“Are Anabaptists ready to rock and roll?” That was the question asked by Amy Gingerich of MennoMedia on the Mennobytes blog in September.
Gingerich, editorial director at MennoMedia, asked the question after attending “Church and Post-Christian Culture: Christian Witness in the Way of Jesus,” a conference hosted by Missio Alliance.
In her reflection, Gingerich observed that we live in a time when growing numbers of people are becoming interested in Anabaptism. But, she wondered, are things like the Russian and German cultural heritage and four-part singing keeping people away from Anabaptist congregations?
Those are good questions. As someone who joined a Mennonite church as a young adult, I had to deal with them myself. They almost kept me away.
Let’s start with music. Before joining a Mennonite Brethren church in 1976, I attended an evangelical congregation where the singing was mostly unison. A non-singer, I still vividly remember the first time I stood to sing at the Mennonite Brethren church. The moment the congregation starting singing, I stopped. All around me were these parts and notes I had never heard before.
Immediately, I knew I was way out of my league when it came to singing. I wasn’t sure I belonged. It was months before I mustered the courage to try to quietly sing along.
Today, I’m still a member of a Mennonite Brethren church, and I’m still not a great singer.
I’m happiest just listening to others sing, whether it’s hymns or a praise and worship band. But that first experience with a different kind of musical language — four-part harmony — stays in my mind. It almost put me off the church.
And what about heritage? That was also a factor for me. In my case, it was a heritage language — the German language. Back in the 1970s, many Canadian Mennonite churches still used it in their services.
In 1977, I was a delegate to a Canadian Mennonite Brethren conference. Some people who went to the mics spoke in German, as did some speakers from the podium. Mustering all the courage I could find, I went to a floor mic and asked if only English could be spoken, or a translation provided, since some of us didn’t understand German.
After the session was over, a dear old saint walked up to me, stuck her wrinkled finger in my face and said: “How dare you tell us what language we can use!”
Well, I dared. And, to their credit, the denomination accommodated me and many others like me. Today, there can’t be but a handful of Canadian Mennonite Brethren congregations that still have a small German service for seniors. It would also be rare to find any Canadian or American MB church that offers a hymns-only musical style in worship services — virtually all use praise and worship bands, sometimes mixing in some hymns.
So what, if anything, could be deduced from Gingerich’s question, and from my experience?
First, many Anabaptists are rocking and rolling. They just might not be Mennonite Church USA or Mennonite Church Canada churches. For Canadian and U.S. Mennonite Brethren, it’s a different story. Almost all of those churches feature a contemporary worship style.
Second, my experience with culture is that Mennonite churches are trying very hard to be welcoming. The Mennonite Brethren made me feel welcome, and I have observed how hard many MC USA and MC Canada churches work to make people who come from other cultural groups and languages feel at home.
But when it comes to musical style, I have not sensed the same willingness in MC USA and MC Canada churches. When I mentioned this to some MC USA and MC Canada church members, I have been on the receiving end of some vehement metaphorical finger-wagging: How dare you try to change us! I came away from those encounters wondering if these well-meaning people had mistakenly come to believe that the mission of their church was to preserve four-part hymn singing, not to be an agent of reconciliation in the world.
Change is never easy. The change from the German language to English was tough for many Mennonite Brethren church members. The change from four-part harmony to a new praise and worship language was likely just as hard. But sticking with the German would have doomed Canadian Mennonite churches to irrelevance and death. Might the same be true for musical language?
Gingerich’s question, in other words, is an apt one.
John Longhurst, of Winnipeg, Man., is director of resources and public engagement at Canadian Foodgrains Bank.