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I have degrees in Bible/theology, taken a seminary course on Mennonite faith and polity and followed it up with studying Mennonite history, but none of this education has been able to teach me what I have yet to learn about Mennonite church life. It has taken me years to begin to appreciate what I assumed were just Mennonite traditions, many practices I believe come as second nature to most lifetime Mennonites.
Sometimes, this can be a frustrating journey because it’s easy to criticize what one does not understand, and after being in the church six years and having served on the worship committee for two of those years, I’ve come to value the art of communal singing. Some lessons of faith and practice can only be learned while being in community and observing those who have walked the journey before me.
This is how I began to understand this whole Mennonite singing thing. Our church closed its doors on a Sunday in January to encourage parishioners to attend elsewhere, to experience the hospitality (or lack thereof) in other congregations. I have always admired the manifestation of God’s Spirit in more charismatic churches, so our family visited a Spanish-speaking Church of God congregation. Here we remembered where we had come from before joining the Mennonite church and later realized what appealed to us about our local Mennonite congregation.
After downloading a decibel application on my iPhone, we quickly realized that the singing experience at the church we were visiting was within the range of being dangerous—within 90-95 decibels from the back section (higher for those in the front). Even though I’m confident we share the same heart in worshiping God, the sounds we heard from the speakers were noise. Present with our two smallest children, we asked the ushers for cotton balls for their ears. Through this experience, I reflected on the purpose for how the Mennonites in my congregation sing.
Experiencing this contrast in worship came days after I was writing my recommendations for a new worship-singing study being created by the Binational Worship Council. The chapter I had the most difficulty with was the one on congregational singing. It was embarrassing to admit I had felt distant with my singing experience because I had not yet understood the role of singing beyond the individual’s benefit. What was the purpose of corporate singing?
The following Sunday, as I talked with my pastor about my hospitality experience in general, she unknowingly spoke to the questions I had left unanswered. I understood from her that a potential problem with the whole rock band singing experience is that it relegates it to a performance, with the audience as passive participants. I’d add that in general the experience may be passive when it comes to worshiping with your neighbor, but for the participant the worship work can be active in developing one’s individual relationship with God.
Unfortunately, what has been forgotten by my Evangelical brothers and sisters is what my pastor taught me as the purpose of singing in a traditional Mennonite community: Without the ability to hear other voices, this singing “conversation” with your neighbor doesn’t happen. As in most life situations, being wholly present in the moment allows us to respond more fully—as well as in singing—because in being completely present the worshiper opens to the Spirit as well as to her neighbor so as to create one voice among different pitches and rhythms. This practice symbolizes how the work of community is birthed and developed. The act of singing models interdependency and God’s intention for how community works—the constant adjustments as we enter life’s crescendos and the discipline of working to stay on pitch together. It is our weekly experience of what God desires for us as the body of Christ.
I had never understood this before. I didn’t know that a simple act of singing together could hold such purpose and theology in the flesh. It is only unfortunate that it has taken me this long to understand the value of song, and I lament the countless times I’ve lost the blessing of a singing community because I was present elsewhere.
As you sing with older and newer Mennonites in your midst, find ways to speak the theology you so beautifully live so as to find even more worshipers who are creating community with you in song.
Janet Trevino-Elizarraraz is a member of San Antonio (Texas) Mennonite Church.
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