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An Experiment in Sumba: The difference four gongs and a drum made in worship

Last summer Pastor Anduwatju was in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the site of the 1996 meeting of the Reformed Ecumenical Council a group that includes thirty denominations in twenty-one countries. During a break in the meetings, I had the opportunity to meet him and learn something about worship in his Indonesian setting.

—Emily R. Brink

RW: Please describe your church in Indonesia.

Anduwatju: I belong to the Christian Church of Sumba. Sumba is one of the many islands of Indonesia, located west of Timor and south of Flores [a bit smaller than the state of Connecticut]. Our church has around 170,000 members out of a total island population of about 700,000. The rest are Roman Catholic and animists; about 40 to 45 percent are animist. Our church has seventy-four local congregations. And we have around 660 places of worship, local places where people worship every Sunday.

How did your church begin?

The Christian Church of Sumba began in the middle of the 1800s with missionaries from the Dutch Reformed tradition. We have had our own synod since 1957 and are now an independent denomination and a member of the [Indonesian] National Council of Churches.

Most of our members are poor and not very educated, but that hasn't prevented us from growing steadily. During the past ten years we've added between five hundred and a thousand newly baptized members every year.

What is worship like in your churches?

Now I must mention a great problem. People are not finding what they need in our services. For the first two or three months after they are baptized they are very happy and attend regularly. But after awhile they stop coming, or only come on the Sundays when we celebrate Holy Communion. I dare to say that one of the main reasons they stop coming is because the liturgy has not been entrusted to them. They are not feeling at home in the liturgy because it's been Westernized.

But are things beginning to change? Are your churches beginning to develop their own music and patterns as the churches in Africa are doing?

I spent several months in Africa and saw how [the African churches'] using their own music has made all the difference. But I am sad to say that has not happened in Sumba—maybe because most of the church leaders are graduates of Westernized theological schools.

What kind of music do you have in your culture and your worship?

I want to tell you about an experiment I conducted when I was pastor in the village. For years and years, I had been wondering about why the people lose interest in coming to church. And I came to the conclusion that it is because the liturgy is very dry. Many of our churches use no musical instruments in worship.

So I tried this experiment. I spoke to the congregation one day after the Sunday service.

"How about buying a set of gongs and drums to use in church?" I asked. Spontaneously they answered yes.

That very week, they sold maize, chickens, and eggs. They even borrowed money from their relatives. They collected the money, and the very next Sunday they had four gongs and one drum—a set of traditional musical instruments. So we tried to use them in the liturgy.

The first time we used them, many people came to our service. The next time I was scheduled to preach in that post was a month later. Even more people came. So I came to the conclusion that only when we touch the soul and spirit and heart of the people will they like to come to the church. If I used guitar, an instrument I learned when I left the island, I am not sure they would be interested. But when we used the traditional instrument, the gong, the people were really touched.

How did they use the gong? Before the service, to call people in, as a sort of call to worship?

Yes. But I wanted it used in other parts of worship too. When I introduced the idea, I was thinking of using these instruments not only for "entertainment" before the service but in the main part of the liturgy as well. I was convinced that only when you touch the people in their heart, soul, and spirit, can you reach them. I saw it as my responsibility as a pastor to use the instruments appropriately in the liturgy.

Different instruments use different rhythms and are used for different purposes. I myself cannot play the gongs, even though I am a graduate of a theological school. But the people do it automatically; the heritage and skill is passed down from their ancestors, from age to age and before. It is a part of the culture—something people learn without going to an academy of music.

Are you saying that this musical culture is not your own?

I have been removed from my culture. I have become Westernized. I can speak English. I can even play the guitar a little bit. I have been alienated and uprooted.

But I'd like to tell you more about my experiment. For the offering, we bring not only gifts of money (inherited from the Dutch tradition) but other things as well—chickens, for example. I urged the group to reflect more of their tradition by dancing as they brought their offerings. In fact, dancing is an offering in itself. In our culture, music is dance, and dance is music. I wanted to let the congregation know that offering can be a dance. That is what I call a really spiritual offering.

When we dance and when we hit the gong, our dance and our music is a spiritual offering to God. We are what we are. We need to transform and reform and acknowledge our culture as it conforms to God's Word.

You are dealing with many of the same questions that we face here in North America—questions about culture, contemporary music, and church attendance. How has your experiment developed?

I want to share something awful with you. The church actually is the killer of the people's feelings. I am not afraid to say this, and you can write it in your magazine. The church in Sumba is unconsciously and systematically killing the spirituality of the people.

Let me give you an example. When the people in the villages go to church, they are quiet and timid, maybe shy. I lead the service and say, "Let us lift up our hearts in song," but there is no music to lift them up. Their spirit is distressed. They are passive, looking down, not involved.

But when I introduced the gong, they woke up, they became alive. Shouting is very typical in our culture. Spontaneously, the men began to shout, and the women to uvulate [the ecstatic sustained high pitch tremulo generated in the back of the throat].

But when the church leadership does not encourage the people to become involved, they contribute to what I call their spiritual death. The church is too concerned with being religious instead of spiritual. The religious and the spiritual must come together.

What is your hope? Are there others like you?

Change is very slow. We can talk about faith and culture and what has happened in Africa. But sometimes our Sunday services are like funeral services. Sometimes I cry in my heart.

Note: Recently Pastor Anduwatju reluctantly left his congregation for a denominational leadership position in hopes that he could encourage other congregations and expand his experiment.