Ken J. Nafziger Channels Prophetic Eye in Hymnal

Ken Nafziger speaks during his duties as a music professor.

Ken Nafziger speaks during his duties as a music professor.

Nearly every pew in every Mennonite church in the country contains a book that many people regard as second in church liturgy only to the Bible. The Mennonite Hymnal, a collection of songs and texts that spreads its fingers from the traditional dogmatic Anabaptist hymns to global harmonies at the far corners of the world, and would not have found its way into the pews had it not been for Ken. J. Nafziger, a professor in EMU’s music program and music editor of the Hymnal.

The current Mennonite Hymnal was published in 1992 after eight years of time-consuming collaboration between the Mennonite Church and the Church of the Brethren; eight years that took a significant toll on all involved.

Four committees formed to discuss matters such as song choice, layout, marketing, etc. as music editor of the book, Nafziger sought to provide meaningful suggestions for song choices, many of which found their way into the hymnal, and format a consistent and easy-to-navigate layout of the pages.

However, in 1992, marketing the hymnal did not present itself as an easy task.

A big concern with the Hymnal, Nafziger said, was the switch from the previous Hymnal to the current one. Time needed to be spent introducing the new text to congregations, and it was not accepted everywhere.

Nafziger told a particularly moving story involving a congregation that called the publisher to send back their order of the books. They did not agree with a particular song hailing from the Native American tradition. But upon further discussion of the controversy

within their congregation, a usually quiet man stood up and expressed his desire that the book stay in the congregation. The man mentioned, unbeknownst to his church family, that he had Native American roots. The congregation called the publisher back to say that they would be keeping the hymnals.

It is stories like this that affirm Nafziger’s eight years of hard work put into the Hymnal.

The layout of this Hymnal is like no other previous Hymnal. It is organized by acts of worship. And within each section, diversity abounds. In the first section of the Hymnal, the “Gathering” section, within the first ten songs encompass music from the Mennonite tradition, the Church of the Brethren tradition, gospel traditions, modern folk songs, Native American songs, Nigerian songs, and Japanese songs. And when looking past the first ten songs, the diversity is staggering.

Choosing the diversity of songs was difficult terrain to navigate. Nafziger mentioned that one would think it would be easy to choose songs for a book like this.

Rather, the opposite was true. Nafziger found himself asking, “What are the things the community would enjoy singing?”

And in response to that question, Nafziger found himself analyzing things with a, “prophetic eye as opposed to seeing with a poll.”

Regardless of difficulties surrounding the making of the book, the final result could not be more satisfying. The average life-span of a Hymnal, according to Nafziger, is approximately 20 to 25 years. The current one has lasted 22 years, and still sings strong. A recent survey sent out to judge the longevity of the current Hymnal suggests, quite emphatically, that no new Hymnal will be necessary for a long time.

-Chris Yoder, Staff Writer


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