The term “new hymn” may sound like an oxymoron. Certainly, an a cappella hymn-singing tradition is uncommon in contemporary Christian church services. However, in conservative Mennonite churches today, four-part a cappella hymn singing persists as the prominent music style of choice. You might ask: How does this tradition continue?
Mennonite churches seek to celebrate and further this special tradition though the use of hymns in weekly services or in annual “hymn-sings,” which build in singing practice and promote familiarity with canonical hymn texts.
One important factor of this tradition is the careful selection of which hymn books will be placed in the church pews. Currently, a newly-published purple hymnal is popping up in conservative Mennonite churches (to include certain northern Indiana Mennonite congregations and schools). John D. Martin spent twenty years compiling the new Hymns of the Church, which features 65 Anabaptist composers. What sets this hymnal apart is that it features hymns that specifically cover Anabaptist themes: the Lordship of Christ, discipleship, obedience, cross-bearing, separation from the world, nonresistance and the present Kingdom of God.
The a cappella hymn-singing tradition is also promoted to Mennonite young people through choral singing opportunities at winter bible schools. After high school, many Mennonite young people attend bible schools before starting full-time jobs, starting college or getting married. Most Mennonite bible schools have choirs in which young people practice and memorize a cappella choral pieces. These newly-formed choirs then embark on tours across the U.S., visiting various Mennonite communities, churches, nursing homes or even state prisons. It may seem unlikely, but most Mennonite young people have sung with some sort of touring choir, whether it was a church youth chorus or a Bible School choir.
(This is not to say conservative Mennonites solely prefer a cappella hymn-singing, but it is an unmistakable part of the conservative Anabaptist experience. What I mean is: My young Mennonite students still like their mainstream Christian pop and, gasp, even a little bit of country.)
Another way that Mennonites promote hymn-singing is through music education. Within conservative Anabaptist communities, there is a renewed interest in music education, and this is seen through the recently formed Shenandoah Christian Music Camp, which is held annually in Virginia and Ohio. Conservative Anabaptist music enthusiasts, song-leaders, worship leaders and youth having been attending these summer camps since 2006. The camps feature classes in musical development, choral conducting, congregational music and composition. Conservative Mennonites are beginning to see the need for education in order for this tradition to continue.
A cappella hymn-singing is also promoted through the composition of new hymns. For example, for the past several years, the Shenandoah Christian Music Camp has been commissioning new hymns through its annual hymn contest. The camp accepts submitted poetic texts and chooses a winning text. Then, conservative Anabaptist composers (amateur and trained alike) go to work. These composers submit their own musical version of the text, and another winning selection is made. The new hymn is sung at both the Ohio and Virginia camps.
Recently, the idea of new hymns has been on my mind, and I have thought: Is it possible to arrange Christian pop songs into sing-able a cappella arrangements? It’s been done before. Larry Nickel, a Canadian Mennonite composer, beautifully and effectively re-arranged the Christian worship song “In Christ Alone” to a choral a cappella setting. (And where did I first hear that arrangement? Last month at a service in Nappanee featuring a Mennonite bible school choir.)
It worked wonderfully, so I have decided that I want someone to re-set Matt Redman’s “Never Once.” Matt Redman, a Grammy award-winning British Christian songwriter, wrote the Christian pop song “Never Once” in 2011. This anthemic song is a Christian declaration of the presence and the faithfulness of God to humankind even in life’s toughest moments.
Why did I choose “Never Once” to be a new hymn?
First, it’s anthemic, musically.
Its simple tune and repetitiveness qualify it for the serious tone and chant-like treatment of anthems in contemporary classical music. (Arvo Pärt’s tintinnabuli and all that). Personally, I think there’s tons of room for Eric Whitacre cluster chords. (Don’t laugh. It will work.) Its declaration of an aspect of Christian belief (the existence of God) defines it as a credo and also qualifies it as an anthem. Mixing all these elements means that “Never Once” qualifies for new hymn material.
Second, it’s accessible (textually).
One of the problems of hymn texts can be accessibility. The antiquated language and difficult (culturally irrelevant?) metaphors are obstacles to enjoying beautiful hymn poetry. (For instance, in old hymns, there are a lot of “anchors,” “billows” and “stormy seas”. Personally, as a Midwesterner who happens not to own a yacht, these aquatic word pictures are a little vague at best. But as Emily Dickinson would say: A good imagination can fix that: “I never saw a moor / I never saw the sea; / Yet know I how the heather looks, /And what a wave must be.”)
What I’m arguing: Unless a congregation is filled with singularly imaginative folk, hymn texts can be hard to relate to. I run into this problem with my junior high students during hymn-singing time. (Oh, that’s another place that Mennonites sing. Elementary school.) Sometimes, these students lack the critical thinking skills to access the complex poetry. However, this would never be a problem with adults because we all learned to love the study of poetry in high school, right? (Ahem.) Understanding poetry, then, is necessary for the accessibility of hymns. However, while “Never Once” uses poetic metaphor, the metaphors are not obscure. Life is compared to a mountaintop and a battleground, and those metaphors are accepted generally. Thus, the “Never Once” text is accessible and congregation-friendly.
And finally, it’s communal (textually).
The diction of the personal pronouns is communal. “Never once did we ever walk alone.” This communal diction works for an a cappella choral arrangement; a hymn is meant to be sung in community. Redman’s piece, then, once rearranged, is conducive to be sung in a group, at least textually.
And perhaps that is why Mennonites prefer hymn-singing in the first place. A cappella hymn-singing is community. And in our swipe-screen, social-networking solitariness, isn’t community what we all long for?