Mindful of covid-19 risks, the safest church song these days might be “Deep and Wide,” sung as children do, humming in place of key words.
As we block our respiratory droplets behind masks, our singing, if we are able to meet in person at all, may have faded to a murmur. We hum along and dream of better days.
It’s an inauspicious time to release a new hymnal. We’re already painfully aware of what we’re missing.
And yet, for Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada, the arrival of Voices Together this month is a cause for celebration. It’s a once-in-a-generation event. The last two hymnals for these denominations and their forerunners came out in 1969 and 1992.
A new hymnal represents a vote of confidence in the future of our congregations and affirms the dynamism of our corporate worship. It’s a long-term investment in the worshiping community. Even those who might not be around 25 years from now want their children and grandchildren to sing from hymnals that present the best recent compositions alongside old favorites.
Who can tell what songs will strike a chord with the next generation? The editors of the 1969 hymnal didn’t expect No. 606 to become a symbol of Anabaptist identity, the “Mennonite national anthem.”
As Voices Together general editor Bradley Kauffman points out on pages 8-11, there’s nothing sacred about a number. Insider lingo can be off-putting. But we suspect some Anabaptists will be calling “Dedication Anthem” by its now-two-hymnals-ago number for a long time yet — and, we hope, sharing this peculiar piece of Mennonite trivia with newcomers so everyone feels included.
As our musical repertoire grows, we hope Mennonites will keep singing hymns. Musical diversity enriches our lives, and younger generations especially embrace a variety of styles. Many young adults love traditional hymns as much as their grandparents do, but only if they have an opportunity to learn them as youth. We can draw spiritual sustenance from a worship band with electric guitars and drums, but our worship is poorer without traditional hymns.
Singing may be largely a spectator activity for now, but the time will come again for lifting our praise in full voice. Then we’ll appreciate even more the spiritual companionship singing creates.
Although many of us will remember 2020 as the year we didn’t sing, Voices Together gives us something to look forward to. There will be new musical treasures to explore when it’s safe to remove our masks. Perhaps the next iconic number awaits our discovery.