From creating a tree that was “pleasing to the eye” in the garden of Eden (Genesis 2), to highlighting the artistic and spiritual leadership of Bezalel and Oholiab in the building of the tabernacle (Exodus 35), to the weirdly dramatic exploits of some Old Testament prophets (Ezekiel 4), God has been interested in artistry for a long time.
Jesus’ cryptic parables (Matthew 13), Paul’s teaching hymns (Colossians 3), John’s psychedelic imagery (Revelation 4), and the central roles of singing, dancing, storytelling, aroma and food symbolism, icons, preaching, poetry, and proverbs in the life of Israel and the Christian church all point to the same truth: God communicates artistically.
God has sparked a new movement in the last couple of decades that flows from this long history and connects to His kingdom in deeply new ways. Some of us call it “ethnodoxology.” Before we unpack this new word and its concrete manifestations, we’ll give you a quick tour through the range of approaches to missions work with the arts.
There have been three categories of ways that missionaries have used artistic communication in cross-cultural missions work. Actually, these are more like three points on a multifaceted continuum that describe most of what’s happened in the growth of the church over the last two millennia. You may notice that these parallel common approaches to missiology in general.
Bring it—Teach it
People working cross-culturally in this framework teach their own arts to people in another community. This has been a common practice throughout the history of the church, and is still going on. It’s why you could sing “Ekangeneli Na Yesu” with a church in rural Democratic Republic of Congo a week after arriving. Previous missionaries wrote the song by putting lyrics in the Lingala language to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne.”
The first two and a half minutes of the 1951 film The African Queen brilliantly show an extreme example of this approach.
The Bring it—Teach it approach may ultimately result in a common artistic language that unifies people around the world. It also sometimes contributes to satisfying and pleasurable fusions and newness. However, this approach can have frequent downsides as well. Some may include miscommunicating emotions and messages, communities that see God as foreign to them, local artists who feel excluded or demoralized, a sense among local communities that Christianity is irrelevant, and a weakening of kingdom diversity.
Someone reaching out in what is called the Bridges approach will learn enough about another community’s arts to influence how they use their own arts in ministry. Art therapists, for example, may use local materials or songs to guide children through a healing process from trauma (see BuildABridge.org). This approach could also include collaborations between artists of different cultures for common purposes, where what is produced has characteristics of more than one tradition.
This model often requires a relatively short time before making initial progress, and it can work in communities who are going through trauma and don’t have energy or resources to do their own arts completely. It may also promote healthy interdependent relationships where everyone equally shares their arts.
Problems can come up with this approach when there is a significant power differential between the missionary and the artists in the community. The higher global social capital of an outsider can dampen the resolve and courage of local artists. This approach may also produce unsustainable results—new collaborative artistic production that is not deeply rooted in traditions and social systems will likely fade away.
Find it—Encourage it
In Find it—Encourage it, the missionary learns to know local artists and their arts in ways that spur these artists to create in the forms they know best. You can think of this missionary as a catalyst for someone else’s creativity, helping give birth to new creations that flow organically from the community. This approach usually requires longer-term relationships with people in a community, and a commitment to learn above all else.
A missionary in this approach is always focused on others’ creativity. But it’s important to note that artists in a community will have goals that fall along a continuum. On one end are those who are primarily interested in connecting with a wider audience (e.g., using popular dance or music with national symbolism). On the other end are artists whose focus is to communicate with their local community (e.g., sparking creativity in arts that have longer histories within the community). Many artists do both.
Mary Hendershott holds workshops in West Africa with the goal of sparking Scripture-infused creativity in arts with long local histories. Communities want these new creations to help Christ-followers worship God more completely. Here, Mary is involved in one such workshop:
The most important benefit of encouraging local artistic communication is that the art already exists and is owned locally. There’s no need to translate foreign materials and local artists are empowered to contribute to the expansion of the kingdom of God. This approach also avoids many communication problems common in translation, and feeds into richer worship for all of God’s people now and into eternity (see Revelations 7). Problems may arise if communities allow their strengthening identity to lead to pride, or their local creativity to guide God’s truth into syncretism.
A Snowballing Network, a Couple of Books, and an Explosive Spot of Tea
This Find it—Encourage it method is not new: Patrick and other missionaries to the Celts were engaging local arts in the 5th century. But the last couple of decades have seen bourgeoning interest, new training programs, affirmation by missions leaders, and publications that mark something new and solid. Much of this activity is centered around the idea of ethnodoxology: a theological and anthropological framework guiding all cultures to worship God using their unique artistic expressions.
Here are a few key elements of the movement:
- The International Council of Ethnodoxologists (ICE; worldofworship.org). ICE members support and equip each other through online networks, conferences, short courses, and certification.
- Worship and Mission for the Global Church: An Ethnodoxology Handbook from William Carey Library is a 600-page volume of articles, stories, and tools. A companion field manual is also available.
- Arts in Mission 2011. 60 researchers, artists, educators, and administrators gathered at All Nations Christian College (ANCC) in England in September 2011 to test a draft of the new field manual. The conference was sponsored by the World Evangelical Alliance, SIL International, ANCC, and ICE. The results were explosive.