Previous | Next

January 1981 · Vol. 10 No. 1 · pp. 26–32 

The Mennonite Brethren Worship Hymnal: Appreciation, Evaluation, Projection

William Baerg and John Regehr

As we approach the tenth anniversary of the publication of the Mennonite Brethren hymnal it is appropriate to reflect on how it is now serving us and to suggest revisions. Such revisions were already anticipated in the preface to the first edition

Constant change is characteristic of our times. While that is not unique to our generation, the church senses more keenly today the need to make contemporary adaptations. We are stating the reasons for our faith in new or revised language. We feel the urgency to speak to key issues, some new and some old, but always pressing in upon us in modern forms. . . . Whenever a spirit of awakening manifests itself among people, there is usually a rebirth of music as well. . . .

No doubt many look at the hymnal and wonder what new elements it contained. The 1971 hymnal was the first to serve as a more general aid to worship. For this reason Bible readings and prayers were incorporated. There was no deliberate effort to be contemporary in the selection of hymns and therefore none of the creative contributions of the 60’s is included in it.

This article has two purposes. The first has to do with a revision of the hymnal. We intend to prompt some serious thinking about how to proceed toward a revision of the hymnal, then to describe a procedure for revision, and finally to look at a number of changes which ought to be incorporated in the new edition.

We suggest that the Conference publish three hymnal supplements over the next decade, each containing some 100 songs. These songs could be selected from both old and new sources. There is much contemporary {27} music which has already been tested and has received approval in the larger Christian community. Other songs of equal value were overlooked or rejected in the 1971 hymnal. It is neither unusual nor inappropriate to return to music which was of value at an earlier stage of our pilgrimage and which for a time seemed less relevant. Following the third supplement we should undertake a full-scale revision of the hymnal, incorporating into it those selections from both the 1971 edition and the three supplements which have proven themselves to be particularly valuable.

The second purpose of this article is to suggest how our present hymnal could be used more effectively as the aid to worship. These suggestions are interspersed throughout our discussion of the criteria for revision.


Hymns for the Entire Spectrum of Christian Experience

Hymns, like the Old Testament psalms, express the believers’ faith responses to God and to one another. At times we wish to give voice to our joy, praise, hope, or sense of victory. At other times we wish to express our hurt, defeat, loneliness, sorrow, or anger.

The Mennonite Brethren hymnal contains hymns within this wide spectrum, capturing a variety of experiences and expressing many faith responses. A new hymnal ought to ensure that thematic sections have an even wider range. In the present hymnal, for example, the “Holy Spirit” section lacks the note of rejoicing and the tone of victory.

Much better use could be made of our present hymnal to enable believers a wide range of expressions of relationships and decisions. Worship leaders can easily narrow their selection of hymns, especially when they equate piety and worship with one or two emotions. As many preachers restrict themselves to particular portions of the Bible, so, we suspect, churches restrict themselves in their choice of hymns. Our hymnal would be much more useful if we regularly expanded our worship experience by singing songs with a new emotional tone or fresh content. We might do well to follow the lead of other religious traditions who use the choir primarily to help the congregation learn new hymns rather than to perform “for” the congregation. The believing community will be enriched if its hymn repertoire is enlarged in a way that also increases the scope of its faith response.

Christians come to see as irrelevant those hymns which do not speak to their particular situation. Why should our songs petition God for peace when war is far away? or for bread when we have more food than we can consume? or for hope when most of our dreams are already realized? Hymns born in troubled times seem to serve no useful {28} purpose in a day when security and prosperity “lift their countenance upon us.”

And yet it would be a mistake to remove these from our hymnal. We are discovering anew even in the lap of coddling affluence how elusive and deceptive this security is. An eruption of a mountain buries the dreams of many. A summer’s drought brings the population of half of the North American prairies to its knees. A prolonged heat wave and a giant state languishes. A wild drop in gold prices, or surge in oil prices, and in fear our knuckles turn white as we clutch our possessions.

In spite of the general prosperity there will always be places where the experience of the saints is very different from our own. Can we not weep for the poor when our table is well set or rejoice with those in peace when we are persecuted and powerless?

Hymns for the Whole Range of Biblical and Theological Teaching

The Christian Church through the centuries has done much of its teaching through hymns. Br. G.H. Peters, principal of the Mennonite Collegiate Institute in Gretna, Manitoba, effectively taught the holiness of God and the work-ethic of Mennonites through a few of his favorite hymns from the old Gesangbuch mit Noten.

Of course, most hymns were not designed to stand as complete and self-sufficient entities. They are best used to supplement the spoken word in illuminating particular life-truths or biblical texts. Therefore the hymn should be woven into the flow of worship along with the reading of scripture, prayer, the sermon, and the eucharist. It ought not to be viewed as sentiment, but as doctrine; it is declaration, not only response.

There is a weakness in our hymnbook in respect to this teaching/declaring component. The weaknesses of the hymn texts are somewhat camouflaged when we encase the text in the score. If we should choose to write the hymn text as a separate poem we would be embarrassed by the shallowness of much of what we sing.

Among us—perhaps among Evangelicals generally—hymns have lost their dignity as teaching aids and have tended to become expressions of our feelings. Of course, the Old Testament psalms contain a great deal of “I”-language, language that portrays the inner experience of the writer. Private and corporate singing ought also to describe our experiences and express our sentiments. But a diet of “I-me-my” in experimental hymns soon becomes insipid and wearisome. Surely some of our musical expression ought to convey the large realities of who God is. And, since we are in a tradition that emphasizes the New Testament concepts of community and body life, it seems strange that we {29} sing only of how “Jesus loves me” rather than that “Jesus loves us,” or we sing “I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God” rather than also singing, “I’m so glad you’re a part of the family too.”

With only one or two exceptions the hymns in our hymnal which focus on the Holy Spirit are of the pleading kind, expressing sadness at our incompleteness and begging the Spirit to continue the slow task of working with our depressing and distressing humanity. Should Pentecost not create the experience of joy, victory and power?

The teaching potential of our hymnal is not fully utilized. We neglect a large number of hymns and often introduce worshippers only poorly to the content of those which are being sung.

Hymns are sometimes also misused. If we do not look carefully at the entire text of a hymn, we may well, because of one image that “hooks” us, use it for an aspect of worship for which it is ill-suited. An example is the singing of “Break Thou the Bread of Life” at a communion service. This is a hymn about Scripture, not about the death of Christ on the cross. Even worse is the use of congregational singing to whip up enthusiasm.

Adapting the Hymns to Our Experience and Language

The line in the introduction to our hymnal “. . . the need to make contemporary adaptations,” raise the question whether the hymnal really is much different from its predecessors. If many of the hymns seem archaic only one decade after the hymnal was published, it is likely that the language was already archaic at the time of publication.

What some see as archaism is the formality of the hymns themselves. Most of them seem so proper, so Victorian. The melodies and the rhythms are predictable. They lack the freedom, the spontaneity and the vitality of the more contemporary style. For many of our younger co-believers it seems that the music is more offensive than the text. To balance this urge to be free from predictable forms, it is well to be reminded that subtlety of rhythm has never characterized the music of the church. It is difficult to sing inorganic and athletic melodies corporately. A congregation is not capable of navigating musical subtleties which were designed for small, musically sophisticated groups.

The archaic quality of our hymnal is also observable in the images it uses. Images unfamiliar to a congregation do little to strengthen the thrust of the text. Few of us have ever been caught in a Rocky Mountain storm which drove us to find shelter and warmth under an overhanging boulder. So the following may not ignite our imagination:

In the rifted rock I’m resting,
safely sheltered I abide. {30}

There no foes nor storms molest me,
while within the cleft I hide.

And yet a hike up a mountain side, or an appropriate photo, can make the image alive even for a prairie pilgrim. Indeed, many images are quite universally understood. The responsibility falls on the one who leads the worship to assure that the hymn has meaning and enhances worship.

We are not suggesting that all images once generally familiar but now foreign to our experience ought to be studiously avoided. All the deep human experiences—hope, joy, hurt, loss, disappointment and aspiration—are common to rural and urban settings. The value of an image lies not only in its immediacy to one’s experience but in its simplicity and clarity, qualities which make it effective even when it is outside the person’s actual experience. In our move from scythe to binder to swather and combine, we have lost the image of the sheaf, but it takes very little teaching to get even urban children to sing about “bringing in the sheaves” with meaning.

And yet, if we wish to convey the truth that the Christian faith relates to the rough realities of life, we had best balance the nostalgic pastoral images of meadows, gurgling brooks and feeding sheep with those of high-rise structures and dwarfed, dusty trees struggling to survive in concrete enclosures on city streets.

The English influence is easily observable in our hymnal in such images of the sea as anchor, lighthouse, harbor, life-line and pilot. These are not meaningless for land-locked people, but they must be introduced so that the meaning is clear. And they must be balanced with images of the land: wind and thirsty soil, drifting dust, clumps of trees shading cows, drainage and irrigation ditches, powerful tractors, wide-eyed young calves, crop insurance and hail.

And, of course, we need to be aware of images that militate against our basic faith. If we promote peace and reconciliation, we had best not overload our songs with military images.

We also do well to retain the images which have come into our repertoire through the experience of our forebears. The long treks, the hostility of government, the search for a homeland, the yearning for acceptance and belonging, the fear of annihilation—all of these are embedded in the hymns our people either wrote or came to cherish. Hymns will serve well to remind us of our history and of the goodness of God to our ancestors if we will be led to understand them aright. The responsibility falls heavily on the one who leads us into worship.

Another archaism we have been slow to lose is the “thee-thou” language. It was a major accomplishment that moved us to translations {31} of the Bible which speak our language. It may be an even greater accomplishment to sift King James English out of our hymns. In fact, the problem with the hymn quoted above may be less with the image of the sheltering rock than with the estrangement produced by the language. Rifted is foreign. Abide is ancient and religious. Cleft connotes the palate and molest implies the sexual mistreatment of children.

Some hymns could easily be changed. An example of such a hymn is “Hail, Heavenly Night” (No. 126). The only rhyming word which need be changed is in the first line of stanza one. But since current rhyming practice allows for differences in consonants, rhyming “are” with “heart” does not create a great problem. Everywhere else the “thy” becomes “your,” “thee” and “thou” become “you.” Even “Jesus, I come to you” (No. 262) creates no difficulty.


Something needs to be said about our own continuing creativity in hymn writing apart from any thought about a successor hymnal. To begin with we must shift the weight of responsibility where it belongs—to the person who writes the words. Over the years we have looked to our musicians for new things in church music. Although earlier music instructors already told us this was a wrong track, music has been predominant in the hymnal. And so the committee which produced it consisted of four musicians and two pastors.

The format of the book reinforces the error. We have a predilection for part singing, and so we have printed the text into the staves for easy reading of the music. This format has done wonders for part singing, but it has taken our attention off the hymn texts. As we leaf through the hymnal we get the impression that the hymns are musical works rather than poetry. This misperception is strengthened when we discover that stanzas had to be omitted in order to make room for the musical staves. Add to that the obsession for getting an entire hymn on one page, and one can understand that texts have had to be sacrificed. And they were. “The First Noel” (No. 14) is a case in point. The omission of stanza 6 has truncated the hymn leaving it without that glorious ending:

Then let us all with one accord
Sing praises to our heavenly Lord,
That hath made heaven and earth of nought,
And with his blood mankind has bought.

The essence of a hymn is the text, not the music. Traditionally melodies were sung to a variety of texts, hence text and tune were printed separately. In that way the text was seen as existing independently and it could be judged critically apart from its disguise. And in that way it also served for personal reflection. Our own hymnal has only {32} minimal value for aiding individual devotional meditation.

If the text is the essence of the hymn, then it follows that the theologian and not the musician has the obligation to take the initiative in creating it. Lamentably, very little of such creative work is being done. This could be changed if we were to think of hymns as “disposable” commodities. If sermons are prepared and delivered in a particular context for a particular cultural climate (even cultural moment) and are filed away or at least re-used only with significant alteration, then why should a hymn be thought of as being composed for posterity? Can a preacher not summarize his sermon in a few stanzas and have it sung as the hearer’s affirmative response to the God who addressed them in that worship event? The stanzas below represent such a congregational response to a sermon on gratitude in which the preacher expound the biblical injunction to be thankful in all things and for all things. It was sung to the tune “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee.”

Little, Less Nothing. But Thanks!

Thank you God that I can flourish
on so little of the good,

That creative grace can conquer
poisons hid in words and food,

That when I am all despondence
hope is gone, none can console,

You break through in ways mysterious
to restore and make me whole.

You can multiply resources
when they are but small and few.

Bondage, illness, and depression
you disperse like morning dew.

You are present when the blackness
would belie your glory bright,

And break through in ways mysterious
clothed in majesty and might.

As we look at the words now, we are sure that they are destined to be forgotten. But they were useful at the time, and a small group who heard the sermon even used it as a theme song for the year. We need the courage to write more such “disposable” hymns.

Dr. William Baerg is assistant professor and chairman of the Music Department at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College, Winnipeg, Manitoba. Dr. John Regehr teaches Practical Theology at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College.

Previous | Next