The last time my church sang together was March 8, the second Sunday in Lent. Since then, my singing has consisted of one backyard, physically distant, “Happy Birthday” and my lone voice following the congregation’s pre-recorded music on the screen.
For those of us who count congregational music as a vital part of our spiritual life, the past half-year has been a famine. Many of us consider our Mennonite hymnal and songbooks to be prayer books, for both personal and communal use. In the past, the words and tunes contained in them have touched deep places within our souls; they have helped gather us with our spiritual family each time we met for worship.
The coronavirus pandemic guidelines limited us to online venues for congregational worship, or to small groups instructed not to sing. We’ve tried to find new ways to engage in song together, but these haven’t been generally successful or sustainable. And while we’ve been mourning our distanced worship, a group of talented people has been putting finishing touches on a new hymn collection designed to lead North American Mennonites into a new era of song.
A previous editorial, “Singing a new song,” gave details about this ambitious project called Voices Together. You’ve probably seen updates in social media and in the pages of the church publications. Maybe you’ve even had the opportunity to try out some of the new songs.
That four-year process is soon ending, with the virtual launch of the Voices Together hymnal scheduled for Dec. 13. Pre-orders for the book have exceeded expectations and the hymnals will be shipped to congregations this fall.
For now, MennoMedia, the publisher of the collection, has offered “sneak peeks” of its contents, with sample videos, diagrams outlining the process of content selection, a list of the languages included, and more. You can see some recent information here: voicestogetherhymnal.org/2020/08/21/voices-together-contents-announced and here: https://canadianmennonite.org/stories/voices-together-sneak-peeks
As their work began in 2016, the organizing committee probably couldn’t have imagined the investment of talent and time that would be required to bring this gift to the church. MennoMedia reports that the committee (13 volunteers and one staff member scattered across North America) spent at least 50 days at in-person meetings, with additional in-person meetings for subcommittees and editors. Between face-to-face meetings, much work happened electronically, via email, shared documents and other online platforms.
As they imagined what the church will look like and how it will worship in the years ahead, committee members considered more than 10,000 songs, winnowing the list down to 775. Given the diversity present in Mennonite congregations across Canada and the United States, they worked to select music and other worship resources that acknowledged that variety, in terms of languages, life experiences, musical preferences and theological emphases.
Late in the production process, they learned about charges of sexual misconduct against one of the selected composers. Considering the needs of sexual-abuse survivors within the church family, the committee pulled his songs from the collection and selected replacements.
As we prepare to receive this gift offered to the larger church, some challenges still lie ahead. First, of course, is the question of how our congregational singing will happen in the months ahead. When will our congregations be able to actually bring our voices together in celebrative song, all in the same worship space?
Some of us may already be grieving the retirement of the familiar blue, green and purple songbooks and the “heart songs” they contained. When we open this new purple book, or see its words projected onscreen, there might be some discomfort with unfamiliar tunes and new words. In the new collection, we may discover some songs that we don’t actually care for. And some of us will have to let go of strong feelings around the numbering of a certain favourite anthem.
But Voices Together will offer many opportunities for growth. Along with familiar songs from previous collections will be new treasures for us to discover. Which new songs will we add to our heart songs list? How will the resources contained in this collection nurture our worship practices in the future? How will our faith be enriched, our perspectives enlarged? How will this new book help us worship God together?
Back when the title was chosen, no one could have predicted the irony of launching a hymnal called Voices Together during a time when singers cannot be physically present with each other to bring their voices together. Yet, the planners reiterate the promise of Jesus: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20). In the months to come, we would do well to grasp on to that promise, until the day when our many voices can join again to praise God, who sings over us all.
If you’re interested in the process behind the Voices Together song collection, you can find past stories on our website by searching for “voices together.” To learn more about its launch and introductory resources, go to voicestogetherhymnal.org.
—Updated Nov. 9, 2020