School of Music


Master of Arts in Ethnomusicology (MA)


John Benham


ethnodoxology, ethnomusicology, textual analysis, indigenous hymnody, worship, worship lyrics


Missions and World Christianity | Music


How important are song texts in worship services? According to the Bible, these songs have a multi-faceted role. Not only do they contain truths about God’s revelation of himself in Scripture, but they also call his people to respond with their whole being. The same song can express worship to God, teach believers truths about him, and challenge unbelievers to turn from their false gods. Therefore, the lyrical content of Christian congregational songs is of utmost importance. However, a survey of ethnodoxological literature reveals a greater focus on songs’ musical content. One reason for this may be the general emphasis on the emotional, experiential aspect of worship in evangelicalism today. While biblical worship does certainly include the heart (Psalm 32.11), it also involves the mind. The Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 14.15, “I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also” (ESV). Furthermore, while musical analysis requires specialized training, theological lyrical analysis can be conducted by any spiritually mature Christian. Church leaders, musicians, and members need an objective way to evaluate song texts, whether for an annual repertory check-up, for the evaluation of a potential new song, or simply for a greater appreciation of the songs they already sing. Ethnodoxologists need a clear method to help churches evaluate the song texts of their active repertory as a preliminary step in song-writing workshops. Until the church leaders have a clear grasp of what songs they already have, how can they determine what new songs they need? The following method leads Christians through textual analysis in two steps. First, participants analyze a song text found in Scripture on a micro- and macro-level. They look for what truths the song contains about God’s revelation of himself and how his people should respond. They also determine the general “nutritional value” of the song from a discipleship standpoint and describe its overall flavor according to several characteristics. Second, they apply the same analysis to song texts from their church’s active repertory. Along with the previous steps, they check each phrase for theological accuracy and clarity, discussing their findings as a group. Finally, they consider the three-fold nature of worship and discuss whether they need to give more attention to any area as a local church. The method was tested in three phases. A workshop was conducted by videoconference with three different groups of people identifying as evangelical Christians. The first two workshops were conducted in English with Americans, and the last workshop was conducted in French with people residing in Europe. Participants found the method to be beneficial for them personally and spiritually, and they described it as potentially very useful in cross-cultural settings. The method will need to be slightly adjusted for each group and cultural setting, but it has potential as a useful tool for churches and ethnodoxologists in both literary and oral cultures.