The Book or the Wall?

Worship at the Saint-Genis-Pouilly Church in France. Photo: Stéphanie Gonzalez
Release date: 
Tuesday, 10 December 2013

 Exploring our shared commitment to worship

As a global communion of Anabaptist-related churches, we share a common commitment to gathering regularly for worship. Yet our tremendous diversity means that we carry out this commitment in very different ways. In the October 2013 issue of Courier/Correo/Courrier, leaders from across our fellowship write about different ways in which Anabaptists approach worship - the sights and sounds, the challenges and the blessings.  

The Book or the Wall?

If you were to attend a Sunday service in a European Mennonite congregation, you would probably encounter two different styles of worship. In one kind of service, the congregation sings from a book. This style is fond of four-part harmony, and often uses an organ, a harmonium or a piano as an accompanying instrument.

In the other kind of service, the congregation relies on a video projector to display the lyrics of the hymns on the wall. This style is more into “contemporary worship”: its melodies and rhythms have a distinctive pop favor and are usually supported by electric guitars, bass and drums.

Of course, distinctions are not always this neatly made. For instance, in my congregation, which is a member of the French Mennonite conference, old revivalist hymnals are used along with contemporary Evangelical – if not charismatic – songs projected on the wall. We departed from our harmonium long ago, and the drums are doing well. Some brothers and sisters – most of them elderly – are still able to sing four-part harmony, but the skill is vanishing among their younger counterparts. This seems like a transition process: how long will we continue singing from those dusty books? How long will it take before a technological change erases another part of our memories, practices and spirituality?

My tone may sound a bit nostalgic, but I do not think it is. Neither is it technophobic: video projectors can be convenient tools. Yet we have to reflect on how we use them, for objects play an important role in our worship. They are instruments that shape our spirituality. Sometimes, we are aware of this fact. Most of the time, we are not. And when we are not, technology is left unchecked and becomes a silent master whom we obey without noticing.

There is a cultural contrast among European Mennonite worship styles, and it impacts the different ways in which we cultivate spirituality. The objects we use as we congregate to celebrate our faith, Sun- day after Sunday, play an important part in those differences. And the tools we employ to sing together are telling of the kind of Christians we might become in the long run.

Singing is a powerful activity that profoundly shapes what we believe. Our minds might wander as we listen to a sermon that we will probably hear only once. It is quite another thing with psalms, hymns and songs of praise, for they belong to a repertoire that our community – which includes each one of us – will often sing. Theological ideas expressed in a sermon may come and go, no matter how fancy, interesting and profound they sound. Communicated by a song, the same ideas probably have longevity. They settle somewhere in our subconscious.

Once again, Mennonite European churches are interesting in this regard. As mentioned before, some of them sing from a book – by which I mean a Mennonite hymnal that exists in the language of a conference, and that communities use for their worship.

Northern Europe has a tradition of Mennonite hymnals: Dutch Doopsgezinden have theirs, and German-speaking Mennonites from Germany and Switzerland share one. Of course, Anabaptists did not compose all the hymns enclosed in those books. Many of those songs come from a Reformed, Catholic or ecumenical background. How- ever, the repertoire enclosed between the covers of those hymnals is in tune with an Anabaptist theology and spirituality. In that sense, as they worship, these believers and their communities voice a distinctive way of being a Christian.

The matter is different in Southern Europe. Spaniards or French-speaking Mennonites (think Belgium, France or Switzerland) do not enjoy the privilege of having a “book.” They tend to sing what gets projected on the wall. Most of the time, their repertoire borrows from more Evangelical and charismatic sources. The distinctive- ness of Anabaptism tends to get blurred, especially as those songs emphasize the “powerfulness” of God, and often downplay the fact that, in Jesus, God emptied himself and became weak in order to reach for us.

Over the last decade, Anabaptist scholarship has moved in a tremendous way to remind we European Mennonites of our historical roots. It has given us a sense of identity. Nevertheless, to convert that in- sight into a deeper spirituality, we may need a generation of authors, composers and theologians who offer us, here in Southern Europe, a “book” in tune with our beliefs. And if that book is compatible with a video projector or a tablet, that sounds even better.  

Philippe Gonzalez is lay minister in a French Mennonite Church (Saint- Genis-Pouilly) and a lecturer at a Swiss University.


Geographic representation: