Discerning the ‘liturgical core’

September 29, 2010 | Editorial | Number 19
By Dick Benner | Editor/Publisher

With music being so much a part of the Mennonite DNA, is it any wonder that the spectre of a new hymnal brings some trepidation to the congregational scene?

Amid a growing diversity in music styles, it can at the same time trigger a wearisome debate or provide an opportunity to discover our “liturgical core,” as Dave Bergen, one of three Canadians on the binational Mennonite Church Canada/MC U.S.A. worship council, puts it. Not to mention that our struggling denominational publishing agency, the leader and producer of the project, is trying to find its legs in a new electronic age.

The question, as posed by our counterpart in the U.S., “Do we need a new hymnal?”—to which respondents to an American poll said “no” by a margin of 2 to 1—is far too narrow in approaching this complex issue, as Bergen insists.

First, a new hymnal should be the outcome of a broader study of our worship resource needs, not the driving force to shape our worship styles for the next 25 years (the expected shelf life of our binational singing book). If discerned necessary, a hymnal wouldn’t be published until 2017.

Taking this long to deliberate is not unusual. The present hymnal, published in 1992 as a joint venture of what was then the General Conference Mennonites, the Mennonite Church and the Church of the Brethren, was nine years in the making. And that was during a time of fairly universal musical tastes and styles, with most of our music sung in four-part harmony with little instrumental accompaniment.

Today, that seems to be a time warp away, as evidenced by some 354 respondents to a 2008 survey conducted by an ad hoc committee appointed by Mennonite Publishing Network and sent to all 1,085 congregations in the U.S. and Canada. A total of 285 said yes, they use our latest hymnal (the blue-bound Hymnal: A Worship Book), but 346 said they also use piano, 301 use guitars, 228 use percussion, 159 use stringed instruments other than guitar, 149 use wind instruments and 128 use organ accompaniment. 

Use of electronic technologies showed that 253 congregations use amplification of instruments or singing voices, 147 use recorded music, 223 use projected music or texts, and 144 use projected images in their worship services.

Of the 285 congregations saying they purchased the latest hymnal, 156 also purchased Sing the Journey and 48 purchased Sing the Story—the two supplements to Hymnal published in 2005 and 2007, respectively—while 265 use a music licence from Church Copyright License International (CCLI), for reprinting songs of a praise and worship style, a source outside the denomination with no particular hymnody roots.

All of which is to say that the Mennonite church on both sides of the border is in serious transition in how we express ourselves musically. To find some semblance of universality in a worship resource is the unenviable task of the eight-member binational worship council. Its goal is commendable, as stated by Bergen: “To capture something of a liturgical core that continues to unite us, while also giving room and attention to the diverse cultures and traditions that comprise the Mennonite church today.”

Reaching this goal will not be as simple as compiling another 700 selections and more than 200 “worship resources” into a hardcover book representing that “liturgical core.” Some 174 of those same survey respondents want, in addition to the printed hymnal, an electronic version for PowerPoint projection, 185 want a hymnal companion (information about each hymn), 292 want an accompaniment resource for keyboard and instruments, and 174 are asking for music CDs.

And what texts shall we use? The growing number of us not of European origin are not necessarily inspired by the sometimes slow-moving rhythms of a 16th-century hymn with its medieval parlance. I have experienced, with some fascination, a congregation wanting to appeal to both young and old, cumbersomely moving through the first part of the worship with traditional hymns, only to have the young people literally come alive with the transition to praise and worship selections. With hands raised, feet tapping, hips swaying, they get into the groove instantly!

Please pray for our binational worship council as it discerns our “liturgical core!”

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