On Missional Mission-Drift and Psalmody

One of the great concerns of missional theology is the translation of theological language and practice across cultures. While the truth of the gospel does not change, the mode of communicating it can and must depending upon location. This was one of the arguments for the adaptation of rock and pop music in worship. Every musical style and genre will eventually run into the same problem: diminishing returns crossing cultures. A seminary professor of mine once told a story of visiting an evangelical church in Japan that was a slavish copy of American churches. The church had a praise team that dressed like a caricature of American worship leaders and played translated CCM. And it didn’t work, because it failed to account for the differences in American and  Japanese culture.

As American and western culture changes, the use of rock music in worship stops meeting the needs that lead to its employment in the first place. Instead, it has begun killing off congregational singing, not just in volume, but in the sort of songs that were selected. In a church that a friend formerly attended, the congregation was actually told that the goal was to only hear the band, so that visitors would hear the best worship the congregation had to offer. Very few churches are that blatant or self-aware, but this is a natural example of mission drift of musical style.

However, psalmody, particularly unaccompanied psalmody, is immune from this. David Robertson (a Free Church of Scotland minister) responded to the Sing! Conference this week put on by Keith and Kristyn Getty but writing about the importance and usefulness of singing psalms. His congregation once exclusively sang psalms, but has moved into an inclusive-psalmody model. His church understands the beauty and effectiveness in Christian discipleship and worship in singing the Psalms, even with other music. He outlined some responses to a few objections here, which includes pointing out that singing psalms is one the few instances where the worship of the church does not come with European, colonial baggage. It is simply scriptural, and therefore translates across all cultures and times.

Andrew Roycroft (a Baptist minister in England) wrote in response to Robertson’s posts a compelling account of the impediments, and overcoming those roadblocks in his congregation, to singing the psalms. Roycroft has been delightfully surprised at the power and beauty of singing the psalms. I suspect that most American congregations, church plants, and missional communities would feel the same way.