For Anneli Loepp Thiessen, singing in church is just as much about listening as it is about making sounds.
“In a culture that is increasingly busy and full of excess noise, church can be a space for quiet listening in a way that’s countercultural,” she says. “We can do that through our music.”
This past spring, Loepp Thiessen was one of six women and six men from across North America chosen to serve on the music committee for the new song collection for Mennonite churches planned for release in 2020. At 21 years of age, she is the committee’s youngest member.
Loepp Thiessen’s parents are pastors, so she grew up in three different Ontario congregations: Shantz Mennonite Church in Baden, Avon Mennonite Church in Stratford, and the Gathering Church in Kitchener. This exposed her to different ways of singing. At Shantz, the congregation sang mostly hymns. At Avon, the congregation sang a mix of hymns and contemporary worship music. And at the Gathering Church, the congregation sings exclusively contemporary worship music.
“One of the things I think I can contribute to the committee is a broad understanding of the way different churches worship,” she says, adding that her upbringing has led her to think critically about the way North American Mennonites worship, as well as why some people hold on to hymns so dearly while others are drawn to contemporary worship music. “I’ve always thought there’s an unnecessary tension between the two, which got me thinking about what balanced worship looks like,” she says.
That’s where creating space to listen comes in. “Worship is a conversation between us and God,” Loepp Thiessen says. “Sometimes God is speaking to us, sometimes we as a community are speaking to God, or sometimes we’re singing encouraging words to each other.”
Maintaining a balance among all of these, and making room to listen, is important. Loepp Thiessen says that music arising from the Taizé community in France does this especially well. “It’s just simple, simple music that is repetitive,” she says. “I think there’s something so profound about leaving space for God to speak.”
Loepp Thiessen began playing the piano when she was 5. Her passion for leading worship was sparked as a young person attending Rockway Mennonite Collegiate in Kitchener, as well as at Ontario Mennonite Music Camp at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo. It was at these places that she was involved in planning worship for the first time, from playing hymns in chapel and picking relevant scripture to read, to planning entire services.
Her skills as a musician have been further honed at Canadian Mennonite University (CMU) in Winnipeg, where she is in her fourth year of a music degree, with a double major in piano performance and music ministry. “My time at CMU has stretched me in ways I never could have imagined,” she says. “It has been profoundly rewarding.”
The life of a music student is a demanding one, and keeping God at the forefront is key for Loepp Thiessen. She points to a quote from Johann Sebastian Bach, who said, “I play the notes as they are written, but it is God who makes the music. That’s how I view my piano performance,” she says. “Even if I play everything perfectly and nail all the notes, if I don’t offer it as a sacrifice, and include God in my playing and view it as worship, it’s not what it can be.”
Loepp Thiessen has a pastoral approach to music that made her a natural fit for the music committee, says Irma Fast Dueck, a member of the steering committee that is responsible for the music committee’s work.
“A pastoral musician thinks about music with a pastor’s heart, with a care for the people, and that’s Anneli,” says Dueck, who teaches practical theology at CMU. “She cares about the people who are singing and wants to nourish [them through] song.”
Dueck adds that Loepp Thiessen works well with a variety of people from a variety of backgrounds “gracefully and beautifully.”
“She’s so gracious and hospitable,” Dueck says. “It makes her perfect for this job.”
The song committee’s first meeting is planned for Harrisonburg, Va., later this month, and Loepp Thiessen is looking forward to it. “The committee is made up of a hugely diverse group of people, so I’m really excited to learn from each of them,” she says. “They seem fantastic and really energetic. It’s exciting.”
See more about the song collection:
Mennonites to compile new hymnal and more
Director announced for new Mennonite song collection project
Committee selected for Mennonite song collection
Mennonite song collection project launches website