By Katie Graber and Anneli Loepp Thiessen
The year was 1992.
The Cold War was over, Bill Clinton was elected president of the United States, Canada celebrated 125 years of confederation, Miley Cyrus was born, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was released, and Hymnal: A Worship Book was published. In the following years, Mennonite and other congregations eagerly adopted the long-anticipated new collection. They sat at their pianos marvelling at the wonder of an accompaniment book. Mennonite couples affectionately sang “Will You Let Me Be Your Servant” at their weddings. Worship planners were inspired by the order of the Table of Contents and the spoken worship resources. New styles of music and expansive images for God were introduced, challenged, and incorporated. Mennonite higher education institutions facilitated robust programs in church music and worship. Our Mennonite denominations funded staff whose time was dedicated to teaching about Hymnal: A Worship Book and serving Mennonite worship. The worship life of the church was well tended, and it was thriving.
Fast forward to 2020.
We see both challenges and hope: we are finding ways to cope in a global pandemic, and while racism is still devastating, social movements are leading to international conversations and action against racism. Congregations are preparing for Voices Together with a similar level of anticipation as in 1992, but in a very different context. They have engaged and embraced material from the samplers, learned songs in new languages, and are testing worship resources with contemporary resonance. But unlike in 1992, most Mennonite college level church music programs are inactive or small. Denominational positions have been cut dramatically; there are not enough staff to resource and care for the worship life of all congregations. Our church is preparing for a major milestone in its worship life, and we need more support to tend it. The Anabaptist Worship Network was born out of this need.
We see that Voices Together will offer new challenges and opportunities: songs that reflect contemporary trends and themes, languages that represent communities across North America, and images for God that encourage reflection.
Our volunteer positions with the Voices Together project (Katie as Intercultural Worship editor and Anneli as Popular Idiom Co-chair) will come to an end upon the publication of the collection this fall. We and the other staff and volunteers who have collectively given hundreds of thousands of hours to compiling, vetting, and editing Voices Together will be officially done with our positions — but we still want to share what we’ve learned and draw people into the stories and resources in and beyond Voices Together. We need a continuing structure not only to help congregations integrate Voices Together into worship life, but also to help us broaden our understanding of Anabaptist worship beyond the pages of a hymnal. Churches need the same level of education and support that was offered in 1992 in order for this collection to give life. We also recognize the need to engage worship practices that are outside of a denominational hymnal, to claim those as Anabaptist worship, and to educate each other about the diversity of Anabaptist worship cultures.
We also see our worshipping communities facing unprecedented challenges: the impacts of COVID-19 have dramatically changed congregational worship. Churches are looking at an unknown future with reduced gatherings, online services, and limited congregational singing. Congregations are discussing how to address racial injustice in their communities, and are increasingly aware of how worship can perpetuate or dismantle racism.
We need each other’s support now more than ever: to strengthen, guide, educate, and encourage one another as we navigate a new season of worship planning and leading.
As the directors of the Anabaptist Worship Network, we want to engage worship communities across North America: connecting leaders, resourcing congregations, and transforming communities. In addition to teaching short courses on worshipping with Voices Together through the AMBS Church Leadership Center, we anticipate facilitating workshops, webinars, and songwriting retreats. We will be involved with launch resources for Voices Together, and we want to tend to our budding scholars and songwriters, encouraging young Anabaptists as they lead the church. We will celebrate expressions of worship that are underrepresented in Voices Together, resourcing the breadth of our church. We have many ideas for new resources–we are eager to share them with you, and we need your help to create and sustain them.
We invite you to join us on this journey.
As we look towards the fall of 2020, let’s find ways to pray for one another and encourage each other through conversation. If you see the need for this kind of network, too, we encourage you to connect with us. If you’re in a position to give financially, reach out about making a donation. If you have skills and time that you could volunteer, we would love to find a suitable placement for you.
We see God moving in the church, and we want to help each other sing this new church into being. Thank you for supporting us on this journey!