Every generation has its own music, and the previous one usually doesn’t like it. That’s the way of the world. And in the church? Yes, there’s a generation gap there, too. But young and old can still agree that the best sacred music is timeless. Our grandparents loved certain hymns, and, perhaps to our surprise, our children may come to feel the same way about them. In church, what usually divides generations instead connects.
That’s the best-case scenario. It doesn’t always happen this way. Sometimes there is a worship war, and either traditional or contemporary music wins. Then the church as a whole loses. Church music becomes impoverished if it changes too little or too much. If contemporary songs take over, a great tradition of hymns is lost. If love of the old favorites shuts our ears to newer music, we fail to respect those with different preferences and let our own tastes stagnate.
Such are the challenges the makers of a new hymnal face. MennoMedia is taking on the task. It has announced plans for a new songbook in 2020 for Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada.
The timing follows a once-a-generation trend for hymnals. The new book is scheduled to come out 28 years after the 1992 release of Hymnal: A Worship Book. That followed 23 years after The Mennonite Hymnal, which got members of the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church singing out of the same hymnal for the first time. That 1969 volume replaced the MCs’ 1927 Church Hymnal and the GCs’ 1940 Mennonite Hymnary.
Each new hymnal has sought to preserve tradition while embracing what is new and worthy. But who can agree on what that is? The editors of the 1940 hymnal had to admit that they knew not everyone would like the “gospel songs.” Some found the words “self-centered and individualistic” and the “snappy choruses too sentimental and undignified.” But, after spirited gospel tunes like “Come, We That Love the Lord” made it into the 1940 book, the editors of later volumes probably didn’t have to think very long about whether to keep them. By 1992, the “gospel songs” category seemed meaningless, and these hymns were no longer segregated in their own section.
Sometimes a hymn moves quickly from strange and new to a cherished tradition. Or, depending on one’s age, it is just one of the hymns you grew up with and has always sounded as ancient as any of the truly old ones. The 1992 editors broke with tradition and gave the honored No. 1 spot to a song few Mennonites had heard before: “What Is This Place.” A mid-1990s survey found it was already a favorite.
And how about this inspired choice by the 1969 editors? A fancy version of the doxology plucked from an 1830 edition of the Boston Handel and Hayden Society Collection made “606” the most famous number in Mennonite music.
What new traditions will the 2020 hymnal create?
In Hymnal: A Worship Book, managing editor Rebecca Slough wrote: “As our worship bridges the past and embraces the present, we glimpse what we may become in the future.” And so it will be with the next hymnal. It will carry echoes of the past and shape the new sounds in our sanctuaries a quarter century from now and beyond.
Hymnals are no longer the sole source of worship music in some congregations. But they remain essential as keepers of tradition and as teachers of new forms of prayer and praise that enrich our worship.
Singing unifies the body of Christ in the very depths of our hearts as nothing else can. A hymnal keeps us literally on the same page. As new songs take their place among the old, singing remains the one part of worship we could never do without.