Harmony is hard to shake

New movements bring along the old

Feb 16, 2015 by

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While often called a humble people, Mennonites take pride in four-part hymn singing. Some even cringe at the thought of contemporary praise songs.

But more and more are rejecting hymns, believing them to be ostracizing to newcomers. Many others fall somewhere between the two camps, or fully embrace both.

The worship style during the Anabaptist Renewal Circles consultation in Hartville, Ohio, Jan. 16-17 was contemporary.

Attendees sang praise songs backed by a band, no songbooks necessary, with words projected on the wall.

To my surprise, they sang these text-only songs in four-part harmony, as richly as any hymn. For me, the beauty this contemporary worship style took when embedded with the traditional was new and unexpected.

Many of the singers were from congregations that have left Mennonite Church USA or are considering leaving. They met to talk about a new Anabaptist entity. Many would say they are bringing all of their Mennonite heritage along — and the singing was a sign of that. They embraced a newer worship style, but four-part harmony is still there too. It is who they are for now.

In Mennonite history, there have been many splits. In those cases too, people took the church in different directions, but not without some of their previous church experience coming along, however unconsciously.

In 1905, J.S. Hartzler and Daniel Kauffman wrote Mennonite Church History. They wrote it, they said in the introduction, so that readers would note when the church stayed faithful to Scripture and copy it, as well as when it strayed and avoid making the same mistakes.

Many of the reasons behind schisms listed in the century-old book could still describe Mennonite conflicts today. The specific issues were different, but the underlying concerns about faithfulness to Scripture were similar.

The authors write on the possibility of ever finding unity: “No one living today is prophet enough to foretell whether they will continue to remain independent, eventually unite with other denominations, become dissolved or be merged again into one body.”

Members of MC USA are still making decisions about what it means to obey Scripture and how their denominational affiliation fits into that.

People today might be making the same mistakes as in 1905, or new ones. But Scripture and history are still good guides to use in these times of discernment and disagreement.

No one today may be prophet enough to know what MC USA will look like in the future. But perhaps the idea of praise music in four-part harmony can serve as a comfort or reminder that no matter where Mennonites end up, they have been shaped by their time in the church. And that there is new and unexpected beauty to be found where the old way mixes with the new.

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