Ethnomusicology is the study of the music of different cultures. Christian missions have created a specific type of ethnomusicology called ethnodoxology. According to the International Council of Ethnodoxologists:
Ethnodoxology is the theological and anthropological study, and practical application, of how every cultural group might use its unique and diverse artistic expressions appropriately to worship the God of the Bible.
The parts of the word illustrate its meaning – “ethno” refers to people of different ethnic backgrounds and “doxology” means praise.
Even as a missionary, I initially considered ethnomusicology and ethnodoxology nothing more than interesting sidelines to real mission. But when I saw how people connect to God when they worship in their own music styles and what happens when they don’t, I changed my tune (pun intended). When Ghanaians sing Western hymns, they are subdued. When they switch to their own languages and music styles, worship comes alive. One missionary observed that when people sang in their own language and musical styles:
“the whole church starts singing—even the children”
I used to think that ethnodoxology was about people singing the kind of songs they prefer, or the kind that brings back great childhood memories. I eventually came to realize that it is about worshiping in the language and music styles that allow people to express their deepest emotions and thoughts. Translators for the Lala language in Nigeria reported that when Lala youth started singing worship songs in their language and musical styles, many repented and became Christians. Jesus said:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. (Matthew 22:37)
Music is an important way that people express their deepest things in their hearts and souls, especially in places where music is less what people consume and more what they do. I came to realize that it must be difficult, if not impossible to express “all your heart” or “all your soul” (emphasis mine) in a language or in music styles a person does not fully master. If it is necessary to have the Bible in the heart language, then it must be necessary to worship in that language as well. Furthermore, songs do much more than express emotion. A Christian song – We Shall Overcome – galvanized the civil rights movement in the US and in other places. Martyrs singing worship songs while being burned to death caused an explosion of Christianity in Uganda.
The opposite is also true.
I found that when people are only allowed to worship in other languages and in music styles that are foreign to them, they can start to feel like they have become like others to worship God. They may start to believe that God doesn’t like their music – that he prefers the way others do it. The idea that “God doesn’t like worship in my language and musical styles” becomes “God doesn’t like me” or even “The Christian God has cursed my people and me”. That is so sad.
A Ghanaian musician and friend, Joseph Gyebi, wants to change that. He has already helped Christian musicians from two language groups in Ghana develop worship and praise music in their languages and music styles. He is doing that while being a full-time student and serving part-time as a pastor to a congregation in Accra. The Ghanaian organization we work with wants to help him do more. We’re working on that.
There won’t be preaching in heaven, because we will know in full. But ethnodoxology? Oh, there’ll be lots of that!
And they sang a new song, saying,
“Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain,
and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation, (Rev 5:9)
“Missions exists because worship doesn’t. – John Piper
Here’s a video of some believers (not in Africa) worshiping to the first praise songs in their language.