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Indonesian Musicians on Inculturating Indonesian Christian Worship

Christians who bring the gospel to other cultures often struggle to discern the difference between the essence of Christianity and its cultural packaging. That is true in Indonesia as well.

Carolien Eunice Tantra teaches piano, music ministry, and worship design and leadership at South East Asia Bible Seminary (SEABS) in Malang, Indonesia. Her husband, David Dwi Chrisna Damping, is a staff member in the seminary’s Sunergon Mission [community service] department. In this edited conversation, they talk about how Christianity is inculturated or contextualized—both in how it’s presented to and shaped by indigenous cultures.

How does worship in Indonesian churches reflect the cultures of the missionaries who helped found those churches?

In churches planted by Dutch or German missionaries among people with non-Chinese or Peranakan Chinese background, they often use liturgy inherited from the missionary, or at least some adaptation of it. So, as in the missionaries’ home churches, these Indonesian orders of worship would include litanies, written confession and pardon, singing or reciprocal reading of the psalm, and so on. In most churches, every Sunday they will have a written liturgical text to be read, said, prayed, and sung by the congregation. Many old churches still have pipe organs and huge bells from the Netherlands or Germany.

But Chinese background churches planted by Chinese missionaries tend to develop their own more simple liturgies. They do not have a lectionary or use standard liturgical colors or symbols. Their ministers wear suits, not liturgical robes (except when they lead the sacraments). They rarely say the Lord’s Prayer in worship. Although they have an order of worship, they don’t have a standard liturgical text to be read or prayed. They prefer spontaneous prayer over written prayer and a direct reading from the Bible rather than a litany (reciprocal liturgical reading). Some people describe the worship order of Chinese background churches in Indonesia as very similar to a Baptist church.

Can you answer that same question in terms of music?

Most Indonesians speak at least two languages, and many ethnic churches have hymnals in their indigenous language. However, many Protestant churches mostly sing translated European and American hymns. The Church Music Foundation of Indonesia (Yamuger, short forYayasan Musik Gereja) publishes hymnals in the official Indonesian language, Bahasa Indonesia, which means language of Indonesia. The Kidung Jemaat (Congregational Song) hymnal is used across denominations and ethnic groups. The foundation’s newest hymnal, Pelengkap Kidung Jemaat (Congregational Song Supplement), includes hymns composed by Indonesians in our traditional styles as well as contemporary songs from Africa, Asia, South America, and the Taize Community. In some degree, these hymnals serve as ecumenical hymnbooks across major denominations in Indonesia.

Each tribe has its own indigenous musical traditions, and the curriculum in Indonesian schools helps students learn and recognize other ethnic musical traditions. David grew up in West Java so learned Sundanese traditions, but he also learned Batak or Aceh songs from the island of Sumatra. Carolien grew up in a Chinese background family, so she spoke and listened to the Mandarin language with her family. But in school she learned lots of folk songs from other ethnic groups.  In Christian communities, many ethnic-based churches have songwriters working in their traditional styles.

Most Chinese background churches use the hymnal published by our seminary. It is in two languages—Bahasa Indonesia and Mandarin—and uses numeric notation for the melody. Even though most of these songs are translated from European and American hymns, this hymnal also has some songs written by Chinese Indonesian composers such as Rev. Stephen Tong and Rev. Caleb Tong. Unfortunately for the Indonesian Chinese churches, they mostly use piano and keyboard in worship and seldom use traditional instruments or develop non-Western songs or hymns. They sing Chinese tunes only for Chinese New Year.

In past centuries, missionaries often introduced Christianity in their own cultural packaging. Many asked new converts to reject their indigenous instruments, musical forms, and traditional practices as non-Christian. Do you see this dynamic in Indonesian churches?

As far as we know, in some places in Indonesia the Western missionaries associated gongs, drums, bells, and more with pagan practices. Therefore, many generations of Christians in Indonesia did not use their native instruments in church worship. Even today in some Batak churches, gondang ensembles (using traditional melodic drums) are considered as instruments for ancestor worship.

Now, however, most churches across Indonesia have recognized the value of traditional instruments in Christian worship. For example, many churches have kolintang and angklung (traditional instruments made from bamboo) bands. The angklung is the traditional instrument of the Sundanese in West Java, and the kolintang is the traditional instrument of the Manadonese in North Sulawesi. Also, many Javanese and Sundanese churches use gamelan orchestras in their worship services.

How does Islam influence Christianity in your context?

In Malang, as in most parts of Indonesia, Christians face some degree of challenge with our Muslim brothers and sisters. But East Java Province is known as the birthplace of  Nahdlatul Ulama, the biggest Indonesian moderate Islamic organization. The NU Muslims are moderate, and tolerant Muslims keep good relationships with other religions. But in the West Java cities of Bogor, Bandung, and Bekasi, it’s hard for churches to get building permits. The rejection does not necessarily come from the Muslims around the churches but from fundamentalist or even extremist groups that come from other places.

Fortunately, Muslim-Christian relations are still well preserved in many parts of Indonesia. In Malang city, when Muslims pray in the Eid al-Fitr Day (end of Ramadan fast), the Catholic Cathedral of Malang opens their parking yard for Muslims to pray. Also, throughout Indonesia, when Christians celebrate Christmas Day, Muslims help clean and guard the churches.

How do Chinese background churches engage with Buddhism or Confucianism?

Chinese churches here use the cultural approach to share the gospel with Chinese Indonesians of Buddhist or Confucian background. For Chinese New Year, they decorate the church with ornaments such as mei hua flowers (plum blossoms). They hang the hong bao (red envelope) or the word fu, which means blessings, on the plum tree. Sometimes the church will arrange a cultural night with Chinese songs, Chinese drama, or dances to deliver the gospel message to the audiences.

Since most Chinese background churches are evangelical, they are very cautious about using traditional Chinese culture that might be seen as blending with or reflecting ancestor-worship practices. Most of these churches teach and require their Chinese congregants to abandon any traditional practices not compatible with the teaching of the Bible.

How do Indonesian Christians connect with Bali Hindus?

The island of Bali is heavily influenced by Hinduism. Some Catholic and Protestant churches there have adapted Balinese symbols and architecture. For example, the traditional offering in Balinese Hindu temples is stacks of fruit decorated with flowers and coconut leaves. Some churches use this same design for Harvest Day or New Year services as an act of thanksgiving.

Also, some newer church buildings have freestanding roofs but no walls, similar to open air Balinese Hindu temples in this hot climate. Compound walls around these church grounds are decorated with stone carvings of biblical themes, just as Balinese temple compound walls are carved with Hindu gods and symbols. Temples often have a barrier wall at the entry, because Bali-Hindus believe that evil spirits only move in straight lines. In churches with a similar barrier wall, pastors explain that the wall is meant not to prevent evil spirits but to slow you down—and prepare you to worship God.


Carolien Eunice Tantra recommends the work of International Council of Ethnodoxologists, which helps people in every culture follow Christ using their own heart music and other arts. Read Seeking the Asian Face of Jesus by Chris Sugden and A History of Christianity in Indonesia, edited by Jan Sihar Aritonang and Karel Steenbrink.