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A hard, holy work: The making of ‘Voices Together’

6.29. 2020 Written By: Bradley Kauffman

Photo: Participants gather at Laurelville Mennonite Church Center in January 2019 in Mt. Pleasant, Pennsylvania, for an annual Music and Worship Leaders Retreat. In 2017, longtime organizer Ken Nafziger handed leadership over to the committee developing Voices Together. Photo by Heike Martin

This article comes from the July issue of The Mennonite, which focuses on “Music and worship.” Read more reflections here or subscribe here to receive more original features in your inbox each month.

The making of a Mennonite worship and song book has been a long and arduous task. In preparation for the first gathering of the Mennonite Worship and Song Committee in September 2016, each committee member compiled a top-100 list of songs from Hymnal: a Worship Book (1992). Clarifying questions emerged: Should this be a list of personal “favorites” or a curated set of what we think the church needs? What proportion should Ash Wednesday through Ascension and Advent through Epiphany occupy? Should my list contain a balance of historical and intercultural musical idioms? And what about the supplements Sing the Journey (2005) and Sing the Story (2007)? This early discussion drew us into naming some of the many tensions that would define our work.

Committee members showed up ready to work together, saying yes to a project full of complexity, surprises and many unknowns. We committed ourselves to listening and learning, holding tensions together and discovering what teamwork lay ahead. And we showed up not really ready. We knew we were joining a project much bigger than any of us, our individual or collective selves. We knew that being predominantly white, straight and middle class would limit the breadth and depth of our insights. We knew that essential lived experiences lay outside our committee and that we would need abundant support to listen and respond to the needs of our diverse denominations (Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church USA).

Before we knew what our decision-making structures would look like, we made plans for how we would be the church together. We resolved not to avoid conflict. We would trust each other enough to disagree—valuing relationships above particular decisions. We called on the Holy Spirit to journey with us in the hard, holy work of hymnal formation along a path we could only dimly see.

The core of Voices Together grows from a long line of Mennonite and related Anabaptist collections. Material from the recent trilogy of denominational worship and song collections—Hymnal: A Worship Book, with supplements Sing the Journey and Sing the Story—makes up over half of Voices Together. As we screened these collections, we often named great gratitude for their decades of shaping vibrant worship and for the individuals who stewarded them into being. Many of us were also formed by The Mennonite Hymnal (1969), the first collection forged in collaboration between the now-merged General Conference Mennonite Church and Mennonite Church denominations.

Heart songs

Alongside screening of denominational collections, we reached out to congregations and individuals across MC Canada and MC USA to identify “heart songs.” Early on, we recognized the limitations of the word “favorite” when describing songs. We adopted “heart song,” an imperfect but helpful substitute. A heart song is one that connects us with our stories. Maybe we remember how it formed us as followers of Jesus. Or it’s a song that has shown a particular significance in drawing a worshiping community together over time.

It is a rare gift to work on a project that centers on what people treasure so profoundly. And we do treasure the worship currents that form us. I received heart song lists by mail as well as handwritten ones given directly to me on Sunday morning church visits. These, together with online surveys revealed clusters of heart songs inside and outside the trilogy. These were the top five most requested trilogy songs:
“Praise God, from Whom” (Dedication Anthem)
“My Life Flows On”
“Be Thou My Vision”
“Will You Let Me Be Your Servant”
“When Peace Like a River.”

These were the top five most requested from outside the trilogy:
“O Lord, My God /
How Great Thou Art”
“10,000 Reasons”
“Be Still My Soul”
“In Christ Alone”
“Build Your Kingdom Here.”

We chose not to bring survey data into proactive decision-making but found it a helpful check on three years of work when the full committee process reached a conclusion last year.

We also received sage counsel from Mennonites holding a variety of relationships with denominational hymnals: Some will not adopt Voices Together because they worship in languages other than English, some center on contemporary worship music-based repertoire, and others are recent adopters of Hymnal: A Worship Book and plan to use it for the foreseeable future. Consulting groups, survey respondents and congregations who welcomed our visits gave generously of themselves toward a project that would serve many, even if not themselves directly.

We convened around 20 consultant groups, inviting them to help curate groups of material. As one example, African-American Mennonite volunteers gave essential counsel over a series of Zoom meetings and one-on-one conversations. Analyzing African-American traditions in the trilogy, we heard a need for more songs from the mid-20th century to the present. African-American spirituals, sometimes regarded as “songs of the ancestors” in the Black church, are sung on important occasions but are not always at the center of worship life. To better represent African-American people and contemporary experiences, Voices Together would need to expand the number and types of songs coming from African-American traditions, in particular expressions of joy. Consultants helped identify what should be retained and offered heart songs to consider adding. Voices Together songs from African-American traditions will include “Total Praise,” “You Are Good,” “We’ve Come This Far by Faith” and “Hallelujah, Salvation and Glory.”

The trilogy of books has brought rich currents of global song into the voices and hearts of hymnal-using Mennonites. These songs help North Americans worship with a global church in profound and sustaining ways. Without diminishing the gifts of global song, we notice the limitation that these songs are generally not the mode of worship among recent immigrant groups in the United States and Canada. In our conversations across the denominations, we learned that Mennonites in the United States and Canada worship in some 25 languages every week. By and large, congregations that worship in languages other than English are singing in contemporary worship idioms. Examples of Mennonite heart songs that may be new to hymnal users are the Indonesian “Segala Puji Syukur (Shout for Joy),” the Spanish “El Amor nunca pasará (Only Love Never Fades Away),” Korean
“Naege itneun hyangyu okhap (To My Precious Lord)” and Chin “Zisuh nih a zultu hna sinah (Peace Be with You! Jesus Told His Friends).”

Submissions and other published songs

In December 2016, we launched a web portal inviting submissions of new and original tunes, texts, songs and written worship resources. A short time later, we began accepting art submissions as well. When we closed the submissions phase at the end of 2017, we had received roughly 2,300 submissions, half of which were from Anabaptist contributors.

Material gathered from the submissions portal and other sources outside the trilogy (recent hymnals and supplements from ecumenical sources, single-author collections, and other curated collections) underwent a three-person screening process. A song needed two out of three yeses to reach the full committee for review. We estimate that we screened over 10,000 songs to identify roughly 6,000 that would receive full committee ratings.

Screening and reviewing made up some of the central work throughout the three years of full committee work. We organized available songs into thematic groupings and table of contents topics. When focusing on the first quadrant of the collection, we might, for example, spend half a day or more on Gathering: Welcome, and Gathering: God’s Presence With Us.

The full committee reviewed several hundred pieces between each in-person meeting. Once together, we discussed the highest-rated selections from the present batch. We debated merits and drawbacks of each song, in some cases proposing, weighing and voting on possible alterations. Committee members could (and often did) update their ratings after being persuaded in discussion.

The committee held a total of 10 in-person meetings. We realized early on that we would need to develop broad perspectives about balance; granular decisions would create an aggregate effect. We learned by doing, building collective analytical muscles and insights. Also, we had to grant subcommittees decision-making authority. It took time to develop deep levels of trust as each subcommittee carried out research and brought decisions and questions back to the full committee. Committee members could propose and vote on preferred directions relating to a song but would have to trust the subcommittee’s wisdom in executing committee impulses (sometimes rebuffing them based on further research).

In July 2019, the editorial team (this writer, general editor; Adam Tice, text editor; Sarah Johnson, worship resources editor; Benjamin Bergey, music editor; and Katie Graber, intercultural worship editor) met for four days in Elkhart, Ind., to whittle a short list of 900 songs down to 775, our estimated capacity. Our task was to bring dozens of priorities into balance. We set approximate quotas for each table of contents area and populated each section in turn, taking into account committee ratings and discussion notes, heart-song survey data, historical and idiomatic balances. As the editorial team populated each section of the collection, committee ratings drifted more into the background. Balance considerations would carry the day.

About 10 weeks later, the full committee gathered at Erb Street Mennonite Church in Waterloo, Ontario. Whereas the nine previous meetings had been largely paperless, each member was greeted this time by a three-inch-tall stack of hard copies of songs next to a binder of worship resources. Five days later, we had sung 780 songs and experienced over 300 worship resources together. We dedicated our efforts to the glory of God and shared tears of joy and exhaustion. We prayed then, as now, that the fruits of this labor will offer space for God’s people to be known, formed, loved and challenged for generations to come.

Bradley Kauffman is the project director and general editor for Voices Together. He lives in Cincinnati, where he attends Calvary Episcopal Church and serves as family service musician for that parish. Bradley is married to Renee Kanagy, a pastor and spiritual director.

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