Missions and Ethnodoxology: Do these words even belong together?

January 4, 2018
If someone had told me ten years ago I would be involved in Ethnodoxology, I would have probably said he/she was . . . well . . . imaginative, to say the least. But life is a journey, and our walk with God leads us through patches of ground that we often do not even realize exist. As a child in Brazil, where I was born, I began to learn how to play the piano, the recorder, and the oboe. I wished to serve God, be an accomplished musician, and speak as many languages as opportunity would allow me to learn. As a young man, I also felt drawn by the Lord to full time ministry and, some years later, to foreign mission work. Did I have too many interests, or were all these to become part of my life?

I have had a quite conservative church background. Don’t take me wrong, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. But being ‘conservative’ frequently means that one preserves the status quo of methods and views, not just that one adheres to and follows orthodox Christian beliefs. As someone who was dedicated to serve as a missionary, I tended to believe that to do ‘real’ missionary work, I had to use traditional systems of evangelism and basically ‘wear the uniform’ of a typical Baptist missionary. Around 2009, that ‘uniform’ was about to be terminally challenged in my life.

Through the years, I had often dealt with an internal conflict between the ‘fact’ of a call to missions and the ‘fact’ of being trained, and gifted, as a musician. My ‘batallion’ for which I wore the ‘uniform’ had always told me that, as far as major life involvement was concerned, I had to choose just one of them. Not so, I discovered in early 2010. Drawn by my (yet another!) interest in Bible translation, I attended a week promoted by Wycliffe Bible Translators in the Dallas area during which I was introduced to Ethnomusicology in Missions and the broader field of Ethnodoxology. It was a eureka moment in my life. Even though I had believed for years that God equips us with talents and gifts that have true purpose in accomplishing the mission of God, I was finally exposed to practical applications of arts in missions and an overall holistic view of Christian service.

For those who may not yet be familiar with the term, Ethnodoxology is the term adopted around the beginning of this century for the field that studies the practice of worship within the context of specific cultures. Although the word itself does not contain a reference to ‘art,’ the field does specialize in artistic forms of worship expression that are found in the thousands of cultures around the world.

Some may ask, “but what does Ethnodoxology have to do with missions?” I’m glad you asked! Discovering artistic practices that are (or can be) used for worship and proclamation of the Word is not just a topic of study but has many meaningful applications. As the Missio Dei can be best accomplished by sharing the Word of God in a language that is well understood by the people, likewise, by learning to understand and “speak” the artistic language that a community uses, doors can be opened to communicate the message of salvation and will allow us to disciple in a more effective manner. There are generally accepted ‘principles’ that guide much of the practice of Ethnodoxology that we will survey along the way.

The last couple of years have been eye-opening to me as I encountered many astonishing examples and ideas around this topic. In the next few articles, I would like to help my readers become better acquainted with this ‘new’ (is it really?) field of study. I invite you to follow along and discover why ‘missions’ and ‘Ethnodoxology’ do indeed belong in the same sentence.

1. Roberta King, “Ethnomusicology,” in the Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions, Scott Moreau, ed., (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), 327. See also: Dave Hall, “The Centrality of Worship,” Mission Frontiers (June 2001), at http://www.missionfrontiers.org/issue/article/the-centrality-of-worship (accessed August 11, 2016).

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