How our hymns influence and reflect our changing theology
Dr. Kenneth J. Nafziger, longtime and noted professor of music at Eastern Mennonite University—plus a key figure in putting together a hymnal and two song supplements—spoke at a recent breakfast meeting of a group called Anabaptist Center for Religion and Society (ACRS).
His topic? How our hymns influence and reflect our changing theology.
Former radio speaker Margaret Foth introduced Ken and reflected on memories of her mother singing—almost every morning—the familiar “I owe the Lord a morning song, of gratitude and praise . . .” There were numerous affirmative nods around the room—obviously a similar remembrance for many.
As Ken got up to speak about the history of Mennonite hymnals, he first told a story of the origins of this “quintessentially Mennonite” hymn, written by Amos Herr, a Lancaster County (Pa.) bishop. One Sunday morning when the snow was s deep Amos’s horse couldn’t make it through the drifts to church, Amos wrote this song of gratitude. “It has been in every hymnal since then,” Ken noted, a “simple and sturdy tune like Shaker furniture, with clearly conveyed ideas.”
This story reminded Ken of the time he took a group of EMU students to southwestern Germany, an area from which the predecessors of many North American Mennonites hail. Some in that tour group were music students, and someone in a congregation they were visiting asked that they sing “I Owe the Lord a Morning Song.“ Many of the EMU students, youngsters that they are, didn’t know it! So the congregation in Germany sang it in English for the EMU students! They said that PAX and CPS volunteers in the late ’50s and early ’60s had taught them the song.
Ken followed his wonderful story by launching the roomful of expectant listeners into a richa cappella verse or two. I don’t think anyone was disappointed to sing this old song, nor in Ken’s rundown that followed of Mennonite hymnals in the U.S. (an admittedly incomplete history, he noted). Many of the old timers (I’ll count myself as one) in the audience remembered these titles, all published by Mennonite Publishing House or Herald Press (the ones with links are still sold on the MennoMedia store).
Below are just 11 out of his list of 25 of “Mennonite Hymnals in the U.S.”
1902 Church and Sunday School Hymnal
1916: Life Songs #1
1924: Children’s Hymns and Songs
1927: Church Hymnal
1938: Life Songs #2
1947: Junior Hymns
1969: The Mennonite Hymnal (from whence came #606)
Sing and Rejoice, Sing the Journey, and Sing the Story, 1979, 2005, and 2007, respectively
1992 Hymnal: A Worship Book (co-published with Brethren Press for Mennonite and Church of the Brethren congregations)
Ken gave additional juicy one-liners about the difficult job of producing a new song collection that pleases everyone. Some of these may have been quotes from other people:
- The only thing wrong with a new hymn is that no one knows it yet.
- It is easy to slide into ruts in our music.
- The power of social singing—for the fun of it—is underestimated.
- #606 was put into a section of the 1969 hymnal that had songs more difficult to sing. When its new number in Hymnal: A Worship Book, #118, was first announced in some venues, there were audible boos and hisses!
- New hymnals unleash new creativity by poets, pastors and musicians who want to publish new hymns they’ve written or composed.
- Catholics originally did not sing during their worship—that changed with Vatican II when they were told they could or should sing.
- Many of us remember the Medical Mission Sisters, a nun’s group out of South America in the ’60s, which popularized folk-type music for Catholic worship.
- Old Mennonites did not traditionally use instruments; Ken remembers one Gospel Herald editor writing that a guitar was the perfect accompaniment for worship because it was “so cheap.”
- Songs with rhythm have been a serious challenge for Mennonites.
- The first printing of Sing and Rejoice was withdrawn and destroyed because it had a stanza with the word “gay” in it.
- The 1992 hymnal was the first hymnal for Mennonites to be organized according to different acts or movements of worship such as gathering, praise, thanksgiving.
- It was also the first hymnal with a section on “doubt.” Ken said people thanked him for helping to create a section on doubt in a hymnal.
- “How Great Thou Art” cost more to include than any other song; it should perhaps never have been copyrighted.
Finally, Ken offered practical ideas and thoughts as you use music in your congregation:
- Consider giving children or youth a hymnal upon baptism or confirmation.
- You can tell if you’re getting into ruts with your music if there is one or more section of pages whose edges are very well used or smudgy from hands.
- Always use a song from the global church in every service, as a reminder that we have a global church, and a prompt that the way we live in the world is different.
- Congregants are often more moved by songs than the sermon. Music moves words close to the heart and soul.
We arrived late to a funeral at my childhood church so we sat in the back, beyond the pews and songbooks. The song leader was as I remembered, with a pitch pipe and do-me-sol. I was thrilled as I sang when the words came back to me, verse after verse. Songs like “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” “Rock of Ages,” and “Peace, Perfect Peace.” Together with my clear singing voice and with the lyrics rising from my heart, I felt at home. I sang with freedom and truth. Yes, through the service there were moments of disquiet. But there were also profound moments of grace. “Amazing Grace” rose as the song of my heart when we gathered for the final goodbye at the graveside.
These are the songs of my heritage. I grew up in a small Mennonite church with four-part a capella singing. My alto voice was strong and sincere. Singing, for me, remains a significant part of worship and experiencing community. My voice and song is what I share.
During my 20s and 30s, in an overseas setting, I listened to music of groups like the Medical Mission Sisters, the Monks of Weston Priory, Michael Card, even Jesus Christ Superstar! The lyrics were fresh, an expression of faith that moved me. I prayed through music. I found words for the longings of my heart.
In time, I found the joy of singing in other languages: Vietnamese, Indonesian, and Spanish. “Besar Setiamu” touches my heart as much as “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” What a foretaste of the grand choir of voices from every tribe and culture!
I ponder, could it be that everyone is created with their own inherent song of the heart? Listen to nature. Each bird, creature, insect, gurgling stream, even the rustling leaves sound different from species to species. I like to think that God gave each of us a song at conception! As humans it seems to take a lifetime to discover our songs and sing in freedom and truth. This is often a song without words; a welling up of love, desire, and lament. And at times there seems to be no song.
This is my reality. The Beloved is within. Out of this comes the song of my heart. Christ is part of all that I do and experience. Christ is the symphony and the cantata when my senses come alive with beauty and I lose myself in the moment. I shout to the sky and the sea. I am also quiet before the majesty of tall trees and sunsets.
Across the street, I see my friend loaded down with bags, clothes askew. She mutters to herself about life as she drags a red and swollen foot along. “Lord, have mercy” wells up in lament. These are the songs of my heart.
I reflect on the words of the refrain from a familiar hymn by Robert Lowry, written in 1869, “How Can I Keep from Singing”: “No storm can shake my inmost calm / while to that Rock I’m clinging. / Since love is Lord of heav’n and earth, / how can I keep from singing?”
The song of my heart is a love song, an expression of union with my Creator, Lord, and Savior. Therese of Lisieux wrote, “Only through love can I render myself pleasing to the Lord.” How can I keep from singing!
Therese of Lisieux
Six women and six men from across North America have been chosen to serve on the committee for the new song collection for Mennonite churches planned for release in 2020.
The committee selections were announced by Bradley Kauffman, recently named project director for the collection, and Amy Gingerich, editorial director for MennoMedia, the agency managing the project on behalf of Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada.
The first meeting of the committee is planned for September 2016 in Harrisonburg.
The steering committee received more than 60 applications for the positions of project director, project assistant, music editor, text editor, worship resources editor, and committee member. “All of the applicants were well-qualified,” noted Gingerich. “We could have put together at least three excellent committees from the candidates.”
The editorial assignments include:
Adam Tice, text editor; Tice has written hymn texts for more than two hundred published songs and is a music composition graduate of Goshen College with a minor in Bible and religion. Originally from Pennsylvania, he also served a pastorate near Washington, D.C.
Benjamin Bergey, music editor; Bergey is a doctor of music arts (DMA) candidate at James Madison University (Harrisonburg, Va.) in orchestral conducting. He is a graduate of Eastern Mennonite University majoring in church music. Originally from Franconia Conference, he is part of The Table, a Virginia Mennonite Conference congregation.
Sarah Kathleen Johnson, worship resources editor; Johnson is currently a PhD student in liturgical studies at Notre Dame University (South Bend, Ind.). She formerly pastored in Ottawa and is a graduate of Conrad Grebel University College.
The remainder of the committee, alphabetically by last name, include:
• Darryl Neustaedter Barg, Winnipeg, Manitoba; Neustaedter Barg works for Mennonite Church Manitoba with wide experience in worship music and recording/videography. He is a member of Douglas Mennonite Church in Winnipeg.
• Paul Dueck, Cartier, Manitoba; originally from Ontario, Dueck is a recently retired music educator and past graduate of Canadian Mennonite University who taught at Swift Current Bible School; he also pastored a congregation in Windsor.
• Mike Erb, New Hamburg, Ontario; Erb is music director at Hillcrest Mennonite Church and is actively involved in Mennonite Church Eastern Canada, Mennofolk, and a recording studio; Erb also served at Erb Street Mennonite Church.
• Katie Graber, Columbus, Ohio; Graber is a graduate of Goshen College with a PhD in ethnomusicology from the University of Wisconsin. Originally from Iowa, she teaches piano and music at two universities, and is part of Columbus (Ohio) Mennonite Church.
• Emily Grimes, Salem, Oregon; Grimes grew up attending Berkey Avenue Mennonite Fellowship in Goshen and is a graduate of Goshen College in music education. She is the music director at Western Mennonite School in Oregon and attends Salem Mennonite Church.
• Tom Harder, Wichita, Kansas; Harder is pastor at Lorraine Avenue Mennonite Church in Wichita with a DMA in guitar performance and an MDiv from Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (now Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, or AMBS).
• SaeJin Lee, Elkhart, Indiana; Lee is a graduate of Goshen College, and currently studying at AMBS with a minor in music in worship; she is part of the Hively Avenue congregation and worked with music at the 2015 Mennonite World Conference.
• Anneli Loepp Thiessen, Winnipeg; Loepp Thiessen is originally from Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, and just finished a third year of studies in piano and worship at Canadian Mennonite University; she is part of The Gathering Church.
• Cynthia Neufeld Smith, Topeka, Kansas; Neufeld Smith has a BA from Bluffton University, an MDiv from AMBS, and a DMA, all focused on worship and music. She and her husband, Roger, are copastors of Southern Hills Mennonite Church in Kansas.
The steering committee responsible for the work of the music committee consists of Russ Eanes and Amy Gingerich from MennoMedia; Terry Shue and Nicole Francisco Bailey representing Mennonite Church USA; and Karen Martens Zimmerly and Irma Fast Dueck representing Mennonite Church Canada.
Music committee members were selected partially on the basis of their compatibility with the guiding principles for the project, including an Anabaptist missional lens; a forward-looking vision for music in congregational life; an ability to work collaboratively; and a history of engaging a diversity of musical idioms.
Bradley Kauffman added that the committee will be engaging additional consultants to help ensure that the collection addresses the needs of the twenty first century church.
They will meet for the first time in Harrisonburg, VA from September 22-25, 2016 at the MennoMedia offices.
Bradley Kauffman brings passion for Anabaptist theology, music, and worship
Bradley Kauffman of Cincinnati, Ohio, has been hired as project director for the new song collection for Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada. The print version is slated for release in 2020. He began this full-time staff position on July 5, 2016.
Director Song Collection project
Kauffman earned a bachelor of arts in music education at Goshen College in 1996 and completed a master of arts in choral conducting at the University of Iowa in 2002.
“Bradley’s passion for the church and his keen interest in the formative role of music in our collective worship made him a very good fit for this position,” said Terry Shue, director of Leadership Development for Mennonite Church USA and a member of the song collection steering committee.
Kauffman has taught music in three Mennonite schools. From 2007 to 2015, he was a choral and instrumental music instructor at Hesston (Kan.) College. From 2005 to 2007, he directed instrumental music at Bethany Christian Schools, Goshen, Ind. At Iowa Mennonite School in Kalona, Iowa, he was vocal and instrumental music instructor from 1997–2005.
He has led Music Week at Laurelville Mennonite Church Center in Pennsylvania two years, and across the church has been active in congregational musical life including hymn leading, guitar playing, serving as worship committee member and conducting church choirs. He has held roles in professional and community choirs singing and conducting. He studied under Dr. Timothy Stalter at the University of Iowa and also composer/conductor Alice Parker. Kauffman also has experience arranging, composing, and writing, and plays guitar and hand drums.
“My faith and professional life are each deeply formed by Mennonite hymnody,” Kauffman reflected regarding his desire to direct the project. He used Hymnal: A Worship Book (1992) as a textbook in conducting classes at Hesston College and noted it has served the denomination well. “Yet I resonate with the movement to renew and expand the denominational canon for the twenty-first century church,” he stated.
The project director is responsible for managing all aspects of the project, and will oversee a part-time project assistant, various committees, and freelance editors and designers. Kauffman will be responsible to a six-member steering committee: two from MennoMedia, Russ Eanes and Amy Gingerich; two from Mennonite Church USA, Terry Shue and Nicole Francisco Bailey; and two from Mennonite Church Canada, Karen Martens Zimmerly and Irma Fast Dueck.
Karen Martens Zimmerly, executive minister for formation and pastoral leadership for Mennonite Church Canada noted, “Through his previous employment and volunteer work, Bradley is well connected to many faith communities across Mennonite Church USA. I look forward to Bradley’s visits to Canada so that he becomes familiar with the rich diversity of congregations and area churches across Mennonite Church Canada.”
Kauffman recalls very early memories of experiencing the impact of Mennonite congregational singing. “I remember feeling enveloped in warmth, love, and interconnectedness. I have been surrounded by Anabaptist theology, music, and worship my whole life,” he remembers. This impact deepened as Kauffman grew in his spiritual journey and life experiences.
Kauffman said he brings “passion for preserving and expanding a denominational canon in ways that are theologically and artistically nourishing. I have done a lot of thinking, leading, and writing around the topic, and am energized by the prospect of leading this incredible project.”
Shue commented, “This is an opportunity to build upon the musical legacy which has long been a part of the Mennonite Church, while giving musical voice and forward leaning into the Church God is calling us to become.”
MennoMedia director Russ Eanes was especially happy with the large number of applications the steering committee received for staff and committee work, especially from younger adults. “It has been overwhelming. It shows the deep interest and energy that this project has for the whole church and we are very pleased about the experience and credibility that Bradley will bring to lead it.”
Most recently Kauffman has worked as full time stay-at-home parent; his wife, Renee Kanagy serves as pastor of Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship; he will work from their home in Cincinnati.
My aunt Louise tells stories about me as a two- or three-year-old, singing my heart out on car trips, loudly writing new verses to “The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night” from the backseat with reckless abandon and not a care in the world for phrasing, rhyme scheme, meter, or even pitch, for that matter.
The stories reinforce what I long have known: I express myself most fully through music. There’s a fairly interesting chronicle of my development as a person and artist in the recordings I’ve made since I started high school, and if I let anyone hear them, they’d find a very honest account of my joys, sorrows, silliness, anger, loves (and let’s be honest, infatuations) and faith in my 100+ song catalogue. I will not let anyone hear most of them, however, because though I am proud of their honesty, the majority of them are embarrassingly bad.
I have long believed that the music we sing in church needs to be just as honest in its reflection of the human experience as the music we listen to—and in my case, create—outside of church. Some settings in which I’ve worshiped lacked depth in their musical vocabulary, and they mostly sang happy songs of praise and thanksgiving. I once read about a woman dealing with incredible sorrow who couldn’t go to her church anymore because they didn’t sing anything that resonated with what she was experiencing. That seemed so crazy to me. The church is absolutely the place where someone hurting like that should be.
I belong to the Walking Roots Band. We were privileged to lead music at a retreat for Virginia Mennonite Conference pastors. The theme was trauma, and we were led carefully and courageously through the weekend by the resource speaker. My bandmate and friend, Seth Crissman, wrote a hymn of lament for the weekend using an Isaac Watts text and an original chorus. When he played it for us, I remember being blown away by the rawness of it all: “How long, O Lord, how long? / Will you forget me? Am I forsaken? / How long will you hide your face? / O Lord, I am shaken.”
When we first performed the song, I thought about people who experienced great loss. I sang for them. I wanted to give voice to their pain and let them know that they didn’t need to be happy to be in church, that crying out and shouting at God is okay.
And then I experienced traumatic loss. I almost couldn’t sing anymore. I couldn’t even cry out or shout.
My brothers and sisters in the band kept singing for me. They sang this song that expressed the anger, hurt, and despair that I felt. The power of music—and the power of Jesus’ love—is that my friends were not afraid to sit with me in the darkness. They sang the songs I couldn’t sing, and when I couldn’t cry out, they had the words to do it for me.
I love the reclaimed hymns we write and arrange in our band because they put us in touch with our ancestors of faith. Isaac Watts wrote the text of the verses for Seth’s “Lament” in 1719, almost 300 years ago. But in Seth’s setting of this text, I identify intimately with Watts’s words:
“See how I pass my weary days in sighs and groans; and when ’tis night / my bed is watered with my tears; my grief consumes, and dims my sight.”
A singing diet of this sort of song alone wouldn’t work for me; I need silly songs, songs to dance to, songs of love and hope, and songs of praise and thanksgiving. But mostly what I need in the music I sing and listen to—both in and out of church—is honest expression of what it is to be alive in the world today, and if the music holds even the most fleeting glimpse of what it is to be living God’s kingdom . . . well, then I sing, “Amen.”
Forty odd years after it happened, my friend, Chris, had only to recite the number 555 to get me to laugh. The number is not a punchline to any joke. It is simply the easy-to-remember number of a favorite song in The Mennonite Hymnal. We loved that song because an elderly lady in our church sang it with such vigor and unique tone that it gave us the giggles. The excitement we had seeing 555 “Would You Be Free” printed in the bulletin rivaled that of knowing we were going to have a potluck that noon. Though I felt ashamed when we imitated her singing it in the church yard later, I believe we were secretly and mysteriously inspired by the hearty bass line in the chorus coupled with weighty phrases and images. The fact that I still have all four verses of that hymn memorized is a testament, perhaps, to this woman’s fervor.
Much like the 555 lady, my own mother seldom used a hymnal in church. The words and notes were imprinted on her heart. I used to be a bit embarrassed by her confident singing and sometimes thought it seemed almost arrogant, most likely because she always smiled when she sang.
Information tied to a melody magically takes on an attachment to both our soul and our brain, and it’s locked in for life. When I read the words to a hymn such as, “I Bind My Heart This Tide” I realize it’s a uniquely beautiful lyric, but it doesn’t give me goosebumps until I hear it complete with all four parts.
As a child, I marveled that my mother knew so many melodies and words. Forty years later, I realize that I also have a vast store of lyrics and tunes tucked away in my mind. Still, like the sense of smell, I can recall definitive, transformative moments that demonstrated the power of music in my own life. I am quite certain the hymn “Heart with Loving Heart United,” which I learned at Hesston (Kansas) College, solidified my career in music education within the Mennonite church. Its uniquely Anabaptist-oriented lyrics and memorable melody were often my solace the next year when I went from the lonely Kansas plains to the heart of Amsterdam, Holland, to serve with the InterMenno trainee program.
From my current vantage point, I can more easily connect the musical dots of my past. For instance, I can hardly play a G chord on my guitar without recalling my first jam sessions; not in a garage with friends, but with my mom while she played piano and sang, “God Loves a Cheerful Giver,” a Medical Missions Sisters hit. The phrase in the song, “He loves to hear you laughing when you’re in an awkward spot” torments me to this day with its simple wisdom.
The world of singing keeps evolving and is still interesting, challenging, and satisfying. In the same way that I was moved by connecting to my own Germanic ancestors’ musical traditions of Europe, if I want to be an authentic music educator, I also have to acknowledge other people’s histories and perspectives. This active listening and learning is not only what I do as an educator, it’s what I feel is at least a minimal requirement as a disciple of Christ.
Congregational singing can be a subtle, yet powerful, form of discipleship training. I would even submit that when we sing a cappella we are actually practicing something quite radical and countercultural. What if our Christian gratitude, convictions, hopes, salvation, and concerns were expressed through the sounds of confident, enthusiastic, congregational singing? What great influence would we have if we sang and smiled like my mother did?
This goal of good, lusty singing has become my mission as an educator in a Mennonite school. Of course I want my students to be musically excellent but, more importantly, I want them to own the songs with passion and understanding so that years from now they, too, can recall their own transformative moments—just like I had, listening to the woman singing 555.