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The arts: a powerful communicator

By Roch Ntankeh

Not long ago, it was uncommon to encounter missionaries whose calling was rooted in the arts. “Arts and mission have not always been the best friends” (Krabill 2023), * leaving the arts absent from the work of missionary societies and organizations. Now, however, this paradigm is evolving. The arts—spanning theatre, dance, music, oratory, painting, sculpture, and a myriad other forms—are becoming acknowledged as intrinsic to missions, comparable to Bible translation, education, health, and more.

Unfortunately, Africa appears largely untouched by these developments. Despite the growing number of artists joining Western missionary societies, recognizing the arts as essential to Missio Dei still presents a challenge. This disparity reveals the urgency of strategies to highlight the arts’ pivotal role in spreading the Gospel and worshiping the Lord in Africa.

A unifying force

The arts, particularly those rooted in local culture, can be harnessed as a communicative force that transcends cultural and linguistic limits. Whether conveyed through the resonance of music, the eloquence of dance, the strokes of a paintbrush, the craftsmanship of sculpture, the intricacies of weaving, or other artistic forms, these creative expressions can evoke profound emotions. Additionally, they have the power to surmount social barriers, fostering harmonious relationships between individuals and groups—even those with divergent religious beliefs.

I had the privilege of participating in the Africa Sings Festival, a Christian event held in a predominantly Muslim village in Benin. Africa Sings is committed to “utilizing music as a tool for peacebuilding, peacemaking, and reconciliation between different ethnic groups and faiths in West Africa” (www.africasings.com).

Local arts, when used appropriately, are a potent vehicle for conveying the Good News.

The diverse turnout with a majority of young people impressed me. People representing multiple faiths gathered from across the region, including Christians and Muslims and their respective pastors and imams. This diverse assembly underscored the unifying influence of the arts within the African missionary context. The artistic synergy demonstrated during the festival transcended religious and societal divisions, producing profound experiences.

 The arts for missions

On this continent, we generally view what is African as inferior, and instead, prefer Western forms which do not always fit the local context. However, local arts, when used appropriately, are a potent vehicle for conveying the Good News of the Kingdom. They function as a heart language, nurturing connections among individuals and groups who, in other circumstances, might seem worlds apart. We need a paradigm change regarding local arts, and we can begin by promoting their use in the Church and on the mission field through seminars, workshops, festivals, and artistic creations that spark interest and discussions. We should also review the curriculum in theological institutions and mission training schools to teach about arts and missions in ways that will be useful for the pastor or missionary on the field.

 Contextualization and syncretism

Despite the arts’ potential contribution in missions, its integration into African contexts—especially local expressions—must overcome obstacles. Some people fear the risk of syncretism and the complexity of contextualization. Effective contextualization, however, opens pathways for deeper assimilation of the Gospel within each cultural context. In contrast, syncretism hinders this assimilation by diluting the purity of the Gospel message. Hence, our approach must be steeped in prayer, insight, and foresight, and implemented with patience and love. This love speaks to the need to gain a thorough understanding of the local, cultural, and spiritual contexts, which are indispensable if the arts are to be bridges that unite hearts. Within this delicate equilibrium lies the transformative potential of arts in missions: unique opportunities to share the universal message of Christ’s love intricately woven into the rich tapestry of the world’s cultural and artistic diversity.

*Krabill, J. R. (2023, SEPT/OCT). Why Arts & Mission Belong Together. Arts, Worship, and Mission in Today’s Church: Celebrating 20 years of the Global Ethnodoxology Network, 45:5, pp. 8-10

Roch Ntankeh, PHD, is an Arts Training Specialist and a member of the Global Ethnodoxology Network (GEN). He serves as a professor of missiology and ethnodoxology at the Cameroon Faculty of Evangelical Theology. He also consults for various organizations, where he frequently conducts composition workshops in Africa.

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