Jan Overduin

The Conrad Grebel Review 18, no. 2 (Spring 2000)

Bernie Neufeld, ed. Music in Worship: A Mennonite Perspective. Scottdale, PA and Waterloo, ON: Herald Press, 1998.

The book is a collection of fourteen essays on topics relating to worship and music. It is meant to be a resource for musicians and pastors as well as for seminary and university students in church music courses. (Curiously, there is no bibliography.) In this time of church music turmoil, with the ‘old’ and traditional pitted against the ‘contemporary’, these essays strive to paint a larger picture. This is a thought-provoking book, with a clear intent to foster and encourage an attitude towards music and worship that will result in spiritual growth within the church.

As so often happens, it turns out to be easier to discuss the theology and philosophy of music than the music itself. So it is not surprising that the emphasis here is on worship rather than on music. It is much easier to comment on texts (good, bad, indifferent, superficial, deep) than on musical notes. It is possible to propose a definition of worship, such as John Rempel’s: “the creature’s response of gratitude and surrender to the goodness of the Creator” (31), but who would attempt to define music? What makes a tune good or bad, trite or profound? The best essays in the book, such as John Rempel’s and Dietrich Bartel’s, are the more philosophical ones.

The authors agree in their promotion of simplicity and live music as opposed to recorded or amplified music. They emphasize virtues like honesty and integrity in worship, and avoid fruitless arguments over music styles. There is no support for taped accompaniments, electronic hymnbooks, McAnthems, or any kind of entertainment-music for pew potatoes. Yet there is openness to new developments such as non-Western music, and a positive recognition of today’s revival of interest in hymn writing and singing (The Iona Community, Taize, and numerous poets and composers). Eleanor Kreider (“Worship: True to Jesus”) explains that Mennonites attempt to base their worship on a New Testament model, in contrast to other denominations which take their cue from the Old Testament. The one approach is simple, the other may be extremely lavish. There is little in this essay about music per se, but Kreider lays a theological groundwork for the chapters that follow. She pleads for worship and music to express the “simplicity, the truth, and the power of the gospel” (29).

Bernie Neufeld (“Crossing the Border: Music as Traveler”) points out that “it is not important to ask where or how we worship but who and why we worship” (52). Or as Christine Longhurst puts it (quoting Don McMinn), “God is not just seeking worship. He’s seeking worshipers” (84). Simplicity carries over even to the planning of worship. George Wiebe (“Anticipating God-Presence”) provides a fascinating insight into the life of a director of music. There is much thinking, planning, and praying, but not so much as to “domesticate the Spirit,” as John Rempel would say (45). “Our concern with carefully, logically structured worship services, significant as they are, can never replace the prerequisite of crying for God’s help and blessing for ourselves and for our task” (Wiebe, 127).

It is not surprising to see congregational song, or hymn singing, extolled as the chief musical activity in the Mennonite church. In the Protestant/ Mennonite tradition the congregation is the “basic actor” (43) and hymn singing is the fundamental, though not necessarily the only, musical activity. This theme is eloquently reinforced by Gary Harder (“Congregational Singing as a Pastor Sees It”), who refers to congregational singing as the center of a church’s music ministry, “a barometer of the spiritual vitality of the church” (110). Similarly, Kenneth Nafziger (“And What Shall We do With the Choir?”) states that “the most significant music of worship must be congregational song” (182). Bernie Neufeld expands on this concept by explaining that the “basic actor” in today’s global church, that is, the congregation, is made up of people with increasingly diverse musical backgrounds. In order to recognize and utilize these various gifts, it is important for leaders to “create a balance of musical styles” (55). Leonard Enns (“The Composer as Preacher”) draws fascinating parallels between preaching and composing, in showing how music, especially congregational song, can function as the sermon in a worship service. Text- only emphasizes the intellectual approach, whereas music “feeds and enriches the spiritual life” (242). He illustrates his thesis in non-technical terms by reference to two choral compositions by Arvo Pärt and William Matthias.

Marilyn Houser Hamm shares some of her enthusiasm in “Creative Hymn Singing.” Her examples are all taken from Hymnal: A Worship Book, except for two Iona community songs published in 1995. J. Evan Kreider also highlights the congregation’s role in worship. His essay (“Silencing the Voice”) is an appeal for acoustically vibrant places in which people are drawn together rather than isolated. It is a sad comment on our churches today that this point needs such stressing, yet most church buildings continue to be built not so much to help congregations worship as to feature the sounds produced from the “stage.” Acoustically live spaces will result in more energetic and enthusiastic congregational participation.

Although hymn singing has been central to worship among Mennonites, it is somewhat odd that Anabaptists have produced almost no original hymnody of their own. The essay by hymn writer Jean Janzen (“The Hymn Text Writer Facing the Twenty-First Century”) expresses a longing for more creativity: “Next to the Bible, they [hymns] are our best source for light and hope” (253). Flexibility, tolerance, and openness to present-day developments are themes in Mary Oyer’s essay “Global Music for the Churches.” In the demise of the organ’s role in church music, she sees a reflection of an end to the complete hegemony of the Western world. But rather than merely bemoan this fact, she highlights the beauty of non-Western sacred music and makes a plea for taking it at least as seriously as traditional Western music. In this way a “healthy and invigorating cross-cultural interchange” can occur in Christian worship (81).

Another, perhaps more appropriate, title for this book would be Music in Worship – in Search of a Mennonite Perspective. A specifically Mennonite point of view is never clearly articulated. Just as there appears to be no such thing as Mennonite hymnody (Jean Janzen), neither is there such a thing as “Mennonite worship.” The emphasis on congregational song is certainly not unique to Mennonites. Most if not all of the ideas in this book have been expressed by Christian musicians and theologians from other traditions and denominations (Marty, Routley, Westermeyer, Webber et al.). Mennonite features, such as the SATB a capella tradition, receive virtually no mention in the book. Perhaps it is in the very reluctance or inability to frame a uniquely Mennonite style of worship and music that a “Mennonite” perspective lies. The Mennonite church borrows from any and all traditions and cultures, to find and adopt what is good. Psalms are popular and form an integral part of all Mennonite hymnals, but so are all kinds of hymns and spiritual songs. At times, instruments and choirs play an important role in worship, but often they do not. Where this tradition is a genuine, loving, and caring ‘welcoming of the stranger’ and not merely a careless assimilation of other traditions and styles, an all-inclusive, dare we say “Mennonite,” attitude emerges.

JAN OVERDUIN, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, ON