Author: Brian Schrag (BES), with Robin Harris (RPH)
RPH: This term – ethnodoxology – is new to most people. What does it mean? BES: Ethnodoxology is a theological and anthropological framework guiding all cultures to worship God using their unique artistic expressions. The term derives from two biblical Greek words: ‘ethno’ from ethne (peoples) and ‘doxology’ from doxos (glory or praise).
RPH: How long has it taken for ethnodoxology to emerge as a strategic missional approach? BES: In 1993, the term ethnodoxology had probably never been uttered on this planet. However, by 2003, a network emerged called the International Council of Ethnodoxologists (ICE). By 2013, ICE was connecting hundreds of individuals and scores of organizations, had produced a remarkable two-volume scholarly and practical foundation for the new discipline, and helped spearhead a reorientation of mission education and practice.
RPH: So why is locally grounded artistic communication so powerful for the expansion of the kingdom of God? BES: Artistic communication
Perhaps most importantly, local artistic communication is generally created and owned locally. There is no need to translate foreign materials, and community artists are empowered to contribute to the expansion of the kingdom of God.
RPH: In what ways has the church traditionally engaged the arts in cross-cultural ministry, and how does ethnodoxology connect to those approaches? BES: At least three broad approaches in relation to the arts come to mind:
Ethnodoxology flows from Find It – Encourage It. Though the approach is not new – Patrick and other missionaries to the Celts engaged with local arts in the 5th century – ethnodoxology has taken its current form in response to relatively recent academic and missiological influences.
RPH: What is the basic process for doing ethnodoxology in a community? BES: This approach typically includes five steps:
In summary, our job is getting to know people and encouraging them to create arts in contexts that strengthen and spread the kingdom in sustainable ways.
RPH: What are the contexts in which an ethnodoxological approach increases kingdom impact? BES: We have seen it increase the effectiveness of church planting efforts, developing healthy multicultural gathered worship expressions, discipleship and spiritual formation, evangelism and short-term mission outreach, and helping people respond to injustice and trauma.
Central Africa case study
RPH: What kind of impact did you see from this approach where you served in Central Africa? BES: In the 1940s, a Congolese evangelist planted the first church among speakers of the Mono language in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). He counseled the first Christians to burn their musical instruments and learn to sing Euro-American hymns translated into a trade language – Lingala. When my family and I moved to their community to help translate the Bible into Mono in the early 1990s, we found a church that, while it was active, worshipped through foreign arts and language and had a mixed moral reputation.
With the church leaders, I explored possibilities of integrating older song styles into the lives of Christians, and they eventually decided to form Chorales Ayo, or Love Choirs. These groups composed songs based on Scripture, with lyrics in the Mono language, and in a traditional song style using a local harp. After years of difficulty (including civil war), these groups have spread and are now thriving in many Mono villages. In 2012, Mono pastor Gaspard Yalemoto reported this:
In the past, Mono traditional instruments were only used to worship the gods of our ancestors. However, in 1992, Brian moved to my village and started learning to play traditional Mono songs on the kundi – a local harp. Eventually a small group joined him and began composing Scripture-based songs. Today, in all of the Mono churches, we see a radical change in how Christians live, because God’s message communicated through kundi songs directly touches their hearts. Many declare by their actions that the Spirit has used this to bring them back to the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ.
RPH: If we, the church, adopt the kind of approach you used in DRC, what do you think will happen? BES: If ethnodoxology becomes the primary approach to growth in mission and worship:
RPH: What if we do not integrate this approach? BES: If ethnodoxology sputters and dies:
RPH: That future sounds bleak! However, there are a growing number of resources to help integrate ethnodoxology into churches and organizations. How can people best connect to those resources? BES: Yes, some great tools have been developed in the last ten years. For example, you can:
RPH: How would you summarize your evaluation of and vision for the church in relation to the arts? BES: The reality I see today is that people communicate in almost 7,000 languages around the world, not just by spoken words, but through artistically rendered song, drama, dance, and story. These communities have non-existent or imperfect relationships with God, and struggle with violence, disease, social upheaval, anger, sexual promiscuity, anxiety, and fear – as do our own societies.
God gave every culture unique gifts of artistic communication to tell truth and bring healing, hope, and joy in response to these problems. However, too many of these gifts lie dormant, misused, or dying. If we can help our brothers and sisters – and ourselves – breathe new, redeemed life into these artistic traditions, all cultures will eventually use all of their gifts to worship, obey, and enjoy God with all of their heart, soul, mind, and strength. It will not happen completely on this earth, but we can join God in working toward the next.
Brian Schrag is SIL International’s Ethnomusicology and Arts Coordinator and developed the World Arts program at the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics in Dallas, Texas. He has served as a Bible translator and ethnomusicologist in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cameroon, and holds a PhD in Ethnomusicology (UCLA).
Robin Harris, PhD, is President of the International Council of Ethnodoxologists and Coordinator of the MA in World Arts at the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics in Dallas, Texas. She has served for decades in cross-cultural contexts, including ten years in Russia.