Healthy worship diet

Hymnals still vital for strong faith formation

Nov 6, 2017 by

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Are hymnals still relevant? It’s a question worth asking in light of the Menno­Media “Resonate” project, which will produce a new hymnal for Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada in 2020.

It depends on one’s vantage point in the Mennonite world. Hymnals have the strongest use among plain groups, and there is apparently enough interest among MC USA and MC Canada to warrant an updated collection after the 1992 Hymnal: A Worship Book. Meanwhile, they seem to be fading away among more evangelical Mennonite groups like Mennonite Brethren, Evana Network and Conservative Mennonite Conference.

Discussing the place of hymnals opens up lots of questions about worship, identity, faith formation, theology and mission.

Tabor College music department chair Bradley Vogel expressed the concern that MB churches lose their musical heritage when they no longer sing out of a hymnal.

A common liturgy for worship lets people know what to expect among congregations that share the same name. Among plain Mennonites, one can expect songs about spiritual renewal and the conflict between righteousness and wickedness. Among more mainline Mennonites, songs about action, service and peacemaking are particularly loved. Evangelical congregations feature songs about God’s comfort and healing for hurting hearts. Traditional Protestant settings, which maintain a stronger connection to their Reformation heritage, are noted for songs about God’s greatness and Christ’s work in effecting our salvation.

The influences of these songs on believers’ faith formation cannot be overstated. These broad categories are like food groups — if we eat a lot from one and neglect the others, we will be weak in the neglected areas. A repertoire from one song group at the expense of others leads to an unbalanced spiritual diet.

Nothing delivers a substantial, well-balanced musical diet better than a hymnal. A hymnal is a library that, ideally, contains diverse kinds of songs. While a physical hymnal is not necessary to sing the classic songs that have nourished the church’s faith for decades or centuries, congregations that abandon hymnals forget many of the healthy songs inside. Their diet suffers.

Updates featuring new songs and new arrangements of healthy songs can add variety to an older hymnal that some may find less palatable. The Reformed tradition has songwriters such as Keith and Kristyn Getty producing new songs that maintain the theological depth and spirit of classic hymns. Are there comparable efforts in the Anabaptist tradition?

Wendy Chappell-Dick’s recent settings of Anabaptist martyr letters to contemporary tunes (Oct. 9) is one example. What New Testament passages, early church writings or early Anabaptist writings might make faith-forming new songs for a new hymnal collection?


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