Featured resource: A guide to Contemporary Worship Music in Voices Together
This article is part originally appeared as a part of the Mennonite Church USA MennoSnapshots series on Voices Together.
Benjamin Bergey is an active song leader and conductor. He is assistant professor of music at Eastern Mennonite University, where he conducts the choirs and orchestra and teaches music theory and conducting. In addition to serving as music editor for Voices Together, he is director of music at Harrisonburg Mennonite Church and conducts the Rapidan Orchestra.
Anneli Loepp Thiessen is an active song leader, classical musician, and music educator. She is completing her Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Music Research at the University of Ottawa, where she studies women in contemporary worship music. Anneli holds her Masters of Music in Piano Performance, her ARCT in Piano Performance, and a graduate diploma in Arts Management from Queens University. She is the director for Ontario Mennonite Music Camp, the co-chair of the Popular Idioms Committee for Voices Together, and the co-director of the Anabaptist Worship Network.
Contemporary Worship Music (CWM) is part of a global worship movement that emerged over 50 years ago. Songs are written in verse-chorus form, often led by a band, with sections repeated as the Spirit leads. It has fuzzy boundaries that include a wide variety of folk and popular styles. Debates about what is “traditional” and what is “contemporary” only perpetuate an unnecessary divide, so we are not concerned with establishing a precise definition of CMW. CWM is prominent in Voices Together, but has also been included in previous collections. “Seek Ye First” (417) from Hymnal: A Worship Book was an early CWM song, and more recently, Sing the Journey included “Come, Now is the Time to Worship” (29).
We know that many Mennonite communities have been singing CWM for decades and are well versed in its history and structure. For other communities, this genre feels new, and some more information is needed. A group of Voices Together committee members wrote a resource that serves as an introductory guide to the history, presence and role of CWM in Voices Together. It highlights the various types of CWM within Voices Together, the numerous other languages and countries represented in this genre, tips for learning CWM songs, other resources and facts, and a section of FAQs. This is a particularly helpful resource for church and music leaders to read, and it can be used in group discussions at worship committee meetings or Sunday School.
You can access the resource and find lists of songs and tips for learning here.
Below, we have included some FAQs about this expression of worship. The answers to these questions will be especially helpful if your community is still learning more about CWM and discerning how to sing these songs in worship. Additional FAQs are included in the resource.
WHO IS SINGING CWM?
Around the world, many Christians, including many Mennonites, are singing CWM! In the U.S. and Canada, there are hundreds of congregations, from rural to urban communities and across the theological spectrum, singing CWM as part of their worshiping practices. These churches include Mennonites, as well as other denominations, and they are singing in many different languages.
DO YOU NEED A “BAND” TO LEAD CWM?
No, there is no singular way to lead CWM. Different songs work better than others with guitar or piano, for example, and some feel empty without some sort of percussion. But by and large, if you try a song with the people and instruments you have, you will know if it works for you. Do not try to emulate the sound of a YouTube or other recording. Instead, find your own group’s groove, using the accompaniment edition as a starting place.
HOW DOES REPETITION WORK IN CWM?
In some songs, a refrain or bridge may use a repeated phrase of text and music. Just as with contemplative prayers from Taizé, short songs from the Iona Community, refrains from gospel songs, and repetitive hymn melodies, CWM uses repetition to internalize and contemplate certain aspects of a song. Consider how time and repetition can bring new awareness, and try to provide variety in other ways (such as getting louder or quieter through the repetitions or varying which instruments play). Note that many CWM songs are only repetitive if you repeat them. It is also acceptable to sing through the verses and refrains only once, and some songs, such as “In Christ Alone,” simply have verses that are sung through like a traditional hymn.
HOW DO I TALK ABOUT THIS WITH THOSE WHO ARE UNSURE IN MY CONGREGATION?
Engage in dialogue by starting with questions. What are they passionate about? What are they afraid of? Get to the root of their concerns. Find songs that show that CWM defies their stereotypes. Encourage them to see music and worship beyond their own preferences to accept the passions and heart songs of others. Recognize the diversity of our communities, the expansiveness of God, and the rich ways we are able to learn from all kinds of music as we learn to “sing a new song to the Lord.”
Learning by Listening
With answers to some of these common questions in mind, it is also important to consider the best ways to learn CWM. If your community has purchased and received Voices Together, you have likely noticed that when you flip through the collection you see pages upon pages of notated music, intended to be sightread. In the past, hymnal-using Mennonites have often relied on the page as the method by which to learn music. With Voices Together, we are eager for communities to read music off of the page; however, learning music by ear can be helpful, too, especially for CWM.
Listening to a new song is a great way to learn how a song sounds. As is true with any genre, it is best to listen to it from the person, group or culture who wrote it, when possible, and to listen to several versions, if available. However, that is just a starting place, since one’s given context will not likely be the same as in the recording. For example, a larger or smaller worship space might affect an appropriate tempo. There may or may not be musicians available for certain instruments or vocal parts, or a church may not have certain audiovisual equipment.
Adapting for Your Community
With CWM, it is true that a recording is a good starting place for learning a song, but don’t try to imitate the recording entirely. Oftentimes, recordings of particularly ubiquitous songs have wide-ranging variations. The recording may utilize a huge band on a large stage, performing in a way that may not be doable or appropriate in another church’s context. It’s possible that the tempo may be much too slow or too fast or the chorus may be repeated more times than desired in a given worship flow.
For that reason, the Popular Idioms subcommittee of the Mennonite Worship and Song Committee, in collaboration with Anabaptist Worship Network, has curated a playlist of CWM songs in Voices Together, as a starting place to listen and learn these new songs. Some of the recordings are from the original artists, others feature smaller groups that may be more akin to a church’s group of musicians, and some are the only available recording. You can find the playlist here.
Feel free to use these as a starting place, listen to other recordings you might find, and then see the essay in the Voices Together: Accompaniment Edition on page 6, titled, “Leading Songs With a Band.” This essay encourages leaders to make the song their own, fitting the tempo, choice of musicians, number of repetitions and other considerations to their worship context.
Understanding the Hymnal Page
We want to encourage song leaders and musicians to remember that the hymnal page is not a contract. Although this statement could be argued for almost any song in a hymnal, it is particularly true for songs that come from an oral, or rote, context. CWM is often written and played by ear, using chords and lyrics rather than notes and staves on sheet music — which also means that for some songs, they can be taught by ear. This leads to melodic and rhythmic variation, not to mention variation in the order of verses, refrains, bridges and interludes.
Given the possible variety, Voices Together presents each component of a song — verses, refrain, bridge — with suggestions for repetition and order. This is more clear and concise than notating every performance possibility, but because of this, the onus is on the song leader to guide the band and congregation. The first several essays and individual entries in the Accompaniment Edition help to provide more details on this. One example is “Beautiful Things” (#551): One might look at the page in the hymnal and think they should just sing through it and be done with it. But with the information at the end of each section directing them where to go, as well as more commentary in the Accompaniment Edition — the little music note in the bottom corner indicates there is something there, one finds that the bridge and refrain can be sung at the same time. If we had shown that on the pew page, it would look more cumbersome than if a leader had guided the congregation through it.
If you are engaging with your community about CWM, you may find the following discussion questions helpful. These may be used in conjunction with the Guide to Contemporary Worship Music.
1) Choose a specific piece of CWM in Voices Together. When and where was this song written, and who are the songwriters? What sources in Scripture and \Christian tradition does it draw on? What section of the hymnal is it in? Based on the lyrics and music, are there other sections of the hymnal — acts of worship or aspects of the Christian story — where it might also fit?
2) What has been the context of your personal experience with CWM? When, where and with whom have you encountered CWM? How does this personal history shape your understanding and response to CWM? What might be missing from your experience? Share your experiences with one another.
3) What are some of the strengths of CWM in relation to worship in your community? What does CWM resonate with in your current practice? What might be some of the challenges of singing this material? How could CWM address gaps in the worship life of your community? Who in your community would be well-served through CWM?