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Spring 2003 · Vol. 32 No. 1 · pp. 99–110 

Music Styles of Tabor College and MB Southern District Churches, 1961-2002

Bradley D. Vogel

In their book, Singing: A Mennonite Voice, coauthors Marlene Kropf and Kenneth Nafziger relate answers to the question, “If you had to choose between singing and preaching in worship, which would be the last to go?” The answers were all the same, write Kropf and Nafziger, and typically began with a pause and then the words, “Well, I know I should say that preaching would be the last to go. The truth is, music is more important to me than preaching.” 1

If there is a growing chasm between the musical practices of Tabor and that of its constituent churches, is it possible to determine who moved?

This answer reflects the high position music-making holds in the hearts and minds of churchgoers. In addition to prayer, it is most likely the most prevalent activity in church gatherings of any kind (one could argue for the inclusion of food to create a church meeting triumvirate, but eating is not as prevalent in worship services as is singing!). The presence of music within our church services is of such priority that many are willing to fight for its inclusion; fact is that this is what many are doing today in regard to music in our church services: fighting about it.


As a denominational school, Tabor College is both asked and {100} expected to provide leadership in the form of developing and teaching a church music philosophy and church music personnel. The connection between the Tabor College Music Department and its constituent churches is one that is regarded with great seriousness, and its responsibility to provide support to the churches is at the center of the department’s mission. In order to fulfill this mission, an understanding of the needs of churches is key. This article evaluates a survey undertaken to compare the choral music practices of Tabor College with the singing practices of its constituent churches.

The first part of the survey entailed charting the styles of music sung by the Tabor College Choir from the first year Dr. Paul Wohlgemuth directed the choir (1960-61) to the present (2001-02). There have been three full-time directors of the choir since 1960 (Wohlgemuth, 1961-1974; Dr. Jonah Kliewer, 1976-1998; and Dr. Bradley D. Vogel, 1999 to the present), and four other directors who each served for one year (between Wohlgemuth and Kliewer, and three sabbatical year fills): Leland Suderman (1968-69), Dr. Robert Hauck (1974-75), Glenn Litke (1984-85), and Dr. Mark Suderman (1992-93). Paul Ratzlaff, Carl Gerbrandt, and Wesley Loewen were three other choral directors who were a part of the Tabor choral scene working with ensembles. (Note that on the chart, each academic year is listed by the graduation year, e.g., 1960-61 is given as 1961.)

The styles of literature performed by the choir during this time span have been remarkably consistent as demonstrated by the graph included in this study. Overall, it is interesting to note that music that would be considered “classical,” “serious,” or perhaps “long-haired” (Renaissance through twentieth-century Serious Sacred music categories) comprises slightly under half of all music performed on tour programs (49.5 percent), while the music that would be considered by many to be more “accessible” to the average listener (Spirituals through Contemporary Christian music) comprises slightly over half of all music performed on tour programs (50.5 percent). Of this second group of categories, two-thirds of the repertoire comes from the categories of music for church choir and hymn arrangements (34.7 percent of the 50.5 percent).

Given the wide variety of literature available to a college-level choir, programming half of the literature to be more easily accepted by a church audience while programming only one-in-four titles from the historical time periods (27.3 percent composite for repertoire from the Renaissance through the Romantic periods) reflects a genuine attempt to meet the audience on its own ground. {101}



Has this continuity and consistency of music styles been mirrored in the musical life of Tabor College constituent churches? To answer that question, this author examined church bulletins/worship folders from a variety of churches that belong to the Southern District of Mennonite Brethren Churches for the purpose of charting what types of music were used for worship services. The time span of 1961 to 2002 was used for this study. The primary focus was congregational song and not choral music. While it may seem awkward to compare college choir singing to congregational singing, what we are examining is continuity of style. If there is a growing chasm between the musical practices of Tabor and that of its constituent churches, is it possible to determine who moved?

Though variety and individuality are hallmarks of the worship styles of today’s churches, during the 1960s and 1970s a member of one Southern District MB Church could visit another church within the district and not feel too far away from home. Throughout these years, congregations consistently sang two hymns during the worship service, and possibly a third hymn at the close of the service. An equal amount of participation was enjoyed by the church choir during these decades; depending upon the church, either the choir or the congregation sang the opening hymn and/or the closing hymn.

The only variety that existed among different churches was whether the two hymns sung during the service were sung together at the beginning of the service, or were separated by the reading of a substantial passage of scripture, the offertory and perhaps a “special number” by the choir or an ensemble. Some churches could be considered more “high church” than others; half of the churches studied utilized the Doxology as the opening song of the service, while others had a highly structured pattern of choral opening, pastoral prayer, choral response, and then the singing of the hymn or hymns.

Most noticeable regarding the adopted order of each church is that whatever was in place at the beginning of the study time frame remained essentially unchanged throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and at least the first half of the 1980s. Noticeable also during this span of approximately twenty-five years is the variety of hymns sung by congregations. It was rare to sing the same hymn more than two times during one calendar year, and hymn choices were predominantly those of the gospel song genre. Simply perusing the hymnal page numbers listed in the worship service order leads one to believe that the congregation used the whole hymnbook.

The winds of change began to blow—albeit lightly—in the {103} mid-1980s. Apparently, it was a swirling wind, and not one that blew steadily from one end of the Southern District to the other! The effects of this wind are seen in a variety of ways. First of all, the music repertoire sung by the congregation experienced a very slight broadening with the inclusion of praise choruses. For the record, among the churches studied the Hillsboro Mennonite Brethren Church was the first to list a praise chorus in the worship service on September 21, 1980. It appears to have been a one-time experiment; praise choruses are not listed again until fall 1986. In 1985, the Parkview Mennonite Brethren Church began to occasionally sing praise choruses that were popularized by the Bill Gaither Trio. The initial printing of the hymnal supplement, Sing Alleluia, in 1984 can most likely account for the beginning of use of praise choruses in Mennonite Brethren churches.

A second effect of this wind of change is seen in a moving away from the established, week-in-and-week-out familiar order of worship. Again, it was the Hillsboro MB Church that first demonstrated this in print, beginning in 1983. While maintaining the tradition of singing just two hymns, the order of events within the worship service showed change from week to week. And on April 5, 1987, the Parkview MB Church had the sudden emergence of a large block of music at the opening of the service, including several worship choruses.

A third change that is quite noticeable to the eye is the format of printing the worship service. The earlier decades had a simple listing of each event in order. But in the mid-1980s many churches began providing a heading for different activities of the worship service: Call to Worship; Worshipping through Song; Worshipping through Giving; Worshipping through the Word, etc.

Along with this more deliberate planning of worship came a change in the bulletin itself. Most changes in worship structure were accompanied by a new-look bulletin—most often a professionally printed bifold that bore a photographed or sketched picture of the church building. They also tended to gain weight! Particularly due to lengthening the printed format of the order of worship (headings, etc.) and the inclusion of the texts of worship choruses, church bulletins became thicker. And finally, they acquired a new name: worship folder.

While these changes were occurring in these two Hillsboro, Kansas, churches, most churches of the Southern District Conference did not experience a great deal of change until the early 1990s. Variety of worship format became prevalent at that time, with each church’s format becoming unique to itself—something that was not true in the earlier decades of this study. All of the churches studied began using headings {104} to highlight different aspects of worship, began to change the format for the worship service from week to week, and began using blocks of music (typically three or more songs at one time) rather than spreading the music throughout different parts of the service. By the late 1990s and into the next century, the worship format for many churches is only singing and preaching—very little or no scripture reading set apart on its own (it is generally included within the blocks of music), an offertory, a couple of large blocks of music, and preaching.

Within these blocks of music is a mixture of praise choruses and hymns, but by the late 1990s the musical repertoire is predominantly praise choruses. The hymns sung tend to be restricted to traditional hymns of praise (“Holy, Holy, Holy,” “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” “Sing Praise to God,” etc.), and often use only one or two stanzas of each. In some worship folders it is impossible to know what is sung, since the format simply reads “Praise and Worship.”

As a short summary, the worship and musical style of churches within the Southern District of Mennonite Brethren Churches maintained what was likely a long-standing and similar structure and style through the 1960s, 1970s, and—for most churches—the 1980s. In the 1990s changes of format and repertoire began to be more prevalent, and then by the end of the decade and the beginning of the new century, worship styles—and particularly musical repertoire—underwent rapid change, resulting in individual styles for each church and a mixture of traditional hymns and contemporary praise choruses.


There is truth to the adage, “statistics don’t lie.” But while statistics don’t lie . . . what do they mean? There is a very apparent variance of paths taken by the Tabor College Music Department and the musical worship style of many Mennonite Brethren churches. Does this mean that one of the institutions is out of step with the other? And if so, which one is right while the other is left? Is it possible that both could be correctly traversing their own proper path? But if this is so, how can the college maintain its mission to minister to its constituent churches and train students to serve in these churches?

The Significance of NASM

As a point of departure, it is true that the Tabor College Music Department is marching to the beat of an institutional drummer, and keeping the beat for this particular band is the accrediting agency, the {105} National Association of Schools of Music (NASM). The role of NASM is to establish a uniform method of granting credit in all schools of music by developing and maintaining basic standards for the granting of degrees and other credentials. Its objectives mirror many of those of the Tabor College Music Department, particularly its objective that the prime objective of all educational programs in music is to provide the opportunity for every music student to develop individual potentialities to the utmost. 2

To fulfill these objectives, NASM has codified a rigorous course of study that all member schools must maintain and show proof of fulfilling. To belong to the organization, each member school undergoes an evaluation once every ten years; to maintain accreditation with NASM is a sign that a particular school of music is indeed maintaining standards that have been proven to be the best for musical arts education. Tabor College is one of only six private, liberal arts colleges in Kansas to be accredited by NASM. A conscious decision has been made to educate students according to the standards established for the largest and “best” schools of music in the nation. To do so is certainly not anti-spiritual—in fact, the decision to follow this educational path coincides with the department’s commitment to serve and worship God by fully realizing the gifts he has given to students.

Guiding Principles for MB Churches

If it is, then, issues of education and quality—a giving of one’s best—that guide the program direction for the Tabor College Choir, what are the guiding principles for the worship and musical styles of the churches of the Southern District? In the beginning of the denomination, congregational singing was a hallmark of the newly emerged Mennonite Brethren Church. As a renewal movement, it exhibited one of the traits that is common to all renewal movements in the history of Christianity: expression of new experiences in new songs. 3 By design, the early Mennonite Brethren shortened their sermons, included time for personal testimonies, and alternately prayed and sang to bring “a more lively and joyful spirit into the worship service.” 4 Wohlgemuth writes that music in the Mennonite Brethren Church eventually settled into a pragmatic practice to meet the following needs of church members:

(1) fostering a lively but meaningful spirit of worship, (2) lending reverence and spiritual feeling to the service, (3) undergirding the biblical emphasis in terms of doctrine, (4) assisting in the spiritual development of the believer, {106} (5) giving expression to Christian fellowship and joy, (6) relating to all facets of the church and family life, and (7) promoting the missionary and evangelistic outreach of the church. 5

Singing a New Song

Sermon length notwithstanding, Mennonite Brethren churches have been infused with “new songs,” songs that some claim are needed to bring “a more lively and joyful spirit into the worship service.” Historically, the new songs of the new MB church were the result of a new spirit; but are the new songs of the church today the result of a new spirit, or an effort to effect a new spirit?

Or, could these new songs be the result of a different factor, or perhaps many different factors? To explore this subject, a number of questions and observations will be addressed; none of the questions raised or observations penned are intended to shed a negative light on past or current practices, but are intended to cause evaluation of practices in order to ensure that a careful thought process is at the foundation of church practices.

Most important to consider when examining worship practices in the modern church is to examine the society surrounding the church. The environment in which a church exists will—or even must—affect the church in some way. It is essential that a church be relevant to its surrounding culture as well as to its attending members. It is also essential that the church appeal not only in a way to attract people through its doors, but that its practices instill in those who attend the spiritual stuff of life that is needed for Christ-like living.

The Mennonite Brethren movement was, of course, a renewal movement out of the broader Anabaptist movement of the sixteenth century. One of Anabaptism’s reactions against the institutional church was the creation of a “free,” nonliturgical worship, a worship philosophy that has—certain traditions notwithstanding—continued in Mennonite churches to this day. In this aspect it differed from other reform movements. The Lutheran and Anglican churches maintained slightly altered (not altared!) versions of the Roman Mass, while John Calvin adopted a much simpler yet still-ordered form of worship. Zwingli and the Anabaptists were cataclysmic in their reform; Zwingli repudiated all vestiges of tradition, while the Anabaptists went even further. Anabaptists ignored a regular formal worship, meeting secretly and/or in homes. 6

As long as it was necessary for the church to remain “underground” because of persecution, this form of gathering was followed. But when {107} the Anabaptist believers were given land in a “friendly” place, church life gained a more visible structure, one which was carried with it to a new life in America. This new visible tradition of meeting remained, in many ways, secure for many years, and singing remained an important part of worship. This is evidenced by the number of hymnals produced for use in worship and the interest in “renewing” hymnals often.

Recent MB Hymnals

One of the traits of the last two hymnals produced by the Mennonite Brethren Church, Worship Hymnal (1971) and Worship Together (1995), has been their pan-evangelical content. While Marvin Hein, the chairman of the General Conference of MB Churches during the production of the 1971 Worship Hymnal, was proclaiming its virtue as a joint effort of both Canadian and United States MB churches, the official journal of the Hymn Society of America stated it to be a hymnal “for everyone. Though it is produced by one of the smaller denominations on the American continent, it is a hymnal that can be used advantageously by practically any church.” 7

Yet despite this commitment to a body of congregational song contained in a hymnal—a commitment that encouraged consistency in singing from church to church—the musical choices in the churches of the Southern District today are as diverse as their worship practices. The current MB hymnal, Worship Together (a curious name in light of recent developments!), cannot be regarded as a common source of worship music material today. On the one hand, while most churches purchased Worship Together, some chose instead to purchase a different, nondenominational commercial hymnal. And on the other hand, many churches utilize the services of Christian Copyright Licensing International, an agency that for a yearly fee grants permission for churches to reproduce almost any Christian song for use in worship services, a service that allows a church to remain “current” with contemporary song without the financial investment of purchasing books for the congregation . . . books that contain songs which could be out of use after a year or two.

Evaluating the Change in Congregational Practice

What are the reasons for these changes? Some will say that the church is simply doing what it has done in the past—adapting or evolving its song to appeal to a wider, pan-evangelical audience. Others will say that the changes are necessary to attract new people to the Mennonite Brethren Church, or to keep current people in the Mennonite Brethren Church; we must “keep up” with society. Another more practical {108} answer could simply be that we sing more choruses now because we can—resources that create access to praise choruses are available now that were not available fifteen or twenty years ago.

To varying extents these reasons are adequate to answer the question of change. It is also possible, however, that mixed in with these ideas are forces that are not easily recognized, but should be considered when formulating new patterns of worship and worship song. In The Hymn, Michael Hamilton writes that nothing has changed more in the past forty years of North American church life than its music. From his perspective as a historian, he suggests that while some of the impulses for change have come from within the church, “it seems clear that the real engine driving these changes has been a larger set of cultural shifts.” 8 The current culture of commercialism and consumerism has with it a case of narcissism: American citizens are accustomed to comfort, will express their desire for what they want, and thus drive the marketplace by their want. 9 In the church this translates to making music choices based on the personal desires of people—desires that are widely varied.

The Impact of the Wider Culture

In previous generations, music of a Christian nature was largely the domain of the church, and a common spiritual musical experience was shared by all members of the congregation. But the growth of the recording industry and the explosion of Christian music of any and all genres—rock and roll, country-western, jazz, rhythm and blues, rap, urban pop, Caribbean and African world beat, funk, retro-disco, etc.—has allowed any churchgoer to listen to the musical style of his or her choice, complete with Christian lyrics. It is natural that worshipers want to express praise or devotion in a language that is familiar. But difficulty in corporate worship arises when many individual preferences and expectations are brought into the worship service. It is difficult to meet all of the many varied expectations, and a whole-hearted attempt to do so often results in the loss of corporate worship.

A second cultural shift suggested by Hamilton concerns a distrust of inherited institutions, a phenomenon that seemed to ripen in the 1960s. Cultural/historical studies have shown quite clearly the social upheaval of that era; today’s church-going adults and many of today’s church leaders “grew up” during the 1960s, and may have inherited more of the biases of that time than even they are aware. 10 As Hamilton writes, “The same generation that created Woodstock also created Willow Creek.” 11

How much have these cultural shifts affected decisions regarding worship and worship music in the churches of the Mennonite Brethren {109} Church? When held in comparison to other churches, the Mennonite Brethren Church as a whole has moved in a similar direction as other churches—not necessarily on a direct parallel line, but in the same general trajectory. Most likely the strongest factors causing these changes will remain unknown. It is said that, given their close proximity to it, the fish were the last to discover water; in a similar vein, being so close to the time of change and the changing institution makes objective reasoning difficult. The most important issue, then, is to examine the mission of the Mennonite Brethren Church, and to be sure that its practices help connect it to its mission.


The Tabor College Music Department is designed to meet certain criteria to develop the music skills of individual students. Hopefully, Christians with these musical skills will be able to use them to serve the church. But concern arises—both at school and at church—when the musical methods used to develop these skills appear to be foreign to the musical methods utilized in church worship services. The methods meet the mission of the school, but how do they compare to the mission of the church?

If part of the mission of the church is to be a visible witness to the world, then what takes place within the church worship service should equip believers to live out that witness. In this aspect the teaching that takes place within the worship service must relevantly touch the life of each individual member. And, if part of the mission of the church is to offer a unified voice of praise and adoration to God and to his Son Jesus Christ, then what takes place within the worship service must provide each believer a voice to offer this praise and adoration. In this aspect worship planners should (1) be careful to provide a voice that all believers can call their own and fully participate, and (2) be aware to establish a body of literature that can be carried from generation to generation and be enjoyed intergenerationally.

What shall we say, then, about the seemingly divergent paths embarked upon by the college and its churches? In one sense, their missions are not that different: each is seeking to bring people before God, to lead them into fully realizing the greatness of God, and to develop their God-gifts for service in the world. Yet in another sense, their worlds are different: the Tabor College Choir has a dual existence in the world of higher education music-making, and develops the God-gifts of students according to long-standing standards of musical excellence, while the church is interested more generally in leading people to live out their lives in full obedience to God, according to biblical excellence. {110}

If approached correctly, each of these worlds should complement one another. Students who have been trained by the Music Department at Tabor College should understand that they are developing their gifts in order to serve God in the world through the exercising of their gifts, be it in performance, simple participation, or teaching. This will lead to excellence in Christian living. And believers should be trained by the church to understand that doing “all things for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31) is worship and is the ultimate calling for God’s people. This will lead to excellence in all endeavors, musical endeavors included.

It is the desire of the Tabor College Music Department to continue to serve the churches of the Mennonite Brethren denomination. As a prophet, the department seeks to proclaim a message of quality and excellence—standards worth striving for in any field of endeavor—and a broadening of each individual’s experiences, abilities, and appreciations for the things of God. And as a priest, the department seeks to serve the churches by offering ministries of praise and teaching through music, and training new leaders for the generations to come.


  1. Marlene Kropf and Kenneth Nafziger, Singing: A Mennonite Voice (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 2001), 27.
  2. National Association of Schools of Music: 2003-2004 Handbook, 6.
  3. Paul W. Wohlgemuth, “Singing the New Song,” in A History of the Mennonite Brethren Church, ed. John A. Toews (Hillsboro, KS: Mennonite Brethren Publishing House, 1975), 239.
  4. Ibid., 240.
  5. Ibid.
  6. For a more complete history of the free church worship tradition, read chapter 10, “Reformation and Free Church Worship” in Robert E. Webber, Worship Old and New (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994).
  7. Wohlgemuth, “Singing the New Song,” 247.
  8. Michael S. Hamilton, “A Generation Changes North American Hymnody,” The Hymn (July 2001): 11.
  9. Ibid., 13-16.
  10. Ibid., 13, 16-17.
  11. Ibid., 17. Willow Creek Community Church, a megachurch in suburban Chicago, developed its ministry by canvassing area neighborhoods to see what each individual wanted in a church. It was one of the first churches to develop the “seeker-sensitive” worship model.
Dr. Bradley D. Vogel is Associate Professor of Choral Music at Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas, where he directs the Concert Choir, Women’s Chorale, and Oratorio Chorus. Dr. Vogel has been active in church music ministries since his student days at Tabor College, having served as a staff person in youth and music ministries as well as in lay capacities in music and education ministries.

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