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Ethnodoxology: Calling all peoples to worship in their heart language

The new field of ethnodoxology affirms that there's no single best way to worship. A feature story about how God has gifted each culture with heart language and heart music rooted in a particular place, ethnicity, or experience.

For 20 years already, the Vagla people in Ghana had had the New Testament in their own language. They had pastors from their own tribe and worship music borrowed from other cultures. But few Vagla could read, and their churches grew very slowly.

In 1997, ethnomusicologist Paul Neeley co-led a workshop to help Vagla Christians develop their own Scripture songs. One of the literate people read a Bible passage. Neeley recalls that the gathered men and women “waited expectantly,” till an old woman began “hesitantly…but with growing confidence” to sing the words she’d just heard. She sang, “He who is carrying a heavy load and is getting tired, bring it to Jesus.” Within minutes, people were on their feet—improvising choruses, shaking gourd rattles, beating drums, and dancing in circles.

Song after new song poured out under starlight. An ensemble of men playing antelope horns put John 3:16 to music. Neeley says that to him it sounded like a traffic jam but to the Vagla people, it was “one of the sweetest sounds on earth.”

He and his colleagues improvised a studio and recorded two hour-long cassettes of Vagla Scripture and songs. Singing and dancing Scripture in their own cultural forms encouraged church growth and literacy, because people wanted to learn to read the book that sparked their new music.

The growing field of ethnodoxology overflows with similar stories of what happens when people are encouraged to worship God in their heart language. The field now has its own organization, International Council of Ethnodoxologists, and Neeley is editor of the EthnoDoxology journal.

Ethnodoxology = peoples + praise

The term ethnodoxology is related to and newer than the termethnomusicology. Ethnomusicology, the history and science of music in diverse cultures, is an academic field of study that can help missionaries be culturally sensitive.

By contrast, ethnodoxology studies how different cultures worship God. It includes all the arts (such as dance, drama, video, visuals) as well as how people participate in preaching, the Eucharist, the offering, and so on. It goes beyond worship as an event because it studies how worship shapes or is shaped by life as lived within a cultural or ethnic group.

Ethnodoxologists describe worship roadblocks that are headbangingly obvious to one set of people, yet invisible to another. Robin Harris, who spent 10 years as a missionary in Russia, recalls talking with composer Konstantin Zhigulin about his first reactions to music sung in an evangelical church.

“I was horrified. It was awful….no attention given to the Russian understanding of how to use words, no sense of the literary use of words,” Zhigulin said. Gradually he came to see the worship as “simply a lack of understanding on the part of the people who brought us the gospel.”

In 2003 Harris and Neeley founded International Council of Ethnodoxologists (ICE) to promote culturally appropriate worship. The ICE network uses email, online forums, retreats, and conferences to link more than 200 people and 30 organizations in 50 countries.

Heart language

Ethnodoxologists totally get how the Great Commission relates to Pentecost. When they go out to train people in Christ’s way of life, they know those converts will speak in different languages as the Spirit prompts them. As Baptist preacher John Piper famously says, “Mission is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exist because worship doesn’t.”

A key ethnodoxology concept is that we all have a heart language, the mother tongue in which we first learned to express love, joy, sorrow, and need. Heart language is rich in nuance, humor, gesture, and inflection. It’s the words you naturally dream in, the genres and images you use to change minds.

“When my husband and I moved to Siberia about 15 years ago, the believers among the Sakha indigenous group were not using their own music, stories, and proverbs in the church. They were mostly using translated Russian songs and a few American songs. We began encouraging them to write their own music using their own styles,” Harris says.

Recently a group of Sakha Christians held a festival for new songs. They set the first three chapters of Genesis to a heroic epic song poem form called olonkho, a genre that UNESCO declared “a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity.”

They also published a songbook that includes other genres (one for praise, another for humorous tongue twisters) never used before in a Christian context. Harris says producers hope to show “non-believers that Christianity is not just a Russian or ‘foreign’ religion.”

Respect local choices

As coordinator of Heart Sounds InternationalFrank Fortunato makes audio and video recordings of Christian heart music in restricted parts of the world. “The older people that invite us are more connected with their traditional, indigenous, more vernacular sounds and preferences. Younger people that invite us to do a recording project are often more urban and more connected with Westernized sounds and instruments,” he says.

Fortunato and his teams go in looking for “unique cultural riches” and “heart sounds, historical sounds.” They’ve found, however, that urban, educated people often enjoy fusing forms, ideas, and instruments from the global community. So rather than try to freeze ethnic genres and practices in time as somehow more authentic, they define "indigenous" as all that originates in or is native to a country or region.

“We allow the local people to make the decisions. If electronic instruments are there and their preference is for a more Westernized, drumbeat-driven project, we are very happy to do that,” he says.

Often simply asking about heart language reconnects younger musicians with genres they loved as children. In Mongolia, for example, Fortunato has recorded Christian musicians in Mongolia who blend urban and traditional music, electric guitars and throat singing.

Ethnodoxology: Joining God in Every Culture

Psalm 117 is short: “Praise the Lord, all you nations; extol him, all you peoples. For great is his love toward us, and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever. Praise the Lord.”

You might think of Psalm 117 as ethnodoxology in a nutshell. Like the psalmist, ethnodoxologists know there are as many God-given ways to worship as there are languages and cultures.

The International Council of Ethnodoxologists (ICE) network often surprises people with stories of how the gospel and culture intertwine and how God is already at work in every culture.

Music a universal language?

You may wipe away tears of worshipful awe while hearing a mass choir sing Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” ICE members who’ve shared the famous chorus in other countries find that it’s not universally appreciated.

  • Senufo people in Ivory Coast said it sounded “like crying music.”
  • It reminded Maasai people in Kenya of noisy jet engines.
  • Tibetans said it was “not steady.” They wondered how a song with so many high and low pitches and loud and soft volumes could be considered fine art.

“Music is a universal phenomenon but not a universal language. In other words, our response to music is learned and not intrinsic,” says ICE founder Robin Harris, an ethnomusicologist who’s been a missionary in North America, Siberia, and Russia.

Back when American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, “Music is the universal language of mankind,” many Europeans and North Americans believed in cultural evolutionism. They thought all cultures progress on the same path but at different speeds. Some 19th century missionaries saw themselves as bringing the gospel from civilized countries to primitive cultures.

They didn’t understand that in music, for example, some cultures value complex rhythms more than elaborate melodies or rich harmonies. Some cultures care most about words, others about the group experience of moving together in a tone cluster, and still others about how well the music evokes emotion or helps people endure physical challenges.

Robin Harris explains, “If foreign music is used for evangelism or in the church, it may strongly stamp Christianity as being a foreign religion. In using culturally appropriate music systems of the local context, we’re tapping into a communication system that’s already recognized, appreciated, and understood.”

God in every culture

Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Poisonwood Bible (about Baptist missionaries in the Belgian Congo) and the film The Mission (about Spanish Jesuits in South America) memorably portray people who couldn’t tell the difference between the gospel message and their own cultural preferences.

“We tend to judge one another’s way of worshiping, because we think the other way is unspiritual,” Harris says.

She’s fascinated by the case study of a failed merger between white and black Baptist congregations in South Carolina. If you’ve ever described a church as too stiff, not reverent, repetitious, an empty ritual, or overly emotional, then you understand what sank that merger.

Ethnodoxology recognizes God as already present in a culture.

“No people are without God. They may not know him, and they may not serve him, but he is still in their midst. Most basic expressions of life and faith are God-given. We may not use them properly or honor him with them as they were intended to do. But that does not mean they are inherently ungodly or unbiblical,” writes Gavriel Gefen, a Messianic Jew who chaired the 2008 World Christian Gathering of Indigenous People in Jerusalem.

Gefen explains that Christians go off course when they see the gospel as a “potted plant” of faith to pass on intact instead of a seed planted in the soil of a unique culture.

Contextual worship and beyond

Ethnodoxology affirms practicing faith within a cultural context. Still, Harris and Frank Fortunato, ICE vice president, advise balancing contextual worship with the other principles—transcultural, cross cultural, counter cultural—in the Nairobi Statement on Worship and Culture.

Transcultural worship reminds Christians that they belong to a common culture of baptism, sharing meals, and forgiveness.

Cross cultural worship builds bridges that embody shared identity in Christ, such as using songs, languages, or visual arts from other communities.

God often uses the arts to cross cultures. Russian composer Konstantin Zhigulin says it was Hieronymous Bosch’s painting “Christ Carrying the Cross” that first urged him to think about God. Chinese artist He Qi says he became a Christian because of seeing Raphael’s “Madonna paintings". Overseas Ministries Study Center near Yale University invites artists-in-residence from other countries to help North Americans experience the gospel through fresh eyes.

Counter cultural worship may be the hardest sell. It requires asking “what is contrary to the gospel in a given culture. Every culture, in North America and overseas, has aspects that need to be challenged,” Harris says. It means countering the natural tendency to prefer your own way of doing things (your context) in favor of living with and sharing leadership with worshipers from other cultures.

Your First Steps in Ethnodoxology

If you’d like to schedule a group activity to learn more about ethnodoxology, here are several possible first steps. Many resources listed below come from International Council of Ethnodoxologists (ICE). Their website is

Whichever first step you choose, aim to expand your idea of worship that honors God. In fact, if your brain gets an almost physical feel of cracking, you’ll know you’re on the right track.

Learn More

Robin Harris is a missionary whose passion for ethnomusicology and networking resulted in founding International Council of Ethnodoxologists (ICE). She is the ICE coordinator. Robin and her husband, Bill Harris, now work for Operation Mobilization-USA in the Heart Sounds International division. Bill and Robin Harris write several blogs.

Frank Fortunato is ICE vice president and co-authored All the World Is Singing: Glorifying God through the Music of the NationsHe worked for 15 years on Operation Mobilization (OM) mission ships and is now Heart Sounds International coordinator.

Paul Neeley, ICE president, is a member of Artists in Christian Testimony, does ethnomusicology consulting with multiple missions, and teaches at various schools. He edits the journal EthnoDoxology.

Join International Council of Ethnodoxologists (ICE) to get full access to online networking and global worship resources and to receive a discounted subscription to EthnoDoxology. Sign up for ICE’s free monthly ezine, distributed through Google Groups.

Ethnodoxologists note similarities between church planting in non-literate cultures and among post moderns. Both cultures put a high value on story, orality, and community. Intrigued? Check out the orality links in this issue ofMomentum, an online missions magazine.

Read Christian Worship Worldwide edited by Charles E. Farhadian. Find your online door into ethnodoxology, perhaps through a blog on missional worship and arts in Japan (anime, manga, and taiko drums), Ethnic Harvest, World Christian Gathering of Indigenous People, or global worship resources (scroll down).

Browse related stories on creating a culturally sensitive church building, drama in worshipReformed churches worldwide, and worship aesthetics.

Start a Discussion

Appropriate worship in diverse cultures:

  • How would you explain the terms sacred and secular to someone new to your church? In your cultural group or congregation, where and how does the event of worship connect (or feel disconnected) from daily life? Try explaining the second question in the context of your answers to the first question.
  • What part does Scripture memorization play in your church? If a lot, how much of that memorization is biblical narrative? Explain your answer.
  • Regarding sharing faith and making disciples, what are the pros and cons of depending on external resources (print, online, audio, video, etc.) instead of “what’s between your ears”? How do these choices shape your congregation’s worship and demographic makeup?
  • What musical or theological training is necessary for someone to write an appropriate song for Christian worship? What cultural values shape your answer?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to talk about appropriate use of the arts in worship?

  • If you conducted a congregation-wide conversation about worship in your culture or subculture, which methods did you use? Which main metaphor for worship did you settle on and why?
  • The bonus story gives options to help your group take a first step into ethnodoxology. Which idea worked best in your church? What did you learn and how did you follow up on that insight?