What did you think when you saw that strange new word—ethnodoxology? If it is unfamiliar now, it won’t be when you’re done with this issue. Twenty years ago the term didn’t exist, yet now it represents a significant paradigm shift in missions—affirming the engagement of all kinds of culturally appropriate, biblically-grounded artistic communication in the mission, worship, and spiritual formation of the church. One of the stubborn obstacles to effective mission today is that we are not consistently communicating the gospel in ways that allow it to thrive in local soil. Through foundational articles, stories from the field, and practical how-to advice, this issue demonstrates the remarkable results of applying ethnodoxology principles in cross-cultural ministry.
What is ethnodoxology and does it really have a crucial role in the flourishing of frontier missions? Brian Schrag, a thought leader in the ethnodoxology movement, describes in this interview the main ideas and emphases of this new approach and how ethnodoxology’s culturally-sensitive way of engaging the arts differs from traditional approaches. Explore with us this vision for a future in which all Christ-followers will express their faith through the unique artistic resources God has given them.
In one church in Africa, worship is announced through drums, “speaking” to those who have not yet arrived: “Hurry, the service is about to begin!” As the drumming continues, rattles and bells enter in, and singing...
The truck’s wheels were spaced further apart than the rotting logs of the bridge. No way would we ever reach the dirt road on the other side. So the sixty or so Congolese pastors and I got out of the truck and began...
Every grounded and mature believer would maintain that the Scriptures must guide us as our supreme and final authority in understanding and shaping our worship.1 After all, worship is about God, and it is through the...
Some churches and religious movements in Africa have from the very beginning sung their own locally composed music. However, many, if not most, other churches have passed, or are currently passing, through a six of stages on their way to developing a music for worship they can call their own. The six stages we will examine briefly are: importation, adaptation, alteration, imitation, indigenization, and internationalization. Do you recognize these stages from your own cross-cultural experience?
Christianity has always stood in tension with prevailing cultures, no matter where it existed. But as humans we hate tension. We are wired to resolve tension. We look for symmetry. We want a clean end to every mystery novel, an answer to every complex riddle. But what happens when Christianity insists on maintaining its foundations and its original cultural forms, no matter what new culture it finds itself in? What happens when Christians see the tension as a chaotic mess, rejecting its constant demands to review one’s priorities and revisit difficult questions? A crisis occurs.
The biblical psalms have been the 3000-year songbook of devotion for God’s people for thousands of years. They have also been used in frontier missions among Unreached People Groups (UPGs). I’ve led workshops to translate some Psalms and set them to culturally-appropriate music in Ghana, Nigeria, Togo and Benin. The workshop in Benin was among a people group that did not have a single known Christian at the time – not even the Bible translators; all were Muslim.
Both internal and external forces work against our expression of pain. Since pain hurts, denial can sometimes seem like a better option. The church and culture are often complicit in this denial, teaching Christians that they should express praise and joy in all circumstances. In many places around the world, human feelings of anger, doubt, and abandonment are not accepted as appropriate for Christians. But people can use their art forms as they seek healing from their pain.
Ethnodoxologists and friends invest themselves in incarnational relationships with communities, helping them unleash their unique arts in deepening and spreading the kingdom of God. Our ultimate goal is to help others create, offering insights gained from our scholarship and experiences ministering in rural and urban contexts all over the world. And now there is a new manual that has reduced thousands of insights into a user-friendly, flexible, research-based approach that you can use in a community you know. Find out more about this valuable resource here.
Although there were already beneficial uses of arts in many communities prior to the coming of the gospel message, we had observed in our work that borrowed and translated arts were often being used to create art directed toward us (the creators of the art), others, God or various combinations of all three. These borrowed art forms were being used at the expense of pre-existing local arts. So we developed the Worship Wheel to help Christ followers from indigenous groups use their local arts in contextualized worship settings and as powerful evangelistic tools.
One a four-week visit to Nigeria I witnessed the power local arts have to move people as I saw believers struggling with English hymns, but becoming enthusiastic and animated when they sang indigenous praise songs accompanied by gourds. This began a journey that led to arts and missions becoming central to my life's calling. All too often artistic short-termers focus on the styles and artistic outlets they themselves know. But in this article I want to emphasize that short-term workers can also make a significant impact through involvement with culturally-appropriate arts. Potentially, short-termers can make an even greater impact if they come humbly to learn from the culture and build friendships, with a desire to validate and encourage the arts of the local believers.
One of the greatest challenges of the Indian Christian church is its Western heritage. Most mainline denominations follow completely Westernized liturgy and music in their worship. When missionaries came to India they translated the Bible and their own hymns into the local languages for the use in worship. At Christmas time, churches in South India use hymns that talk about winter and snow—when the temperature is 80° F and the people have never seen snow!
William Carey's extensive translation work absorbed much of his time, but he always expected his translations would lead to salvations. He was convinced the “millions of perishing heathens tormented in this life” were pleading that “laborers may be thrust out into the Vineyard of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Therefore, he perceived the propagation of the gospel to also include the communication of the gospel. So his evangelism took seriously the Indian preference for oral transmission.
August 1996: It was time for the festival celebrating the founding of Tsévié, the town where we were living in Togo. The central piece was a presentation of the story of the village’s founding. Atumpani, the talking drums for the Ewé people, told the epic story that was translated into both Ewé and French languages for those uninitiated in the language of the drum. As the story unfolded, dancer-actors played it out for all to see. The crowd was thoroughly captivated. And then it occurred to me how powerful it would be if God’s story could be told in this way.
Harmattan winds have hovered over desert Africa for weeks, picking up Saharan sands and filling the sky of the Paga Na village with a brown haze. In this sand-gray dusk, the hushed, unnatural silence of the windswept, sub-Saharan village is spellbinding and disconcerting. Only a subtle breeze invades the soundless, palm-lined footpaths and the swept earth patios. But the silence of this southern Togolese village is about to end; the storyteller is coming!
“We have a proverb in Hausa that says, ‘What the heart loves, there the legs will go,’” Ali offers. I smile and then ponder the meaning. Seeing the puzzled look on my face, Ali helps. “Have you ever seen the heart go somewhere it did not want to go, but it had to listen to the feet?” Wagging my head back and forth satisfies Ali. We are connecting at his cultural level, opening doors of understanding.
When a New Testament translation project for the Wolayta of Ethiopia began in the early 1970s, the government would not allow books to be printed in indigenous languages; only in Amharic, the official language. The solution, at least short-term, was to record the translation as it was being done, making it accessible immediately and especially to those who could not read—about 80 percent of the some 2-million Wolayta speakers. The Wolayta may not have been book oriented then, but they did have a rich oral tradition, which included their cultural chanting and singing styles.
A few years ago I was in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for a songwriting workshop that brought together six different language groups. At the workshop a significant event happened that led me to realize more than ever before that it was time to do something for the restoration and development of our indigenous worship in a way that fits our culture. Among the guests was a third-generation pastor among African pastors of the DRC. Toward the end of the closing celebration he insisted on taking the floor. He was amazed, he said, that he had had an opportunity there to hear the Lord being praised, not only in his mother tongue, but also with rhythms and instruments from his village. He was so overwhelmed to have this wonderful experience during his lifetime that he burst into tears, unable to control his emotions.
Want to learn more about ethnodoxology? Find a variety of tools, resources and training opportunities here.
Recently I trained a group of colleagues laboring faithfully in one of the harshest areas on earth. Yet after years of witness, the results have only been isolated individual disciples. Virtually all the disciples are first generation, that is, they have been led to faith by the foreigners. Progress toward sustained church planting movements (CPMs)—characterized by at least four generations of new disciples and churches—has been slow. As I pondered why they were stuck two thoughts became startling clear.
An expatriate medical doctor (Dr. Osterholm) had served in Vanga, in North Western Congo/Zaire, for twelve years. During that time he taught a member of the hospital staff (Mr. Musiti) to do all sorts of medical procedures. Then came the political turmoil of the early 1960s in Central Africa. When Dr. Osterholm was forced to leave, he turned the keys of the hospital over to Mr. Musiti. He told him that in the shoebox in his office desk in the hospital there was enough cash to pay staff for about one month. He then told Mr. Musiti that when that cash ran out, he should close the hospital and leave. Little did anyone know at the time that this single event would be the most significant step in the indigenization of Vanga Hospital.