My journey in ethnodoxology

Ghanaians composing songs in their language

Ghanaians composing songs in their language

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)

Singing brand new songs

Singing brand new songs

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.

Joseph Gyebi and family

Joseph Gyebi and family

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.

Multiethnic churches are the norm

Over 60 languages are spoken in Ghana. That means more than just 60 languages. It means that many different people groups, each with their own ethnic identity and religious beliefs. You might imagine that each of those people groups lived in its own area with nice, discrete boundaries. The reality is much more complex.

Selling Scripture in 13 different languages at a church annual meeting in Indonesia (Photo: David Moore)

Selling Scripture in 13 different languages at a church annual meeting in Indonesia (Photo: David Moore)

People groups often overlap, at least near the borders of each group. Many people from nearby areas, or even far away, move into small towns, creating a rich tapestry of ethnic identities. On Sundays, churches deal with believers from multiple languages and with multiple traditional beliefs. The idea that each language group has its own area where people worship in their own language is still accurate in some places, but its is fast becoming the exception.

In the photo, taken at a church conference in Indonesia, the Scriptures are for sale in 13 different languages, which probably does not cover all the languages of the Christians at the conference. In Africa, the meetings at such conference is conducted in a national or regional language. Delegates are chosen who speak that language.

Singing hymns in two Ghanaian languages as the same time. This was at a business meeting conducted in English.

Singing hymns in two Ghanaian languages as the same time. This was at a business meeting conducted in English.

Figuring out how to be one, unified church while making sure that everyone hears the message in a language they fully understand is a challenge. There are many approaches, such as having more than one service each in a different language, then once a month having a unified service in a regional or national language. Some churches conduct services in two languages. But translating everything is time consuming plus it is difficult for listeners to stay focused when every other sentence is in a language they don’t understand. Others have church services in a regional or national language, and home Bible studies in local languages. There are no easy answers. But some ignore the issue altogether and do everything in a regional or official language. But that leaves those most disadvantaged in that language to fend for themselves. It is hard to imagine how a person can become a thriving Christian while understanding only a fraction of the Bible and the teaching and preaching in church.

Engaging the church in Africa in dialog about its multilingual environment is an important part of seeing that Bible translation in African languages are used to their full potential. Bringing new Christians still steeped in their traditional religion into a full understanding of their faith and into joyful walk with Christ is a stiff challenge if the language of the church leaves them out. Effectively addressing the complex linguistic situation facing the church is crucial to a healthy future for the church in Africa, one of the world’s largest.

That is why one of our strategic goals is that “use of the translations in the mother tongue will be sustained and growing”. To that end, I am one of a small team working to organize a conference of church leaders in November which will raise awareness of this issue and try to find ways to address it.


Composing Nkonya praise music under a mango tree

Composing Nkonya praise music under a mango tree

The word for the day is ethnodoxology –  the art of making praise songs in local languages.  Praise should come from the heart, so it is best given in one’s heart language.

Right now,  my friend Joseph Gyebi, worship leader, pastor, aficionado of Ghana Gospel music, and student of engaging culture for Christ,  is helping the Nkonya people of Ghana develop new praise songs in their language.

Ethnodoxology, it’s what will happen in heaven.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Singing in Sign Language

Singing in Sign Language

This week I am featuring a very special guest blogger – my wife, Dayle. Enjoy.

I was thinking, “I better turn off my phone ringer.” Then I remembered that I was attending a worship service for the Deaf. Who would it bother? Cool. Then Ed phoned me  and my first reaction was to quick answer to stop the ringing. Then I relaxed. Sound is not where it’s all happening here.

Leading deaf worship

Emmanuel Acheampong, main translator, leading the worship team

I was at the a dedication of the first ever portions of Scripture translated into Ghana Sign Language done by DOOR (Deaf Opportunity OutReach; a Wycliffe Affiliate). People were starting to gather to begin the program.

Deaf Youth Choir

Deaf school choir signing a lively song.

How can someone sing without sound?  Vibration, movement, heart, mind and some elbow room are where it’s at! The singing reminded me of cheer leading. The cheering was for Jesus. “Who are you going to live for?”  “Je-sus, Je-sus!”  “Who are you going to look to?” “Je-sus, Je-sus!” “Who are you going to serve?” “Je-sus, Je-sus!” The drums play the beat and everyone feeling the vibration can keep right in step with the songs, moving left and right when appropriate, clapping or signing. The Deaf school choirs were very impressive with their choreography combined with the sign language.


Drummer - an indispensable accompaniment to Deaf worship, everyone feels the vibrations and keep the same rhythm

When you were a kid at church, did you dislike bowing your head and closing your eyes to pray? You don’t have to if you are deaf. Everyone LOOKS. While the person who is signing is praying, he is not necessarily closing his eyes. He is looking up. I love the sign for “amen”. Hold your left palm out in front of you facing up. Hit it with your right hand formed into a fist, on the little finger side of the fist. It feels like a solid, “AMEN”.

During the service there were a few fussy babies, not disturbing anyone but their moms. It was the few little ones who got away from their parents and began entertaining the masses out in front, who were able to distract from the program! And they could dance! They were met with laughter, understanding and even some appreciation.

Holding up DVDs and storyboards

Deaf translation team holding up DVDs and storyboards of the translation

Signing is so logical and many of the signs happen around the part of the upper torso where the process of the meaning happens. Thinking is up at the forehead. Feeling, owning, love, happiness, sorry, are all at the heart area. The mouth gets eating, sweet, talking and so forth. One of my favorites is “funny”, which is signed around the nose and the eyes are squinted!  Even though I had practiced for 3 days to read some sign language, it was impossible to keep up watching the Deaf communicating with each other. Their hands are very nimble and flexible and they “speed read”!The more I participate in sign language, the more the latent linguist in me comes to life and questions begin multiplying like snow gathering on a snow ball rolling down a snowy hill. It is like Christmas morning with a new item that must be assembled and has hundreds of pieces and you can’t wait to use it once it is built. The sign language translation was distributed on DVD (with a person signing it) and on “storyboards” which are books with drawing of the signs.

Communicating in sign language takes out lots of words we would use, putting whole thoughts into one sign. More can be said in a hurry. There is so much to learn about all the implications of Sign Language Bible translation. My heart is completely crushed when I think that it is only now, today, that Deaf  people are seeing Scripture in their heart language for the first time. Chagrin and deep sorrow. How did they have to wait so long? Then it switches to ecstatic anticipation of what God is going to do with His Word to the Deaf ones. A whole new world has opened up to them and they are now hearing God speak their language. They will be sending missionaries to minister around the world. We are at the edge of powerful changes.  God is at work. Who are we going to look to? Who are we going to live for? Who are we going to serve? Jesus! Hands down.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Handkerchiefs are for worship

The vibrancy of worship in African churches is remarkable. One of the key factors in the vibrancy is language. How many times have I been in an African church service which started with staid singing in English or French (depending on the country)  and then sprang into joyous outbursts of praise when there was a song in the local language. It is clear which language reaches the whole person. It is not for nothing that it is called the heart language!

You don’t take your handkerchief out at church unless you really need to. But many Ghanaians like to worship while twirling a handkerchief, although any piece of cloth will do. It adds a nice twist to their praise.

Enjoy the video.


The 2011 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Ghana was held in late August the picturesque mountain town of Abetefi. (also spelled Abetifi)

Presbyterian church in Abetifi, Ghana

Presbyterian church in Abetifi, Ghana

The opening was a mixture of western and Ghanaian influences. As in many American churches, the songs were projected on a screen, but with two differences. First, the songs were hymns. Second, they were projected in two languages side-by-side: Twi and Ga. Ghanaians have no qualms about mixing pieces of their tradition and culture with other influences and then tossing in a bit of technology to create what they want.

As the moderator ascended the pulpit, a lady in the audience created a disturbance. She called out in a language I did not understand while flailing her limbs. Depending on your world-view and theology you would either say that she was having a mental breakdown or that she was demon possessed. The Ghanaians I talked to offered the latter explanation. Three men started carrying her out the back by force. The moderator asked that the lady be brought forward and he designated three pastors to pray for her. After that the men took her outside.

In a sign of changing times in the oldest continually operating church in Ghana, founded in 1829, the moderator, who was finishing his first year in that office, thanked all those who had sent encouraging text messages to his phone. The way mobile phones have exploded here, it is not surprising that it is in Africa that I first heard people thanked publicly for sending encouraging text messages.

The choir was really great! In another example of mixing traditions: they sang a cappella in classical style but in a Ghanaian language, Twi. You can listen to a recording I made of the choir singing in Twi. I made it on my compact camera so the quality of the recording does not do the choir justice.

My overall impression was of an African church that had made the Gospel its own

Share On Facebook