Congregational needs for worship resources and support skyrocketed when the pandemic roared into full swing and people struggled to create meaningful worship experiences in an online world.
Two Mennonite worship leaders and academics stepped in to help and, in March 2020, created the Anabaptist Worship Network (AWN), a community on Facebook to support worship and song leaders by sharing resources and encouragement.
“For a whole bunch of people who hadn’t necessarily thought about this before, it was kind of on their shoulders,” says the network’s co-director Anneli Loepp Thiessen. “I think it needed to happen anyways, and then March 2020 accelerated that, just like COVID accelerated so many things,”
The 27-year-old is working on a PhD in interdisciplinary music research at the University of Ottawa, where she attends Ottawa Mennonite Church. She founded AWN with co-director Katie Graber, 46, who teaches ethnomusicology at Ohio State University and attends Columbus Mennonite Church.
The two met while on the committee developing Voices Together, the new Mennonite song collection. They recognized the project would continue long after the hymnal was published. “There’s a huge amount of work that goes into putting the hymnal together, but then getting people to use it is this whole other thing,” Loepp Thiessen says.
She adds that as they worked on the hymnal, they realized “how much the landscape around worship education and worship resourcing has changed since 1992, when the [previous] hymnal came out.” Fewer church music majors, pastors and denominational positions for worship development means the hymnal has entered a very different landscape than 30 years ago, she says.
Loepp Thiessen and Graber wanted to establish a platform where lay church leaders could compare their experiences and help each other with Voices Together.
“Mennonite worship is so dependant on lay leaders and there is something absolutely wonderful about that, but we have to make sure people have the supports they need to know what they’re doing,” Graber says. “I think there’s a whole group of church attenders who might be interested in worship leading or song leading, but feel like, ‘I can’t do that because I don’t know how.’ ”
The AWN Facebook group’s 663 members use the space to make connections, ask questions, exchange ideas and explore different ways to worship. They’ve put together virtual choir recordings for each other and shared sheet music and videos. The group’s size and frequency of activity quickly grew to exceed the two women’s expectations.
“I continue to be surprised by how people continue to trickle in pretty consistently . . . so pleased by the way people feel free to put a question out there,” Graber says. “That’s exactly what we were hoping for the Facebook page especially.”
What began as a Facebook group has flourished into a whole organization. The co-directors now work with a leadership team of 13 volunteer members to guide the network, which encompasses three groups “working to support and strengthen public worship in Mennonite communities,” its website states.
The AWN Projects Team furthers Anabaptist worship education by hosting webinars and in-person events, and writing a regular blog. The Voices Together Implementation Team leads workshops on the new hymnal and develops supplemental resources for the collection. The Together in Worship Leadership Team curates an ever-expanding online collection of free Anabaptist worship resources.
AWN partners with organizations like Mennonite Church Eastern Canada, which offers financial support through a grant, and Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, which provides administrative assistance.
Graber and Loepp Thiessen recently received a grant from the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship, which they are using to organize an Anabaptist songwriting retreat from May 25 to 28 at Hidden Acres Mennonite Camp in New Hamburg, Ont. (They are still seeking participants; more information can be found on the AWN website.)
The retreat will focus on creating non-English language songs and contemporary worship songs. Loepp Thiessen acknowledges Voices Together serves many different communities, but doesn’t take people very far in those two categories. “If we’re saying we’re an Anabaptist Worship Network, that means we want to not only resource very traditional, upper-middle-class Mennonite congregations, we want to move beyond that too,” she says.
Incorporating and celebrating the diversity of worship is important. Certain styles of worship have dominated the Mennonite narrative for a long time, Loepp Thiessen and Graber agree. Elements like four-part harmony or intellectually scripted sermons are often put on pedestals as the truest form of worship.
“It’s great if you love that, but that doesn’t make it okay to speak negatively about other kinds of worship,” Graber says.
“It’s a little ironic for Mennonites, who are so interested in neutralizing power and hierarchy,” Loepp Thiessen says. “Do we want to be upholding one particular way of worship as the most Mennonite way, or is it actually a truly Mennonite thing to revaluate what we’re doing and bring in other ways of worship and connecting?”
Graber says worship has different purposes for different people—sometimes they need the familiar to comfort them, and other times they need to set aside what they like so they can be hospitable “by creating a sound people will feel comfortable in . . . by stretching ourselves so we can stretch our idea of what community is, of who the family of God is, and that helps us stretch our idea of who God is.”
AWN currently does a lot of Voices Together resourcing, but Loepp Thiessen hopes its scope continues to grow beyond that, meeting broader needs of a wider variety of people. Graber hopes to do more research so she and her colleagues can be even better equipped to resource people for meaningful worship.
Do you have a story idea about Mennonites in Manitoba? Send it to Nicolien Klassen-Wiebe at firstname.lastname@example.org.