, our hero
is going to fight for us.
Although texts in African cultures can appear simple, Hawn points out that they also carry “layers of meaning and significance.”Matsikenyiri’s and Banana’s song demonstrates the ability of some worship songs to push the boundaries of syncretism by functioning both within liturgy and, in this case, by their ability to “sanctify the political struggle for independence.”
Ngoma in the Contextualized Worship Songs of Matsikenyiri
As Michael Hawn advanced his research into ngoma and its influence on the contextualized worship music of certain African cultures, he examined songs recommended by Patrick Matsikenyiri. One of these songs is entitled, “Jesu tawa pano”(Jesus, We Are Here). Hawn describes this song as having “a proverbial quality to it” because this colloquialism is common in many Shona Methodist worship services.Hawn point out that the use of “we” rather than “I” or “me” attests to the entire community’s role in the spiritual health of everyone who worships.One of the most significant meanings of this song for the Shona people is that Jesus is the n’anga, or healer.In a culture that reveres ancestors, Christ’s role as mediator between God and people suggest to African worshipers that Jesus is their ancestor. Hawn explains, “Christ is an ancestor to humanity as a brother through the line of Adam. As Christ is one with Mwari(God), he carries supernatural status and functions as an intercessor (mediator) for African Christians. Through prayer we enter into dialogue with this most important of ancestors.”“Jesu tawa pano”embraces ngomain a way that is similar to the story of the Apostle Paul using the altar to an Unknown God in Athens as a cultural doorway to sharing Jesus (Acts 17:22-31). “Jesu tawa pano”uses ngomato turn worshipers’ hearts toward Jesus Christ.
Iropa(By the Blood) is a song that bases itself, like many songs in the Shona language repertoire, on a cyclical structure.The cycle begins when the congregation sings “regwayana” or “we are saved.” Next the lead singer inserts the lyric, “Iropa” (by the blood) before the congregation repeats “regwayana.” The cycle of the full statement is complete when the words “By the blood (of Christ) we are saved”are sung. Cycles two and three declare that because of the blood of Christ, believers have been saved by “God’s grace” and that “we have ALL been saved.”Patrick Matsikenyiri testified that this song reminded him of his encounters with rebel guerrillas and Rhodesian troops – that God had delivered him from violence and death because of his grace demonstrated through the blood of Jesus. African theologian and the first freely elected leader of Zimbabwe, Canaan Banana, points out that because so many Africans have experiences similar to Matsikenyiri, songs of ngoma, like Iropa, can frequently seem to take on political air.Does this use of ngomacross the line from contextualization to syncretism? According to Hawn’s perspective, many African Christians would not believe so. Though this may seem inappropriate to Westerners, African cultures are accustomed to remembering God’s mighty acts of salvation and grace, even in the turmoil of political upheaval.
Matsikenyiri’s African Praise Songbookdisplays significant liturgical characteristics in the worship song, Uyai mweya wakachna (Come, Holy Spirit).This song takes the structure of a collect, a worship element commonly found in liturgically-styled worship services. The collect’s structure normally follows this order:
- Invoking God
- Recalling the witnesses of God
- Making petition through Jesus
- Giving the reason for the petition
Traditional African religion ties people’s hopes to their ancestors. Hawn notes that in some African cultures, ancestors have been called the “living dead.”As the Uyai mweya wakachnamentions the “heirs of old,” African believers remember many who have gone before them in the faith. Musically, this hymn is a combination of both Western and African forms. In Uyai mweya wakachna,a soloist sings the verses while the congregation sings a complimentary part. The congregation’s part sometimes moves in homophony with the soloist but sometimes in harmony – while displaying its own distinct rhythm.The stanzas are similar to a Western hymn; each stanza paired with a refrain in a manner similar to a Western Christian gospel song. Interestingly, the congregation’s part, seems very similar to traditional African music, displaying overlapping phrases and cyclical form.Matsikenyiri’s contextualization has taken special efforts to sensitively employ ngomaby combining African musical features and the cultural awareness to those gone before us with a distinctly Christian structure of a collect. This song seems to epitomize the best uses of ngomawhile staying well away from the downfall of syncretism.
Ritualistic Healing and Ngoma’s Ontological Tipping Point
I have sought to demonstrate how within some cultures of central and southern Africa, ngomafunctions as an agent for the contextualization of Christian liturgy and in some cultures as a catalyst for the sanctification of a political struggle for independence. Ethnomusicologists Carol A. Campbell and Carol M. Eastman observed that in the Swahili language culture of Kenya, ngomais “closely linked both in song-context and dance-form to Swahili social structure.”In this close link to indigenous social structure, Ngomacan also carry a strong connection with ritual healing. Singing and drum playing for the purposes of ritual healing have deep roots in many African cultures. In his book, Ngoma: Discourses of Healing in Central and Southern Africa,John M. Janzen shares research that indicates ngomameans both “performances of drumming, dancing, and celebration as well as ritual therapy”In addition to personal well-being, most African concepts of health include an understanding of and desire for health in the community, society, and natural order.Relating Janzen’s research, Michael Hawn points out that “ngomarituals are often a synthesis of traditional and Christian religious perspectives, as well as multilingual manifestations.”Hawn continues, writing that the African concept of healing goes deeper than in most Western settings – sometimes it is through this “deeper” movement that ngomarituals can slide beyond Christianity, producing unwanted syncretism.
An example of this sort of syncretism may be found among the Zulu people of South Africa, where there are two distinctive types of people who employ the principles and practice of ngomain order to restore people and community to health; they are the izinyanga(doctors) and theizangoma (diviners).As you can see, within the name izangoma, is the word ngoma. While “technical versatility on the drum, is not considered as crucial as the izangoma’s good will and willingness to serve,” the role of the izangomachiefly involves “functioning as a mediator between the living and the ‘living dead,’ (ancestors) – which is primarily a religious role.”The methods and role of the izangomaas traditional healers can become easily confused with a Christian pastor’s role in spiritual healing and congregational song – ontologically tipping ngomafrom the realm of contextualization into undesirable syncretism. Though this specific example comes from the Zulu people of South Africa, similarities exist involving ancestor worship across various African cultures, making this particular concern one that could reveal itself in a number of other contexts.
Case Studies Involving Ngoma
Another milieu in which the nature of ngoma may be investigated is in case studies provided by members of the International Council of Ethnodoxologists. ICE explains that their vision for the future includes “communities of Jesus followers in every culture engaging with God and the world through their own artistic expressions” while offering “networking, training, and resources for the flourishing of biblical and culturally appropriate arts.”ICE member Greg Kernaghan tells of a trip to Mozambique where he found believers gathered under a mango tree.After the morning worship and a sermon lasting forty minutes, the group sat down for lunch. One of the pastors stood up and began to sing out in a call and response style while the others responded in harmony. Because this was an oral culture, the spontaneous singing intended to review the sermon they had heard and weave its content into a memorable song so that the people could continue to meditate on the teaching and share it with others. As with all music in Africa, the song included clapping, stepping, and other kinesthetic response. Ngomawas surely present because Kernaghan’s story included the experience of music, dancing, and spiritual healing. Although means of cultural expression also used for indigenous religion had been employed, the gospel seems to have been properly contextualized without falling into syncretism – because the focus was always on God’s Word. Ngomafunctioned in this instance as a method for group meditation on the preached Word.
Another ICE representative, Roberta King, shares a story about an interaction between Western missionaries and African Christians.In King’s account, Western missionaries uncomfortably join in the corporate worship of a group of African believers. Due to the full-body posture involvement and physical expressions that the missionaries were not used to in their own worship, the Westerners refrained from joining the congregation. According to King, the missionaries were unaware that their response in worship (or lack thereof) demonstrated to the Africans that they “have sin in their lives.”Was ngomapresent in this story? There is no clear evidence of ngoma, but there is clear evidence of the importance of contextualization – especially when it comes to individual response and participation in worship.
Julie Taylor, a consultant and coordinator of anthropology and ethnomusicology and the arts for SIL International in Africa (Summer Institute of Linguistics, Inc), has labored to aid contextualization of the gospel through native art forms. Taylor shares an anecdote concerning the intersection of traditional African culture with music of the West by introducing a Sabaot language musician in Kenya named Patrick Mang’esoy.Mang’esoy taught himself to play a native Sabaot stringed instrument called thebukantiit. During his undergraduate degree in Language Studies at the Pan African Christian University of Nairobi, Mang’esoy studied the biblical Psalms. Mang’esoy came to realize that if the Israelites praised God with all of the instruments they had on hand and their praise was acceptable to God, then playing his bukantiitwould also be acceptable.One day while carrying his bukantiitto an interview, someone on the street asked him why he carried his native instrument rather than a guitar. Mang’esoy’s response is a poignant commentary on the need for contextualization without fear of using traditional musical instruments like the bukantiit:
“‘The bukantiit speaks my language. I am a Sabaot and will never claim to be a foreigner, so why should I reject what speaks to me?’ Such an instrument has nothing to do with evil or being primitive, but it is a way to deliver God’s message for my people. The guitar does not fit the natural way of speaking for us.”
Taylor recounts that when Western hymnody was originally introduced to Kenya, hymns were plagued by poorly translated texts and by melodies that were awkwardly “overlaid” with the Swahili language and wrongly “believed to be well understood through Kenya.”As native musicians like Mang’esoy have assimilated their indigenous musical styles into worship songs, qualities of Ngomawithin their cultural expressions have proved to assist in the transmission of the gospel.
Though Western missionaries do not always pass the test when it comes to contextualization, respect and affection can go a long way towards a positive reception of the gospel. ICE representative Brain Schrag tells of an experience he had in the Democratic Republic of Congo.Schrag recounts that his family and he had invested in a Bible translating project for the Mono language people. During his time among the Mono people, Schrag learned a Mono language song and how to accompany himself on a native harp. One year later, Schrag returned to meet with other missionaries and pastors to follow-up with the results of his family’s work. The trip was stalled by a rotting wooden bridge which forced them to take a twelve mile walk to the group’s destination. Along the way Schrag was continually met by people who ran to him, shaking his hand, and asking him to play and sing the song he had learned one year earlier. Schrag responded kindly each time by playing and singing. After finally arriving at the meeting, Schrag was nominated for a position that he was clearly unqualified to hold – mostly due to the affection which the Mono people for him. Ultimately Schrag was not elected, but the lesson was learned. Schrag’s willingness to love and respect the Mono people through the use of one of their cultural expressions was reciprocated. The reciprocal love between Schrag and the Mono people enabled the gospel to spread. Was ngomapresent in this story? As with Roberta King’s account, the presence of ngomais not clear. Even without positively identifying ngomain this story, proof becomes evident that there is much to be gained through demonstrating love and respect towards people of all cultures. Christians should not fear potential syncretism associated with ngomato the point that they fail to witness.
Ngoma in Contemporary Culture
Though examples of ngomaare clearly found within the documentation of scholars like Michael Hawn, Roberta King, Brian Schrag, and Greg Kernaghan, more contemporary examples of ngomacan be discovered. Some of the more interesting contemporary uses of ngomacan be found within the music of Pentecostal and Charismatic churches. As in the West, African churches find the emotional appeal of worship containing these qualities significant. Jean Ngoya Kidula describes such a worship event in his article on singing and dancing within Pentecostal churches of Nairobi, Kenya.Kidula describes the plans for a Pentecostal worship service:
Pastor White had declared that he would not preach at the service; rather, he wanted the songs to speak to the people. On the day of the event, the choir sat onstage. We had decided that we would only stand to “perform” the completely new songs. However, as soon as we started a known choir song, some members of the congregation stood up and began to sing along or even pray aloud. The choir members immediately responded by standing, and soon everyone would be up, singing from the lyric sheets that we had printed out. It was not long before Pastor White began to exhort, encourage, challenge, and evangelize the audience. What had begun as a song service, turned into a meeting that included prayers, altar calls, the laying on of hands for healing, and a celebration of praise. I was initially told the service would last an hour. Two and a half hours later we dismissed the congregation because it was getting late and sometimes dangerous after dark.
The emotional lures of Pentecostal worship proved to be unstoppable for Pastor White and his congregation. Later in his chapter, Kidula describes the qualities of African Pentecostal worship that shaped the church service – qualities that display strong identifying qualities to ngoma. Kidula writes that worship in the Kenyan Church of God, songs “function as a rhythmic tom-tom like noise for the inducing of the desired ecstasy…the Spirit moved some to dance; others to speak in unknown tongues, to jerk, or to fall in a dead trance.”The resemblance between this Kenyan Pentecostal church’s adoption of ngomaand ngoma’s use by Traditional African healing dances is remarkable. Has this particular Kenyan congregation made an appropriate use of contextualization in its handling of ngomafor the worship of God and transmission of the gospel? Or does this account demonstrate a well-intentioned attempt at contextualization that fell, sadly, into syncretism?
Another example of ngoma’s use in modern African Christianity can be recognized in the videos and music of a group named “Gospel Ngoma.” The music group, based in Johannesburg, South Africa, modestly identify themselves on their Facebook page as, “Africa’s Leading Christian and Gospel Music Group. Praise, Worship and Godly Dance. Leader Groupe Africain de Musique Chretienne. Louange, Adoration, Dance Divine.”Though Gospel Ngoma’s music can be purchased on iTunes, CD Baby, and Amazon Music, watching the group’s videos on YouTube may provide one of the best ways to understand their music and their use of ngoma. Gospel Ngoma’s music stylistically represents a fusion of physical Pentecostal worship expression, celebrative music, and African ritualistic dance – all while projecting an expectation of deliverance and healing. These qualities, which are evident in all of their music, display themselves fully in the song, “Dance for God – Heaven Shake.”During the nearly six and a-half minute song, up-beat, festive instrumental music plays, and a variety of people dance. It is worth noting that the majority of this song employs instrumental music only – without singing. From early church times of the Greco-Roman period, Christians have expressed concern that instrumental music could import elements “into the worship music that might evoke pagan rituals or entertainments.”
Another one of ngoma’s unique song components involves the use of verbal art forms that, when performed, are accompanied by instrumental music.During the Gospel-Ngoma video, the camera’s focus cuts from dancing group to dancing group while the listener is exhorted by an unseen voice performing spoken words while accompanied by instrumental music. The unseen voice also employs a tone reminiscent of African-American preachers. This type of vocal tone reflects a parallel noticed by Pedrito U. Maynard-Reid. Maynard-Reid draws attention to the similarities between African-American preachers and the African priest/medicine man.These vocal similarities help a preacher benefit from cultural connections to ngoma and help legitimize the preacher’s role as trusted spiritual leader, healer, and guide. Gospel Ngoma also exploits these vocal qualities in their song.
The words of the speaker/preacher begin by encouraging the viewer/listener to praise God. The speaker’s words also testify to his desire to praise God:
“God of love, when I think of your goodness. When I think of your mercy and grace, when I think of the price Jesus paid for me, I want to praise you – let’s stand up, let’s praise God! Let’s dance with our God in mind! Alleluia!”
Hey, I feel like I want to dance! Hey, I feel like I want to dance! I feel like I want to dance for the Lord!
Next, the tempo speeds up and the dancing becomes even more expressive. The lyrics also change. The leader then encourages the dancing worshipers:
“Shake heaven with your praise! Shake, shake, shake! Shake heaven with your praise! Hallelujah!
The lyrics promise that a benefit will be gained by “shaking heaven with our praise:”
God has blest us with spiritual blessings in heavenly places. Let’s pull them down! Pull down your blessings! Pull down your anointing! Pull down your redemption!
All treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Jesus – the Word of God.
Let’s dig it – dig the Word of God. Are you looking for treasure? Dig it!
Is there anything like a wall blocking your blessings? Surround them with praises, surround it with prayers. Declare the Word of God and the wall must come down! In the name of Jesus, the wall must come down! In the name of Jesus all knees shall bow!”
A series of non-lexical tones are then sung and chanted, followed by several of the previous lyrics. Though these lyrics may not express doctrine or theology this is considerably different from many Pentecostal congregations in the West. Within the context of many African cultures, the lyrics may produce a syncretistic result. In some African cultures, when lyrics like these are combined with dance and accompanied by the instruction that dancing will elicit healing from God, then the ngomaconnections to traditional ritualistic dance reveal themselves. Have the cultural foundations of spirit-healing dance and traditional tribal religion become an influence on African Christianity? The evidence portrayed in the music and videos from Gospel Ngoma seems to demonstrate this reality.
Syncretism: The Greatest Fear from Ngoma
Traditional African ritualistic dance can easily lead to syncretism because of its centuries-old use as a means of appeasing spirits. Traditional African religion understands that spirits roam unseen in every corner of every land. Spirits may bless your or cast pain and sorrow on your life, therefore these spirits must be appeased.Spirits come in different types. Some spirits are ancestors and the ancestor’s spirits are delineated into three subgroups; Ngoma cia aciari(the spirits of the father and mother), Ngoma chia moherega, and Ngoma cia riika.It is noteworthy that the word ngomais featured in the names of each subgroup of ancestors. In his article, “Unapproachable God: The High God of African Traditional Religion,”Tokunboh Adeyemo writes that “For the traditional African, ‘religion begins not with a belief in God but with an emotional opposition to removable evils.’”The removable evils Adeyemo describes mostly involve the divinities. The divinities are lower-level spirits who need to be appeased or removed – similar to Greek gods and goddesses. Finally, Africans believe in the Supreme Deity. The Supreme Deity is the creator and head of the spiritual realm. In traditional African religion, the Supreme Deity is far away and does not care much for the affairs of people. According to Edward John Osei-Bonsu, a person’s ability to perceive these spirits and potentially deal with them comes through the services of a spiritual healer providing mediation of the spirits and guidance using “rituals, customs, and ceremonial observances” that are conspicuously related to ngoma.
Osei-Bonsu distinguishes African Traditional Religion from African Indigenous Religion.According to Osei-Bonsu, Traditional religion is clearly not Christian. Those who practice Traditional African religion possess an understanding that many Africans have recognized for millennia, that spirits are everywhere, and the medicine man is the spiritual leader who will help you navigate and appease them. Traditional religion threatens Christianity less than Indigenous African religion. African Indigenous religion’s adherents believe that the Bible is the Word of God and that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of the world.Unfortunately, African Indigenous religion is the epitome of a syncretistic spirituality, specifically because it does accept major facets of Christianity. The problem lies in African Indigenous religion’s equal acceptance of Christianity and Tradition African religion. This melting pot approach to spirituality is expressly forbidden by the Apostle John in Revelation 22:18-19:
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.
If Christians purposefully borrow or unwittingly dabble too much in areas fully claimed by culture as belonging to the false traditional spirits (ngoma), then the gospel becomes confused or blended into meaningless ritual. Without Godly vigilance Ngomaworship practices meant to bring people close to God can end up eroding their faith from within.
Ngoma free from Syncretism?
The syncretistic cultural aspects ofNgomacan be recognized and avoided. James R. Krabill provides what may represent the first historical example of this sort of indigenous orthodoxy when he recounts the life of Ntsikana, someone Krabill identifies as “the first great Xhosa hymn writer.”Krabill documents Ntsikana (1780-1821 ca) as one of the “first converts to Christianity among the Xhosa speaking people of southern Africa.”Krabill deduces that Ntsikana first heard the gospel from London Missionary Society missionary, Dr. J. T. van der Kemp between 1799 and 1801.Fifteen years later, Ntsikana was impacted through his participation in Bible study and worship with the LMS missionary, Rev. Joseph Williams.Because Ntsikana’s interaction with missionaries was so limited, many Xhosa Christians believe that Ntsikana’s faith came directly from God. This reputation is bolstered by a story shared by Krabill concerning Ntsikana’s rejection of ngoma:
“Ntsikana reportedly saw a bright light strike his favorite ox. Later that same day he was prevented from participating in a neighbor’s festive party when a whirlwind blew up out of nowhere, requiring guests to abandon their dancing. Sensing that the Holy Spirit had entered him Ntsikana ordered his family away from their dancing, quickly took them home, and declared ‘People should pray [rather than dance]!’”
Krabill relates that in the days following this experience, Ntsikana could be heard humming chant-like tunes that he claimed he was receiving from the Holy Spirit. When similarly-inspired texts were added, these songs became the basis for an indigenous regional song bank used by Xhosa speaking Christians.The words of one of Ntsikana’s hymns, described as his ‘great hymn, is particularly poignant:
The Great God, he is in the heavens.
You are you, Shield of truth.
You are you, Stronghold of life.
The life and ministry of Ntsikana demonstrate how worship can be contextualized without digressing toward syncretism.
Roberta R. King provides additional practical ideas for musical contextualization that missionaries and worship leaders can employ to keep their worship from sliding toward syncretism. King advocates recognizing and respecting individuals or groups receiving the music being created.King believes using cultural music constitutes “a crucial step toward understanding their significance for the life of the church” without leading toward syncretism.To this end, King suggests involvement in musical performances with indigenous people.King teaches that “music as a phenomenon is universal; its meaning is not.”Recognizing the activity of making music as being one that holds a unique power to bring people together, King encourages missionaries to leverage this powerful quality of music for the spreading of the gospel. King believes the process of making music holds a natural ability to contextualize the gospel, leading King to posit her most significant idea, that “musical meaning lies within the receptor.”Relying on an anecdote involving a song-writing workshop among the Senufo people of the Ivory Coast, King addresses questions that were posed by the participants. The group’s questions hold significant implications for the use of ngoma. According to King, creators of contextualized music must use a “theology of music-in-context.”King explains this idea by describing how she and her team assisted the Senufo artists to think biblically and theologically through the lyrics of their songs with the express purpose of keeping their music from falling into syncretism. King’s suggestions serve as a poignant set of guidelines for both missionaries and domestic Western church planters hoping to contextualize the gospel in order to reach the lost while not crossing an invisible line into syncretistic activity.
When does contextualization become syncretism? I believe the answer was found within the case study of ICE representative Greg Kernaghan’s observation of worshipers in Mozambique.Singing, clapping, and dancing were all employed in a religious and spiritually healing experience that indicated the presence of ngoma. In this instance, the use of ngomawas directed by Scripture and the preached Word. Worshipers were using culturally appropriate means (ngoma) as a tool for worship and meditation on the gospel. If a line in the sand exists delineating a clear separation between contextualization and syncretistic worship, that line appears to be found in the direct application of Scripture.
In Africa, the potential of worship slipping into syncretistic practice through the appropriation of indigenous or popular styles may seem a much greater danger than in the West – but is it greater? Especially since the advent of modern/contemporary worship, many North American churches might ponder when culturally sensitive artistic expressions depart from the realm of worship and enter the arena of entertainment? Does the use of popular forms of entertainment in Western evangelical worship represent our own fall into syncretistic ritual – if Scripture is not employed as the center and source for our worship activity, then perhaps in some cases, it does.
In this paper, I have examined case studies involving ngomaalong with songs and videos used by African Christians exemplifying the use of ngoma. I have explored historical and modern expressions of ngoma, more clearly defining the nature of this cultural phenomenon. I have discovered evidence that ngomais currently used and should continue to be used in African expressions of Christian worship – with the key caveat that worship maintains the centrality of Scripture. My research indicates that without maintaining the purposeful primacy of the gospel, cultural expressions of worship have a great tendency to devolve into syncretistic ritual that endangers the eternal souls of its participants. Discussions concerning ngoma,contextualization, and syncretism should not be bound to African or world culture contexts. My research in preparing this paper leads me to realize another application of ngomafor the worship style concerns of North American churches. By examining ngoma’srole as the ontological tipping point between contextualization and syncretism, North American churches can plainly observe the need to focus worship on Scripture and retelling the gospel story. Western evangelicalism must learn from ngomathat reaching lost people with a culturally relevant gospel message can never assimilate so much cultural expression that the Word of God is diluted into entertaining and syncretistic programming.
Adeyemo, Tokunboh. “Unapproachable God: The High God of the African Traditional.” in The Global God: Multicultural Evangelical Views of God. Edited by Aída Besançon Spencer and William David Spencer, 127-45. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998.
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Julie Taylor, “Coexistence of Casual and Cultural Expressions of Musical Values Among the Sabaot of Kenya” in The Oxford Handbook of Music and World Christianities. Edited by Suzel Ana Reily and Jonathan M. Dueck (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016), 88-9.
Brian Schrag, “The Love Motive,” In Worship and Mission for the Global Church: An Ethnodoxology Handbook, Edited by James R. Krabill (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2013), Reprinted with permission. Original article was published under the title, “Why Local Arts Are Central to Mission,” in International Journal of Frontier Missiology24, no. 4 (Winter 2007), 212.
Jean Ngoya Kidula, “Singing the Lord’s Song in the Spirit and with Understanding: The Practice of Nairobi Pentecostal Church,” in The Spirit of Praise: Music and Worship in Global Pentecostal-Charismatic Christianity, Edited by Monique M. Ingalls and Amos Young (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2015), 135-6.
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Gospel Ngoma, Andre, “Dance for God – Heaven Shake,” Filmed [April, 2013], YouTube video, 6.22 Posted [April, 2013], https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LRewK0p9seY.
C. Michael Hawn, and Swee Hong Lim, “Cross-Cultural Communication Through Symbol,” in Worship and Mission for the Global Church: An Ethnodoxology Handbook, Edited by James R. Krabill (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2013), 133.
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Krabill, “Ntsikana, The First Great Xhosa Hymn Writer,” 21
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