How could God use a trombone player in missions?
Chris Gassler wondered the same thing. As a child, Chris had always wanted to play the trombone professionally, but after years of playing and teaching trombone at the university level, he was starting to feel a bit bored.
After talking to his pastor, Chris took a couple of short-term trips overseas with his church and was hooked. “I was ready to do just about anything!” Chris laughed. “But my wife said no. She told me I needed to consider how I might use my skills and education [in missions].”
A few months later, Chris was researching different missions organizations and came across Wycliffe’s website. “I clicked on personnel needs, and the first one that that came up was for ethnomusicology and EthnoArts [which] intrigued me because I was actually teaching a class at the time called ‘World Music and Culture.’ Seeing that job was the first revelation that people use world music as a platform for cross-cultural missions. I called the director of [Wycliffe’s] EthnoArts program out of the blue, and we talked for a few hours on the phone.”
When Chris told his wife about the possibility, she was immediately on board. “It's pretty easy to understand [why] translating [the Bible] into a person’s language is important,” Chris said. “Arts is another form of communication. When I saw that connection, it suddenly made sense. … And that’s how I made my career change.”
Now Chris is an EthnoArts consultant and has spent the last 10 years with his wife, Lori, and their three kids coordinating EthnoArts initiatives across several African countries.
Role of EthnoArts
“In order to ... make a difference and spark that lightbulb moment, you need to touch people in their heart. That’s what EthnoArts does,” Chris said.
The goal of EthnoArts is to empower local language communities to use their cultural artistic values to develop biblical-based content. EthnoArts is driven by three core values: be with the community, learn from the community and work together toward Kingdom goals.
Those first two steps are hard since each culture has their own artistic values and those values may not be easily understood across other cultures. “For example, when one of my Cameroonian colleagues rides in my vehicle and hears jazz, she doesn’t understand it,” Chris said. “She doesn’t think music without words makes any sense.”
Chris knows that the same is true for him. He might see a piece of art or listen to a musical style from another culture that doesn’t make sense to him. “I have to understand where beauty lies in that particular culture and respect their values,” he said.
EthnoArts specialists work with the local community to help them identify their Kingdom goals. Community ownership of the arts projects is crucial in order for the local community to be able to reproduce it after the EthnoArts consultant has left. “We want the community at the forefront [of the project], making decisions and owning it,” Chris explained.
Once the goals are determined, the EthnoArts specialist uses activities and tools such as recordings, workshops and research to help the community learn how to incorporate Scripture into their artistic traditions.
One of Chris’ most common tasks is facilitating songwriting workshops. In these workshops, participants learn how to merge their own artistic values with biblical concepts and Scripture. “We aren’t changing their culture,” Chris explained. “We’re bringing biblical content to their culture so they are still singing the same styles of songs.”
After assuring the community that they are the experts in their own artistic style, Chris and his colleagues lead them through a short study of a piece of Scripture. “We digest the Scripture together,” Chris said, “and then encourage them to write songs, using styles or genres that appropriately fit the message of the Scripture.”
One time, Chris held a songwriting workshop with the Baca people of Cameroon on Philippians 2:4-11. During the workshop, the participants developed several songs about Jesus being a leader who came as a servant.
As some local leaders listened to the songs, they were struck deeply by the message. “Do you think we could [become servants like Jesus] in our own community?” they asked each other. In their culture, it was not considered appropriate for a leader to humbly serve others, but Jesus’ example finally made sense to them through the song! Since then, a local women’s Bible study began adding further verses to the song, and it became a staple in the community’s churches.
Research is Love
Another aspect of Chris’ job is showing love and value to local communities by researching their artistic styles.
One time Chris visited the Niku*, minority people group living in a major city, to hold a songwriting workshop. But the workshop was a disaster. The Niku were oppressed by a majority people group in the city, and wouldn’t speak their own language or teach it to their children for fear of retribution. The community leaders told Chris it was a bad idea for them to write songs in their own language; it would only stir up trouble. At the end of the long day, only one song was written and most of the workshop attendees had left after lunch.
Chris felt disheartened, but the trip wasn’t finished. Chris was also supposed to visit a remote Niku village, far away from the influence of the oppressive majority group. In that village, the Niku were proud of their language and still taught it to their children.
“One of my colleagues [told people] that I was coming, and people traveled for days to meet us, Chris said. “We just wanted to learn their music, so we filmed and recorded as much music as people wanted to play and that was it.” Chris and his team spent the night there recording and left the next day.
A few months later, Chris got a phone call from a friend who worked with the Niku. “You’ll never guess what happened,” he said. “The Niku in the city who had rejected their language got wind that we had gone to the [village] to record their music. They decided since we did that, we must actually be serious about their language. They’ve started meeting on Thursday nights for a Bible study to write songs, and they now have four songs they want you to record!”
Since that day, the Niku community has been spending focused time in Scripture, discovering the value of their language and culture.
Embedding God’s Word
As Chris looks back on his life, he can see how God has worked so many things together to prepare him for a ministry in EthnoArts, including his classical trombone career.
“I love the EthnoArts colleagues I work with around the globe,” Chris said. “I’ve never been with a group that has more respect for each other and genuine love and concern. They are the best people in the world to work with!”
Through EthnoArts, God’s Word can embed deeply in a community and culture, bringing transformation.
“We take for granted the forms of expression that we use and how much they draw our hearts [to God] in the moment of worship,” Chris reflected. “When you see communities accessing [God’s] throne room of grace with their local language and art forms, you begin to realize how deeply these features are rooted in us. It is beautiful.”
* Name changed.