Photo: Participants gather at Laurelville Mennonite Church Center in January 2019 in Mt. Pleasant, Pennsylvania, for an annual Music and Worship Leaders Retreat. In 2017, longtime organizer Ken Nafziger handed leadership over to the committee developing Voices Together. Photo by Heike Martin
The health risks of group singing due to COVID-19 bring unique meaning to the title of a new Mennonite hymnal set to launch as many churches across the United States and Canada remain uncertain what worship looks like in the coming months.
“I wake up every day very aware of the irony of curating a collection called Voices Together,” said Bradley Kauffman, general editor and project manager.
The new hymnal for Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada is still scheduled for a fall release.
“But the reality that folks are worshiping from home and online means a different kind of launch and different kind of reception for the collection,” Kauffman said.
MennoMedia, the hymnal’s publisher, released a statement on May 19 discouraging congregational singing when physical gatherings resume.
“We’re very sensitive to the professional advice that singing is a particularly dangerous way of being together,” Kauffman said. “We’re taking that to heart in thinking through what an online launch will look like.”
But Kauffman sees the hymnal as offering much more than an opportunity for singing together, if that is even possible by the fall. Themes of environmental justice, racialized violence, lament and grief in the hymnal will encourage conversation and worship in new ways.
“Since the beginning of the project, we’ve all spent a lot of time daydreaming about the moment in the life of the church that Voices Together would be dropped into,” he said. “There’s some interesting things that this moment can make space for, some theological conversations that could attract a broader audience than a traditional hymn sing would.”
Kauffman and others at work on the hymnal project have begun to envision a webinar for the launch, followed by monthly hymn sings online.
The hymnal was originally set for a November launch, with a gathering at Bethel Mennonite Church in Winnipeg, Man., and another at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind.
Kauffman says these gatherings will now be moved online, though an in-person launch will take place at a later date. An $18,000 Calvin Institute for Christian Worship grant originally ensured the attendance of people at launch events who otherwise couldn’t afford to be there.
“We still want to use that money well,” said Amy Gingerich, executive director and publisher of MennoMedia, which serves MC USA and MC Canada.
Promotion for the project and its launch has been put on hold up to this point, Gingerich said.
“It didn’t feel like the right time to be promoting launch events in the midst of the pandemic,” she said.
But a survey sent to congregations in May about a hymnal launch shows people are eager for the hymnal’s release. With a goal of 10,000 hymnal sales in the first year, Kauffman says they have already surpassed that, having pre-sold nearly 30,000 copies.
“It might be an interesting, momentous time for congregations to figure out how to use a worship and song collection while we’re at home,” Gingerich said. “We’re sensing some excitement around that.”
While some churches have begun to imagine singing together outside or at appropriate distances, others find the task daunting. Either way, Canadian Mennonite scholar Carol Penner sees opportunity for meaningful worship.
“We’re worshiping in more diverse ways than we were before the pandemic because every congregation is making different choices about what is essential,” said Penner, assistant professor of theological studies at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ont.
Penner is working to launch her own Mennonite worship website this fall after two years of creating and gathering worship resources with an Anabaptist Mennonite approach. Now, COVID-19 is increasing the importance of online availability, she said.
“There are real opportunities with this time of worshiping online,” Penner said. “It helps us think about what is essential about what we’re doing but also really concentrates us on thinking about accessibility.”
The Voices Together hymnal project was originally set to include 100 audio-recorded songs produced by five Mennonite-affiliated singing ensembles. Three ensembles were able to contribute recordings before the coronavirus shutdown.
The 60 audio recordings will be paired in 45-second segments with sheet music in the online app, which Gingerich says couldn’t have come at a better time.
“One of the pieces of this that’s going to provide special meaning for folks will be the app,” she said. “The app will provide a good way as congregations continue to meet digitally for people to have access to these awesome worship resources at home.”
As experts warn of COVID-19 transmission through emission of aerosols, often affected by loudness of vocalization or singing, Mennonite churches must find new ways to worship until congregational singing resumes.
“For all congregations as we look at returning to worship at some point without congregational singing, it doesn’t mean music is absent,” Penner said. “It is really the theology of the word that is a really important component of our worship. As we read those words, and listen to the music, it can still have an effect on our worship time.”
Despite the irony in publishing a hymnal titled Voices Together as many still remain apart, Gingerich feels the name couldn’t be more appropriate for the time.
“It has just felt like absolutely the right title for this collection,” she said.
For now, the Voices Together committee is hopeful the hymnal will meet the needs of congregations even if singing the hymns is unsafe and discouraged for a while.
“Prior to COVID-19, the church was ready for something to be excited about together,” Kauffman said. “We can’t control how this collection lands, and that’s never been more apparent than it is in this COVID-19 reality.”
Mackenzie Miller is a Goshen College intern with MWR and The Mennonite.