Voices Together: Q&A on the New Mennonite Hymnal

Five years in the making, Voices Together, the brand-new hymnal in the Mennonite tradition will officially launch on December 13, 2020. Voices Together succeeds The Mennonite Hymnal (1969) and Hymnal: A Worship Book (1992), and for the first time, will be accompanied by a worship leader edition. In this Q&A, I speak with Sarah Kathleen Johnson, a member of the hymnal committee and editorial team member of the Voices Together: Worship Leader Edition, about the project.

Let’s start from the beginning – how did this project come to be?

Figure 1: Where do the songs in Voices Together come from?

It is hard to say when exactly Voices Together began. It is common practice for Christian denominations to publish an updated hymnal every 20 to 30 years; Voices Together (2020) was published 28 years after Hymnal: A Worship Book (1992). Two very well-received supplements, Sing the Journey (2005) and Sing the Story (2007), were part of the groundwork for Voices Together, and about half of the new hymnal is drawn from these three volumes (Figure 1). A 2011 survey and curriculum resource were also oriented exploring the possibility of a new hymnal, although work began in earnest in 2015 when Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church USA asked MennoMedia, the publishing agency of these two denominations, to take the lead on a hymnal project. The Mennonite Worship and Song Committee was formed in 2016 and that is when I became involved.

Previous Mennonite hymnals did not have a worship leader’s guide. What are the motivations behind this new resource?

The past two Mennonite hymnals include spoken resources for worship along with songs. About 90 pages of the pew edition of Voices Together also consist of non-musical resources (Figure 2), including :

  • scripture readings arranged for use in worship,
  • works of visual art,
  • prayers and readings from a diversity of sources intended for a breadth of occasions and contexts, and
  • resources to support the central practices of the church, including baptism, communion, footwashing, church membership, church leadership, child blessing, marriage, healing, and funerals.
Figure 2: Worship Resources in Voices Together

The Worship Leader Edition was not part of the original vision for the suite of resources surrounding Voices Together. The idea of supplemental resources specifically for leaders emerged from the committee shaping resources for the central practices. As we developed a plan for the specific items we hoped to include, we realized certain items did not need to be available to the entire congregation. Originally, we hoped to use a few pages of the Accompaniment Edition for these resources. However, we soon realized it would be more beneficial to have a distinct volume intended to support everyone involved in planning and leading worship. From there, the Worship Leader Edition took on a bit of a life of its own and is now a 280-page introductory guide to worship planning and leadership.

Beyond additional resources for central practices, the Worship Leader Edition includes all of the non-musical resources from the pew edition (making it a standalone volume) as well context and suggestions for use (such as artist statements for the 12 works of visual art). It also includes over 100 short essays on various topics related to worship planning and leadership.

Lay volunteers plan and lead worship in many Mennonite congregations without a lot of formal training or concrete guidance. Supporting those dedicated volunteers is at the heart of this volume.

As compared to Roman Catholic and other mainline Protestant traditions, the Mennonite tradition has a much more localized and diffused authority structure and therefore also multiplicity of worship practices. How did the hymnal committee deal with such diversity in its worship resources and choice of hymns and tunes?

Although two Mennonite denominations commissioned the hymnal, no denominational authority (such as a bishop or general assembly) had to approve its contents. While this is a daunting responsibility for the hymnal committee, it is simultaneously reassuring that no congregation is required to use Voices Together. Each local Mennonite church makes its own decisions about worship and music.

Mennonite congregations are characterized by tremendous diversity in theology and practice. Some of this diversity is reflected in the breadth of theological and musical expressions included in Voices Together. We hope that each congregation will see themselves on these pages, as well as discover songs and words that challenge and expand their vision. Most congregations have a repertoire of a couple hundred songs; there are 759 songs and 310 worship resources in Voices Together. Not every song or resource is going to be a good fit for every congregation, theologically or musically, and that is okay. Binding this diversity together in a single volume still connects us to one another, allows us to share our songs and stories, and helps us to grow into new ways of singing together.

One example of this unity in diversity is our expansive approach to text revisions, especially gendered language for God. Instead of applying general rules, we assessed each instance on a case-by-case basis with an eye toward overall balance. Many communities will choose the parts of the collection that reflect their language use at a given time, which may also change in the coming decades. For more, see this statement from the committee: Expansive Language in Voices Together: Gendered Images of God.

Recent immigration flows have meant that the Mennonite tradition in the USA and Canada are more ethnically and linguistically diverse than ever before. How is this reality reflected in the Voices Together’s worship resources? 

More than 25 languages are primary languages of worship in Mennontie Church Canada and Mennonite Church USA congregations. While Voices Together includes songs in many languages, it will primarily resource English-language communities that use a hymnal in worship. At the same time, Voices Together aspires to represent the linguistic and cultural diversity of the church.

Representing this diversity is a particular challenge with non-musical resources because many Mennonite congregations that worship in languages other than English (in addition to many English-speaking communities) primarily pray extemporaneously. Nevertheless, Voices Together includes words for worship from six continents, and in Spanish, French, German, and American Sign Language, as well as one resource that includes 22 languages (Figure 3). There are also several resources that aim to celebrate and support extemporaneous prayer.

Figure 3: Voices Together #850 Peace Be with You

The hymnal committee chose to replace songs by David Haas following credible accusations of sexual abuse and spiritual manipulation, taking a survivor-centered approach to the situation. Could you say more about how the hymnal committee came to this decision?

Credible allegations of abuse became public at a critical moment in the process of shaping Voices Together when we were pursuing permission to print a body of material we had selected but still had the capacity to make changes. In this narrow window of time, the editors, with the support of the committee and MennoMedia staff, made the difficult decision to remove seven songs (a June 23 press release describes more of the process).

However, as previously mentioned, it is local congregations that make decisions about worship and music in the Mennonite tradition. We therefore also committed to creating a resource to support communities in navigating how to respond when worship materials are implicated in abuse. I encourage readers to carefully reflect on this resource which points toward some of the underlying principles that guided the committee: Show Strength: How to Respond When Worship Materials Are Implicated in Abuse.

As we launch Voices Together, we want to avoid centering narratives surrounding perpetrators of abuse. Instead, we aim to focus on the amazing collection of material that is present in the hymnal. This material was curated through a process that has, from the outset, prioritized contributions from female composers, taken seriously the ethical implications of the gendered language we use for God and human beings, and been concerned with singing and praying toward a just peace that opposes violence in all forms.

There are already many worship resources in the market, many of which are ecumenical. What is the potential of this resource for ecumenical use and to whom would you most recommend it?

Voices Together is a denominational hymnal and congregations associated with Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church USA are the primary audience. There may also be some capacity to extend into other Anabaptist and congregational traditions, especially those that emphasize peace and justice.

However, I trust that Voices Together would be a valuable addition to any church musician’s  or liturgist’s shelf. Items of particular ecumenical interest include:

  • Thoughtful and subtle revisions to familiar hymn texts that attend to a broad range of concerns associated with how we use language in ways that align with an intersectional approach to justice.
  • The organization of the hymnal by acts of worship from gathering through sending.
  • The inclusion of visual art throughout the book.
  • Newly commissioned translations of early Christian and medieval hymn texts by writers like Carl Daw, Mel Bringle, and Delores Dufner.
  • An expanded body of material with connections to sixteenth-century Anabaptism.
  • A substantial collection of new texts and tunes by Anabaptist writers and composers.
  • A diverse spectrum of Contemporary Worship Music streamlined for the printed page.
  • A projection edition that provides slides with musical notation for each song in the collection.

The Worship Leader Edition is a standalone volume. Because all of the non-musical items in the pew edition are reprinted, the use of this book does not depend on access to the hymnal. The Worship Leader Edition is an accessible resource for anyone involved in supporting lay leaders who contribute to a variety of aspects of worship, or who is looking for a curated collection of prayers and readings from a diversity of sources.

Finally, what was the most significant part of your experience working with Voices Together

It has been profoundly rewarding to be part of facilitating a collaborative process that brings people together from across the church for important conversations about who we are, where we come from, and who we are called to be in the years ahead, and especially to consider how these questions about identity and purpose intersect in concrete and embodied ways with what we sing and pray and do when we gather for worship.

Thanks for giving us a preview to Voices Together here on PrayTell and congratulations on its completion!

For more information about Voices Together and to register for the hymnal’s December 13 virtual launch, visit voicestogetherhymnal.org.

Sarah Kathleen Johnson is the worship resources editor for Voices Together, a member of the editorial team working with songs, and the editor of the Voices Together: Worship Leader Edition. She is a doctoral candidate in Liturgical Studies at the University of Notre Dame and a Visiting Fellow at the Toronto Mennonite Theological Centre.

One comment

  1. I think it is appalling that one person has 23 songs featured in Voices Together. Who just so happened to be the text editor. Whenever there is a new hymnal to replace this one ( when I will almost certainly be dead) my suggestion would be that editors must recuse themselves from submitting their own works and also the works of their friends.

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