A weblog by Will Fitzgerald

Renewing Mennonite communal worship

A response to R Dean Hudgens’s Tongues and Tribes: Musical Change in a Mennonite Congregation.

I am very, very grateful for the time I spent at Reba Place Church (1990-1996, 1998 or so), and loved the music there. I was very grateful for the intentional way that the call to anti-racism worked itself out in music and worship. This included being part of the gospel choir, which developed my spirit and my musical abilities and helped me on an anti-racist path.

Still, I think it is fair to say that Reba Place Church, and the Mennonite Church as a whole, has missed important opportunities to provide space for people to worship in community.

Worship has turned more into a performance with some audience participation than the people of God worshipping together. In my experience, this is true in many Mennonite (and non-Mennonite congregations), even when the worship team is not very talented. You have, at the center, a choir, or worship team, or a talented soloist, which is the focus of the whole audience/congregation. (This is somewhat exacerbated at Reba, which attracts many talented people, including talented musicians.) I think that even the humblest of God’s servants cannot withstand the pressure to perform well for the audience rather than their stated goal of *leading* worship.

But other models are available. One is reclamation: reclaiming the a cappella heritage of European Mennonites and African-American heritages of camp meeting music, “Dr. Watt’s music” and spirituals. Another is engaging with contemporary shape note practitioners who also have a long history in community singing and practical pedagogy. Another is engaging with African and African-Mennonite communal singing and worship practices.

Unless music worship leaders of a church see as the major responsibility of their leadership to help the community to worship and to develop the community’s ability to worship through music, churches will naturally accept the performer/audience model. It is the model of popular culture, and it is the model accepted by almost all music education (including Mennonite musical education). It is a Power.

But Mennonites used to teach one another to sing. Mennonites used to have singing schools. Mennonites used to think it important to sing together. I think it is time for Mennonites to reclaim this as an active, living spiritual practice. I could hope that Reba would be a leader in doing this in a ‘catholic’ and anti-racist way.


One response to “Renewing Mennonite communal worship

  1. Ric Hudgens June 13, 2009 at 5:30 pm

    The point of the paper (a first draft submitted for a class at University of Chicago) is not to dismiss the Mennonite tradition for four-part singing, but to affirm that change may not necessarily be out of continuity with the Mennonite tradition’s principles (as defined by John Rempel in the article cited). In a comprehensive congregational survey that Reba Place conducted in 2004 we found that the congregation felt the Sunday worship music was highly participative and inclusive. Some said that when the changes first began they feared the performance practices that you note here (and that are noted in the Krehbiel article I cited). Over time as the songs became more familiar this concern lessened. It is my experience that in most African-American congregations the entire congregation sings throughout the entire service, the singing is highly participative, and the performance elements are very minimal (except for perhaps the preaching!). I support the teaching that is necessary to keep four-part singing alive in the Mennonite church and elsewhere(as noted by Mary Oyer in the essay). The essay’s only argument (I think!) is that four-part hymn singing is not the only way to sing as a Mennonite and that each congregation will need to figure out their worship journey in a way that is improvisational, local, and “seamless”.

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