Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Myth of Missional Music

Recently, Matt Olson, the president of now Northland International University (formerly Northland Baptist Bible College), sent an open letter to constituents explaining recent decisions Northland has made. I got a copy of it myself from him in an email. Olson seems to be attempting to convince people that they should not perceive Northland as changing despite its changes. One of its changes, that he would like people to understand is not a change, even though it is a change, is in the music. Here's what he writes:

Philosophically, it (Northland's music) is unchanged. Let me say it again…unchanged. What we have always been trying to do, and will continue to do into the future, is to make sure Northland’s practice of music (as with every aspect of the Christian life) is built principally on clear teachings from the Bible rather than on reactionary, extra-biblical reasoning that has proven to be troublingly insufficient when exported to cultures beyond American borders. We believe the Bible is sufficient to bring us to right and God-honoring positions regardless of time and culture. Even though we haven’t changed our music at a philosophical level, we are changing our music on a missional level. Where you will see changes is in our intent to expand our training to prepare students for worship and music globally. This only makes sense because, as you may have noticed, Northland International University has become more and more an international, global ministry with a passion to take the gospel where it is not proclaimed. Over 41% of the world’s population is still without a Gospel witness. This has become our students’ burden. Our Director of Fine Arts, Kevin Suiter, has recently informed us he does not believe he can take us forward in this way and thus has announced his plans to move on. We wish Kevin and Grace the best and thank them for the investments they have made here.

Among many others, my question is: What does music have to do with a Gospel witness? That is, how does music affect the mission? That is, what is changing music on a "missional level"? I think it is interesting that a lot folks have come out in support of Olson and his "courage" for making this move at Northland. And all of this is for the mission. How could anyone question it or criticize it, if it is for the mission? I'm sure I just don't understand. I can't understand. Oh, I understand. It's clear enough. And the professing anti-Finney crowd is showing favor to what Northland and Olson are doing.

Your choice or style of music, of course, has nothing to do with the mission, unless you don't understand the mission, which, it's obvious, Northland does not. Well, it is a major part of the mission if you read and follow the Purpose Driven, Rick Warren, method of mission. "Missional" is more than a code-word today. Northland is being influenced to a large degree by the modern missional movement, which perverts a scriptural understanding of the incarnation, and it's why Olson thinks the music at Northland must change to be missional. This idea is strongly associated with N. T. Wright, Mark Driscoll, Dan Kimball, Alan Hirsch, Brian McClaren, and others. You will find the following language all over in missional material:

The Missional Church defines itself in terms of its mission—being sent ones who take the gospel to and incarnate the gospel within a specific cultural context. The essence of missionality begins by looking outward.

You'll also read this type of wording:

As missionaries sent by Jesus, every Christian must learn to exegete their surrounding culture, uncovering the language, values, and ideas of the culture. Using this information, they take steps to reach people with the gospel message in the context of the surrounding culture.

At the root of missional is a severe twisting of the doctrine of Christ, especially His incarnation. It corrupts the point of the incarnation, and, therefore, the deity and humanity of the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus didn't come to take on our culture. He came for us to take on His. It also deviates a biblical doctrine of salvation. The gospel is not helped along at all by the contextualization of the gospel.

The evangelism part of the mission, after which is baptism and teaching to observe all things Christ commanded (Mt 28:19-20), is preaching the gospel. Evangelism will not at all be aided by acceptance of the music of a particular culture. Evangelism efforts will not be hindered or helped one way or the other with music. Music should not be used in evangelism. It does not have an evangelistic purpose. To bring music into the mission equation shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the effectiveness and sufficiency of the gospel. It is more akin with a Charles Finney "new measure" than it is anything scriptural. Northland is taking something worse than a step of compromise here. And many fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals and other evangelicals are encouraging it.

Northland is also connecting with Grace Community Church and Master's College in Southern California by inviting Rick Holland to preach in chapel. Olson visited with the key leaders there, including Phil Johnson, who has written (an entire series of articles, also consider this Spurgeon quote from him) and preached against the missional movement and strategy. Has it occurred that the new friendship with these above mentioned men and this missional approach clashes with each other, or is it that this particular point is too tertiary to affect their fellowship with one another? I do find it amazing the defense of the language and this movement of Olson. I haven't read anything said in public against this new teaching and direction. Where is the outcry? Where are the Jack Hyles critics?

I believe that it is true that this is likely not a major philosophical shift for Northland, and neither would it be an issue for much of fundamentalism today. Much of fundamentalism has been using music for "evangelism" for a long time. And you've been able to see that with the "evangelists" involved with Northland. The composition (style) and the words of fundamentalist music have long been written with an intent to have some kind of effect on evangelism or revival. Billy Graham and many other Southern Baptists also have fit quite nicely with this idea of missional with their methods and music. Now rap and hip-hop are approved evangelistic methodology even among the reformed in the Southern Baptist Convention (read Mark Dever). All of this ties in quite well with the missional movement.

Some of those praising Olson also would indicate that they are exegetical and theological. If they are fundamentalists at all, they want to be known as the theological fundamentalists as opposed to a kind of methodological or movement fundamentalists. This situation exposes this not to be true. The lack of theological precision here, the sloppiness, and the lack of discernment is astounding. How could this happen? I think it betrays a covetousness for the things of this world. Theology is easily forsaken for what will keep them fitting in with their worldly ways. They think that evangelism, the mission, is at stake if they don't contextualize a little.

Part of the issue with missional relates to urban church planting and foreign missions. America's cities have so far moved away from the reverent and the holy that there is a huge chasm between a biblical culture and that of the city. To the new missional, you don't really care for these inner city folk or for the pagan on the foreign field if you don't take on their culture. You aren't reaching them like Jesus did. You aren't eating with them per se. And you aren't getting in their "sandals." So they ship in their instrumentation and their improvisation and their rhythms, and now, see, they really care like Jesus did. They've been incarnational and missional. The gospel can't get you all the way to these people, so you've got to reach some on your own. Give and take is necessary. You go a little ways, they come a little ways, you go, they come, until you meet somewhere in the middle. That's how it can get done. And if you're not succeeding, not using these methods, this is where you're failing. And it's because you don't love them like the missional people do.

On top of all of this is the deep disrespect for God and the true worship of Him. This movement is so contrived and has targeted the lusts of its audience to work them with their version of the gospel. God is not worshiped in this. He is disgusted with this. It does not at all center on God, Who He is and what He wants, but on what will please people. In so doing, its makers also produce a distortion of true spirituality, leading their adherents into a false measure of their own fellowship with God. True affection for God is at stake. Men with stoked passions mistake those feelings for some movement of the Holy Spirit.

These men involved at Northland have long relied on worldly methods, the ox-carts of men's invention, to reach their religious goals. The ones they used are increasingly either out of fashion or just don't "work" any more. As Olson wrote, now he wants to see "greater things." If you pray for greater things, you don't need the new measures Olson and Northland, among many others, believe are required to have those greater things fulfilled. And the truth is, we already have the greatest thing, the gospel itself.


Anonymous said...

I suppose that it never occurred to Dr. Olson that the reason "reactionary, extra-biblical" American ideas about Christian music don't export well as an evangelistic tool to the lost overseas is because their native music is, by and large, deeply steeped in satanism and rebellion against their Creator.

Sort of like AMERICA'S popular music is - which is why the old hymns have so little appeal to your typical lost person here.

In other words, when people overseas get saved and really get serious about living for the Lord, they will reject the sort of music Dr. Olson wants to use with them the same way people in this country who are really serious about living for the Lord do.

As an aside, it's interesting his use of the term "extra-biblical." I haven't seen any defences of traditional Christian music that rely on anything but arguments from Scripture as their basis.

But his statement is an expression of that all-too-common hermeneutical methodology used by the "music is amoral," contemporary crowd - any argument from Scripture that they personally disagree with gets dismissed as "extra-biblical" whether it really is or not.

Gregory said...


Did it ever occur to you that there is more than one understanding of the word "missional?" After reading through the letter again, in no way, shape or form did I come to any conclusion such as the one that you have droned on about here. NIU is not in any way trying to align themselves with the "missional movement" nor the men that you have mentioned, especially the likes of McClaren.

Furthermore, you ask "what does music have to do with a Gospel witness?" Certainly as a pastor you would understand the importance of music in the church. Many students from NIU are preparing to serve the Lord in a non-western culture in which the western methodology of music would not work or be appropriate. Western styles of music do not typically connect in many places of the world, some of which would be the pacific islands, Africa, and even Russia. So NIU is working to prepare their students with music that aligns more missionally, that is, to their mission of "preparing servant leaders for great commission living."

The only reason the section on music was included in that letter was to make explanation for why Kevin Suiter did not feel that he could take the department in that direction.

I would challenge you to not be like most bloggers in which you fire shots first and ask questions second. It doesn't sound like by your post that you contacted anyone at NIU and confirmed your interpretations of Matt Olson's letter. Please be a little more cautious with your pen, er, keyboard in the future.

Kent Brandenburg said...


I really was going to write part two in which I dealt with the very thing you said. How could we be thinking the exact same thing, when you are in the witness protection program and I'm in California?

Kent Brandenburg said...


I'm very sensitive to the charge that I misrepresented someone, yet at the same time understanding that people often say they were misrepresented when I've hit bullseye. In this case, nothing you've said has detracted me from the latter position. I think you should take into serious consideration what I've written here.

The content of the one paragraph Matt Olson wrote on music is a glove fit with the popular meaning of "missional." He wasn't confusing in his use of missional. What he said fit right into what is being written about missional.

Music is important in the church. It has nothing to do with evangelism. Nothing. Just the opposite. It isn't missional no matter how you want to use the word. Thinking music is missional is part of the root problem.

As far as "connecting" with other cultures with music. The point of the music is not to connect with other cultures, but to praise God. You want to connect with God, and there is a music that does connect with God that is just biblical---it isn't western, eastern, northern, or southern. Wherever we go, we should teach the new converts the kind of music that would honor God, which also happens to clash with western culture as well, let alone whatever their culture might be.

I would ask that you would consider some critical thinking as it would apply to what Matt Olson is proposing. Don't assume someone criticizing these changes is against Northland.

Thanks for coming over and commenting.

d4v34x said...

"Evangelism will not at all be aided by acceptance of the music of a particular culture."

How is accepting acceptable music of another culture different than Hudson Taylor growing a pony tail and dying his skin darker with tea?

Kent Brandenburg said...


As you know, there is no "gospel according to Hudson Taylor," upon which we should rely for faith and practice. I think your question says something a little different than what my sentence asserts. We may not even be talking about the same thing. Music itself doesn't do anything for evangelism and doesn't aid it. Music isn't evangelistic.

I don't think growing a pony tail helped Hudson Taylor either. Perhaps he thought it did, but we really don't know how things would have turned out if he didn't. His experience isn't authoritative. Maybe he thought he was obeying 1 Cor 9, to the Chinese he became Chinese. And I think that is fine as long as it is also obedient to Scripture.

Thanks for the comment.

d4v34x said...

I Corinthians 9 is exactly where I was headed. I think we can do the same with music if it is true and beautiful despite being strange to us.

I don't defend anything specifically at Northland because I am largely ignorant of exactly what the changes mean practically.

Kent Brandenburg said...

The way his paragraph reads, there is no way they are talking about a 1 Cor 9 type of situation. It would have been easy to say it that way. Acceptable music is acceptable music. Wasn't acceptable music already acceptable? If you are changing your music to something different and before it accepted everything acceptable, well, then now the standard is changing, and for evangelism? Music has nothing to do with evangelism no matter how you examine it. Are you saying you don't understand what I've written here, D4?

Fundamentalism has long perverted its music in order to evangelize, designing its music around unbelievers. However, the same people that have criticized that Finneyism are the ones embracing this situation. Are you one of them?

d4v34x said...

I reject Finneyism. I don't defend Northland's move (regarding the music). I was probing the meaning of a specific statement you made.

I don't think all acceptable music (or all acceptable art) is deemed acceptable by everyone in our, broadly speaking, circles.

I'm not talking "excitements" here. I'm talking not causing any unnecessary offense.

d4v34x said...

"I haven't seen any defences of traditional Christian music that rely on anything but arguments from Scripture as their basis." ~TQC

Where in the Bible does it say that melody=spirit, harmony=intellect, and rhythm=body? Or haven't you read that defense?

Kent Brandenburg said...


We seem like we're on the same page here then.

Kent Brandenburg said...


I would defend a priority of the spirit and the mind in my scriptural anthropology, the body taking the back seat. And I believe much music switches that priority. For instance, bring the body under subjection. Often, I've found the follow-up to this is: So you're against drums? Or, You don't like a beat?

And you know the scriptural basis for the other side is that there is not scripture at all for music. After all, the Bible doesn't have a play button.

Anonymous said...

Where in the Bible does it say that melody=spirit, harmony=intellect, and rhythm=body? Or haven't you read that defense?

Actually, I haven't.

Of course, I'm also still trying to find in the Bible where it says God approves of using rap music to win souls, so maybe I'm not as well-heeled as I ought to be.

Chad said...

Seriously? This article is riddled with outrageous slander tactics and argumentative fallacies. So let me get this straight again...Matt Olson's using the term "missional" in his letter (a term which has been a part of their "mission statement") automatically makes him now follower of Brian McLaren, Rick Warren, Driscoll, N.T. Wright, and the like? Unbelievable.

Northland has little to worry about when its blogging critics are launching the kind of idiotic charges you're making, sir.

Kent Brandenburg said...

I'd like to have one example of one of those tactics Chad.

Because you said that "missional" was in the "mission statement," I was curious and looked it up here--- ---and "missional" was not anywhere on the "mission statement" page. Maybe you could direct me to that.

Second, even if it were, what Olson describes in his own letter smacks of the popular meaning of "missional." That was not a term I had heard at all until the "missional" movement. The men I listed are the men associated with "missional" and for theological reasons. So it's not just their name, but their theology and practice, which mirrors this same idea that Northland is proposing.

I'm going to hope that you don't represent Northland, but since Matt Olson said you could jump around an idiot for the glory of the Lord, I'm afraid I'm not....sir. You seem to be about par for the course.

Bobby said...

The Lord has allowed me to preach in many different areas of the USA, in Canada, in India, and in the Arctic with the Inuit. Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs were sung without the "missional" heathen music of any of those cultures. . . I didn't notice a lack of ability to evangelize or "connect" with the people because we weren't "incarnational."

Lord willing, I'll be in China soon with a dear friend who has been there for eight years. He is seeing souls saved and a solid church established and he still has not grown his hair long or caught any flies with his chopsticks. When he speaks the sound is still in synch with the movement of his lips. Hmmm.

Maybe he needs to learn about "missional" so he can REALLY serve the Lord in China?

Micah said...

Let's be clear...Maclaren's idea of missional and Driscoll's idea of missional are in two different theological hemispheres.

So Olson's concept of missional is probably different than any listed in this blog. That being said, and I've read the entire statement he released, at least on this topic the waters are more muddy than clear.

My guess is that he is equivocating relational and missional, but perhaps not by intent, but by lack of detail. Certainly Kent is correct that music is not inherently designed for evangelism. But most people on the conservative end of "missional" discussion (which is dying as a faddish term, by the way) correlate more concepts than evangelism within the bucket of missional thought.

So someone can be relational within a missional context without expressly witnessing, i.e. kind to a neighbor consistently to build trust. So a church may use a type of music within their ministry that fits their context and culture in order to build relational capital so to speak. This is not inherently evangelistic, yet it is consistent with their mission.

Maybe he didn't have the space to clarify, maybe he didn't want to clarify, maybe he doesn't recognize the nuance, maybe he was intentionally vague. In any case "missional" is a broad topic not suited for pigeonholes.

Kent Brandenburg said...

Hi Micah,

I believe every name mentioned takes some common ground on the fundamental principles of the concept of "missional" that come out of, I believe, a wrong theology. I recognize there is nuance, but I believe the whole concept is wrong no matter what the degree.

Kent Brandenburg said...


If I was drinking pepsi or coke and it was in my mouth and I read your comment about the flies and chopsticks, I would have spewed it all over my keyboard. Perhaps in so doing, I could become relational and perhaps missional with computer nerds.

Bruce said...

Wow. Reading this entry and some of these comments show why the 20 and 30 somethings are fleeing from Fundamentalism. It has nothing to do with salvation, sanctification or maturity. This has nothing to do with missions, this is about letting go of these distractions, these idols that you call your musical standards. You do not have a biblical or even a logical argument for what you would consider God's approved music. You are so infatuated with your own self righteousness that you have forgotten what you are called to do. You use typical fundamentalist rhetoric by using scare tactics and trying to make associations that are not there. We are raising children that fleeing from the Christian schools and Christian homes at 18, frustrated, bitter, joyless, or worst of all legalistic. While you sit around arguing, antagonizing and slandering men that just want to return to the fundamentals of the faith we are losing generations. I have been working with teens for years in a fairly large IFB church.

Kent Brandenburg said...


I'm forty-something and I fled fundamentalism in my early thirties. This has nothing to do with "fundamentalism," but whether music is "missional."

Our children are not fleeing our church---they aren't joyless, bitter, frustrated, or legalistic. The missional movement is not a return to the "fundamentals of the faith." It is a departure from Scripture. If you consider a criticism of missional and missional music to be self-righteous then you are ignorant of the first order. You are pinning the needle on ignorant, and also dangerous.

Fundamentalism has gone off in a wrong direction especially in youth ministry, a perfect example of their missional ideas, kowtowing to the youth culture with youth activities, youth music, youth pastors, etc. This is a departure from the biblical and historic teaching of sanctification. You can help to change people by means of contextualization. It's a type of pyschological sanctification that mixes Bible with these techniques and methods. The reason the young people are running away is because in many cases they aren't truly converted or because they weren't taught biblical convictions, for instance, on worship. Worship is offering God what He wants. The direction of worship is God, not toward unsaved people, which is what the missional music is all about. The sanctification that comes through these new measures is the actual "self-righteousness," Bruce. That's one of the ironies of your comments. Sanctification comes through the Word through the mind, not through human methods.

So you should calm down and start thinking a little bit more, Bruce. Maybe then you can come back and an actual discussion or conversation could occur. You should be concerned about the theology behind "missional" and "missional music."

Anonymous said...

Hi Bruce,

I'm 30-something, and the only reason I'd flee fundamentalism is because it is increasingly being represented by soft, spiritually immature elements that are moving it towards greater compromise with the world (read: missional music, "relevant" sermons, etc.)

Maybe I should become a Retro-Fundamentalist?

Anonymous said...

Pam here...

This notion of "missional living" through music being heresy is quite new to me...

My understanding of "worship", for one, is not limited to singing/music (although Western Christianity has seemed to limit it as such)...

If we are to be a people who love Him with our whole lives...then isn't EVERYthing we do worship (or at least shouldn't it be?)

IF that is the case, then what is the harm in using music as an evangelistic tool? (not the only tool, of course, I think think there is a lack of follow through in our culture of living out these songs and loving our neigbhors in efforts to evangelize...but that's another story.) My understanding of Christ was that He was both man and God and He was able to speak to people because He knew them inside out...for some, yes, He called them out viciously, and yet for others, he dined/drank with them and allowed people to open up before revealing Himself.

As a human that DOESN't know people inside out, where is the fallacy or unBiblical nature of finding ways to hear people's stories before telling them how Jesus applies to them? & why couldn't it be with music? Believers deal with the same issues as the unconvinced, we just put our hope in Christ rather than ourselves (hopefully haha) and when I hear songs that show our vulnerable sides in hopes to catch the ear of someone that thinks "Christ isnt for me", it's encouraging.

I understand that Biblically it seems as though music is used only to glorify God...but let's be real, as a consumer of the Bible am I not reading these songs and being affected by them? I have heard of the unconvinced reading of the Song of Solomon, and seeing Christ's love in a whole new way. Or perhaps one of David's songs (written to God of course)-I have heard of the unconvinced reading David's songs and coming even a little closer to knowing the true meaning of faith in Christ...I think it's interesting that in Colossians 3:16 it does say to sing to the addition to teaching and admonishing one another while singing...I suppose we may disagree if that was meant for just those within the Body rather than the unconvinced...but I just wanted to share my interpretation of it :)

As far as rap/hip hop music with the message of' been long overdue...I've finally begun to hear songs that give glory to God that are actually fun to rejoice and dance to; feeling like I am dancing to God rather than songs about sex and drugs makes a huge difference. It doesn't seem legitimate to limit styles of praise and say that if it sounds similar to secular it's automatically heathen music. I would think that it's the words of hymns that have meaning not necessarily the style of which they are sung.

Thanks for your time!