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Your First Steps in Ethnodoxology

Here are several possible first steps to learn more about ethnodoxology.

Many resources listed below come from International Council of Ethnodoxologists (ICE). 

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.

Vicariously experience worship in other cultures

This is fun to do in a computer lab, where you can have several people looking at the same websites at the same time. Listen to heart music and dance clips from around the world at: 

Follow links to visual worship arts from around the world at:

Visit worship in another culture

Attend worship in a church that has a different culture—ethnic, socioeconomic, theological, language—than yours. Before you go, print out a copy of the Worship handbook. Use it to record your impressions. 

Sponsor a global music sing-along

Singing each other’s songs is a great way to experience being members of one body, especially if people explain what it is about the music that means so much to them. 

Choose music new to your congregation. This might be from African American Heritage Hymnal, the Iona CommunitySound the Bamboo (indigenous Asian hymns), or the Taize Community. 

If your group is better at learning new songs by hearing them rather than by reading musical notation, then choose a recording. Listen to it together and use a call-and-response method to sing it together.

Discuss hidden assumptions

Start with one of these interactive ideas:

  • If you’ve assumed that all African or all Latino music is basically alike, then contrast melodic “God Is Holy” from the Gambia with a Sudanese Dinka chant. Compare the sound of Guatemalan Mayan Christians on marimbas to sacred choral music in Argentina.
  • Perhaps you’ve experienced Christian worship that annoyed or even horrified you. Have someone read aloud this experience of Bruce “Bruchko” Olson, a missionary living with the Motilone people in Colombia. The excerpt is on this Wycliffe webpage. (Pause the video and scroll down to “Night of the Tiger.”)

Or begin a discussion with one these questions:

  • If you dance in church the same way you would at a party, does that mean you have integrated your faith and life…or that you are being sacrilegious, inappropriate, or disrespectful…or something else?
  • Picture a church where someone is upfront, facing the congregation, singing with all their heart. Now imagine yourself chiming in. You’re singing just as loudly, with the same notes but different rhythm. Are you emotionally unstable…demonstrating your lack of musical skill…affirming your common identity as brothers and sisters in Christ…responding in praise to God…unspeakably rude…?
  • Share categories of experience that you understand now but couldn’t wrap your mind around the first time. These terms may get the stories flowing (or reveal your age)—Twitter, lectionary, iPod, intergenerational worship, praise band, blog, email, liturgical dance, fax, floppy disk, Christian rock, color television, God’s grace, sliced bread (just kidding).

Share stories of discomfort that resulted from a language or cultural misunderstanding

  • Open with a few examples below to trigger memories.
  • A North American sponsor tried to learn a little Farsi to welcome an Iranian refugee family at the airport. Later they explained how confusing it was to be greeted with “You are camel! You are camel!”
  • Some languages have whole categories or concepts that others lack.
  • Chinese is a tonal language, so translating a hymn from English to Chinese may result in a song that says what you didn’t intend. Many Vietnamese Catholics have a vocal prayer technique “that has no correlation in American speech. This musical sound is not a song or a chant.”
  • Apologizing for a small error with “Oh, stupid me,” is fine in the U.S. but will cause shocked stares in Honduras, where “stupido” has a far stronger meaning. A generic “that was delicious” might not be much of a compliment among Camsá people in Colombia. Their language has 20 ways to say delicious, depending on the shape of the food.

Describe an embarrassing moment when you tried using another language or were talking with someone whose English is not the best. When that kerfluffle happened, what did you first think…but perhaps later change your mind about?

Apply another culture’s worship insights

Samba, an Afro Brazilian social dance music form, is heart music for some Brazilians. Others reject it as too “low class” or too linked to “lewd behavior.” Watch a Christian samba music video.

What ideas do these examples trigger for your congregation about worship elements that you have embraced or rejected for cultural reasons? Which cultural genres or practices are impossible to redeem for use in Christian worship?

Read or listen to the interview with Jean Kidula, a Kenyan ethnomusicologist and musician, on the rise of the Kenyan gospel music industry. She ends by contrasting gospel music in Kenya and the United States. Kidula says that in American gospel lyrics, the “Christian message tends to be separated from other social messages.” The lyrics talk about God and love the way other songs talk about friendship or romance.

In Kenyan gospel lyrics, Kidula sees a much closer relationship to daily life, “between theology and society….how you relate to the supernatural….how to live, what to eat, what to do when you are in trouble….”

Consider the songs used most often in your congregation’s worship. How closely do the song topics or lyrics relate to your daily life?

Turn to the Word of God

Begin by asking people to go to different parts of the room depending on whether they are most likely to trust information they received from “someone who knows someone”…someone they know…broadcast news… print. Have people “vote with their feet” again, according to whether or not they can recite the Christmas story as given in Luke 2:1-20.

Share these resources:

  • Brief statements: Ethnomusicologist Paul Neeley wrote, “Hear this challenge: To the literate I have become the Word on paper, to the nonliterate I have become the Word in song.” The Apostle John wrote, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Jesus once wrote with his finger in the sand, but we don’t know which words. Christ often quoted the prophets and psalms but didn’t write a book or leave any written record.

How do you define the term the Word of God? Is it the Word of God if you don’t receive and pass it on as printed words on pages? In what ways do you experience the Word of God in worship? How does this experience transfer to your daily life, both as an individual and a community member?

Start a book club

Good books to start discussing are:

Listen together to ethnodoxology presentations given by Frank Fortunato and Bill and Robin Harris at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.