Ethnodoxology with Robin Harris

On February 26, the School of Church Music at Southwestern Seminary hosted Dr. Robin Harris who is an assistant professor of the Graduate Institute of applied Linguistics (GIAL) and the president of the International Council of Ethnodoxologists (ICE). She spoke on the subject, “Good music” and “good worship”: How understanding non-universals can inform the contextualization debates in the North American church and beyond.

Having grown up in Alaska as the daughter of missionary parents, Harris developed a passion for sharing the gospel and also for music.  Although she kept her passions separate in her own ministry with her husband as a missionary in Russia, the musical and cultural divide between the people groups they were called to reach caused her to seek training to combine missions and music with study in ethnomusicology.

Dr. Harris listed three historical approaches to arts in missions:

  1. Bring it—Teach it. This method teaches his/her art to a Christian community with relatively little influence from the indigenous music of the community. There was a general decline in positive feedback from the colonialist approach that led to
  2. Build a Bridge. This approach connects arts to the Christian and the non-Christian community. There is some influence from the indigenous music, which eventually leads to
  3. Find it—Encourage it. In this model, the missionary learns the arts community and assists the people in creating within their own indigenous musical style. This approach requires a long-term relationship between the missionary and the people to develop and flourish.

“Ethnodoxology” is a relatively new term (1997) that Dr. Harris defines as the “study of the worship of God by peoples around the world.” The goal is to encourage all people to participate in worship using their own culture without having to adopt the culture of the missionary. Worshiping in “spirit and truth” (John 4) is the ultimate goal of the missionary for the people they are trying to reach for Christ.

Contrary to the common thought that music is a universal language, Dr. Harris believes that while there are universals within music, it is not a universal language but a universal phenomenon. While every culture has their own music and arts, there is no universal definition for the meaning of the music and arts that can be translated across to all people. She played several musical examples to illustrate that the meaning of the music to the performers in another culture was very different from the meaning of the music to our western or far eastern ears. Contextualization is essential to understand the people and learn their “heart language.” It is optimum for the missionary to be able to work within the “heart music language” of the people to eliminate unnecessary barriers to the gospel.

Western music may be a detrimental influence on reaching the people for Christ because of their political and/or cultural attitudes toward the outside group of people. They may reject the gospel merely on the basis of the music and culture the missionary brings to them. At the very least, they are unable to worship God to the fullest in their spirit unless they are using their “heart language.” Dr. Harris pointed out that while contextualization is important, compromise on theology and scripture is not acceptable. However, it is essential to make sure theology is able to intersect with the cultural aspects of the community. Care must also be taken to insure the appropriateness of the music for worship in regards to the associations the music may carry from the culture.

Dr. Harris presented a 1998 case study by Kersten Bayt Priest of two North Carolina churches attempting to merge. It was discovered in the process that although many theological, socio-economic, and educational factors were similar, their theology of worship was very disparate, causing the merger to fail. Dr. Harris’s conclusion was that much more time and thought needed to be invested in their attitudes towards each other’s worship style and that one cultural style should not dominate the other style. This concept needs to be applied within the States as well as around the world.

For further study, Dr. Harris recommended:

ICE website –
Krabill, James R, Frank Fortunato, Robin P Harris, and Brian Schrag, eds. Worship and Mission for the Global Church: An Ethnodoxology Handbook. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2013.
Articles by Ron Mann, Robin Harris, and James Krabill

Lori Danielson is a PhD student in the School of Church Music at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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