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Anneli Loepp Thiessen on Creating Non-Hymnal Songs

Even when denominations try their best to compile culturally sensitive hymnals, not every congregation can or should use that hymnal. That’s why Anabaptist Worship Network works to include more people and cultures in creating new songs for use in worship.

Anneli Loepp Thiessen is an interdisciplinary musicologist who researches and writes about women in music. She is writing her dissertation at the University of Ottawa on gender in the Christian music industry. She also is the Canadian director of Anabaptist Worship Network (AWN) and served on the committee for the 2020 Mennonite hymnal Voices Together (VT). In this edited conversation, Loepp Thiessen explains why AWN develops worship resources for congregations that don’t use hymnals.

Why did you focus your Vital Worship Grant on developing non-hymnal Anabaptist worship music?

When the Voices Together hymnal committee began our work in 2016, we were told by the steering committee that our task was to create a collection to serve the “broad middle” of the Mennonite church in North America—predominantly white, upper-middle-class communities who worship with hymnals. VT is an excellent resource for these communities.

Anabaptist Worship Network applied for a 2022 Vital Worship Grant because we knew that many congregations fell outside of this broad middle: those that worship in languages beyond English, primarily sing contemporary worship music, do not invest church funds in hymnal purchases, or have other reasons for not using a hymnal. For these communities, VT is not the right fit. While we stand behind Voices Together as a great resource for vibrant and just worship, we also recognize that ethical concerns arise when the primary investment in Mennonite worship in the twenty-first century is not accessible or beneficial to many (often already marginalized) communities.

What is the Anabaptist Worship Network?

The Voices Together hymnal was released in December 2020. That same year, Anabaptist Worship Network (AWN) was born to help implement the hymnal and provide ongoing resourcing for Mennonite communities who didn't adopt the hymnal. Since our denominations (Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church USA) do not have staff positions that formally support worship training, we see AWN as an entity that holds together worship projects happening in congregations, church schools, summer camps, universities, and regional churches/conferences. 

During the pandemic, we created webinars and blog posts to help plan virtual and intergenerational worship. Our blog features posts on topics such as praying during the pandemic, pursuing racial reconciliation in worship, and resource suggestions for Pride Month. We are constantly striving to make connections with Mennonite communities beyond the broad middle. We aspire to continue learning how we can use our resources to support the worship of those who have not often been resourced by more formal denominational worship structures. The grant helped us do that.

What makes a congregational song or worship practice specifically Anabaptist?

Anabaptist worship is informed by our historic identity as a peace church, an emphasis on simple living in community, a belief in adult baptism, and an evolving global identity as a worldwide church. Since there are no formal denominational guidelines for what is included in worship, Mennonite worship is incredibly diverse.

What misconceptions have you noticed about Anabaptist or Mennonite music?

It has often been observed that Euro-American Mennonites—especially those in the “broad middle”—as well as non-Mennonites from other traditions have strong assumptions of what "Mennonite music" is. It’s usually thought of as predominantly four-part hymnody from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, most of which emerged in Europe or the United States and which is sung a cappella in four parts. There is a common misconception by Mennonites that most of their beloved songs are written by Mennonite text and tune writers, and communities often experience anxiety about losing our Mennonite music (read: the decline of hymn singing). It is important to recognize the ways that our current and historical music beloved by Mennonites emerged through relationship with other traditions as well as our own. Mennonites are not the only ones who dearly love traditional hymns, nor does the burden of caring for this tradition fall only to Mennonites: we have always shared in the rich tradition of ecumenical hymnody.

In contrast to widely held assumptions, Mennonite music is diverse and evolving. The Mennonite World Conference includes churches in eighty-six countries, and two-thirds of baptized believers are in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. A growing number of Anabaptist songwriters also led to about 150 of the 750 songs in VT being by Anabaptists. We can balance a recognition of the ways that our hymnody is often borrowed with acknowledgement of the incredible offerings of a growing number of Anabaptist contributors. Our grant-funded May 2023 songwriting retreat helped connect songwriters from a range of contexts, and it allowed us to write Mennonite music for worship that expands our repertoire in new and diverse ways.

How did your Vital Worship Grant address musical needs of marginalized Mennonite/Anabaptist communities?

Hymnals tend to uphold the voices of those fluent in Western classical art music, especially privileging those who are already published in other hymnals. The VT committee made substantial efforts to elevate the voices of diverse Mennonite contributors, including through Vital Worship Grants in 2017 and 2020. However, the nature of a printed and notated collection, especially one compiled within a limited budget and timeframe, means that it cannot perfectly capture the diversity of worship expressions in North American Mennonite communities. Our May 2023 songwriting retreat emerged in part as a way to continue developing relationships with Mennonites outside the broad middle. It was an effort to provide resources to communities for whom Voices Together is not a helpful resource.

Who participated in the songwriting retreat?

We gathered twenty-four songwriters from North American Mennonite churches. They or their ancestors had roots in Burundi, Canada, Colombia, Congo, Germany, Indonesia, Laos, Mexico, Ukraine, the United States, and elsewhere. We spent three days praying, worshiping, laughing, and writing songs. Despite our varied backgrounds, worldviews, and experiences, we shared the conviction that the Holy Spirit is guiding Anabaptist songwriters to write new songs, and these may not sound like what has come before.

A songwriter with Liberian and German heritage described the retreat’s “sense of absolute unity and harmony reigning amongst a group with such diversity. There were no tempers flaring, no political discussions or divisive opinionating. Peace and love flowed and gave expression to worship. It gave me hope that indeed peace and unity among the brethren is possible when we let God’s presence guide our activities and submit to his leading."

What languages did songwriters use?

Because English was often our shared language, most songs from the weekend ended up being written in English. However, our group also wrote several multilingual songs. One example is "Mungu Mwenye Nguve," a song written by George Makinto, Mukarabe Makinto, Emmanuel Mwaipopo, Moses Mugisha, Stockwell Massamba, and Don Massamba. The writers have connections to different parts of Africa, so they wrote verses in Swahili, Lingala, English, and French.

Another attendee was from Mexico and spoke very limited English, so she was able to collaborate on several songs with folks who also spoke Spanish, and they helped translate the rest of the weekend as well. An example of a Spanish collaboration is "Cantando nuevas canciones," which we are in the process of uploading to Together in Worship

How did the songwriting retreat impact musicians from the broad middle?

The retreat included three VT committee members: Katie Graber, Darryl Neustaedter-Barg, and me. It was deeply meaningful to participate in worship experiences as learners invited into a different way of worshiping, which starkly contrasts our experiences of worshiping alongside others who are part of the dominant culture. When retreat attendees led music from their home contexts—such as Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or Mexico—we experienced worship that welcomed our participation despite the messiness we brought through our clumsy pronunciations or awkward movements. Instead of perfecting notated harmony lines, we shared the offerings of a group of learners. This experience served as a reminder that God delights in all of our praise.

How can music leaders find and use these new songs? 

We were delighted that many folks were interested in writing with others, and we left the retreat with about a dozen complete songs! We are gradually uploading these songs to Together in Worship (TiW). This new website offers free curated worship resources that align with Anabaptist theology, such as songs, sermon starters, prayers, and litanies for every part of worship and various worship seasons.

One of the biggest pieces of feedback we heard is about how important it is that TiW offers a place to gather resources written from an Anabaptist perspective yet not from "official" channels. This “bottom-up” approach encourages voices from a wide range of backgrounds to share contributions, rather than spotlighting the musical contributions of those whose work most resonates with traditional expectations of Mennonite music.

How do you hope that the broad middle of hymn-singing Mennonite worshiping communities will use these new songs?

In response to this dominant culture narrative around Mennonite music, we hope that a range of Mennonite communities will be able to use the songs that emerge from the songwriting retreat as signs of the pluralism of ways that Mennonites express musical heritage. While Mennonite music may look like four-part hymn singing, it can also look like a song in Lingala meant to be accompanied by a band, or a song of praise with a Javanese melody. Because TiW serves as a gathering place for resources that emerge outside of formal hymnal processes, we hope that the addition of new songs by Anabaptist songwriters will help represent a growing edge of Mennonite song.

On the retreat’s last evening, we intentionally invited leaders of area conferences in the Mennonite Church to have dinner with us and witness what we were doing as a group. Songwriting is often overlooked labor, taken for granted and unrecognized. We wanted conference ministers to bless songwriters and engage with them as a valued ministry. As worship leaders, we already can see an increased care for who is writing our songs and increased desire to recognize that labor.


Read about Vital Worship Grants related to Mennonite/Anabaptist worship music in 2017, 2020, and 2022. The Anabaptist tradition includes Mennonites, Church of the Brethren, Amish, and other historic peace churches. Sample songs created at the 2023 songwriters retreat and explore Together in Worship resources. Just as Mennonite Heritage Sunday offers the option to sing a wider range of Mennonite songs, your denomination can try something similar when planning denomination-wide events.