Friday, April 07, 2006

People of the (Hymn)Book

What is the value of a hymnbook?

I’ve gone through a few in my lifetime … from heavy, hard-to-hold, hardbound books containing gospel favorites to dog-eared paperbacks containing 1970’s choruses and praise tunes. I can’t say that I ever felt … well, “attached” to the hymnbook as an art form. They have always felt like a necessary evil in the catalogue of church accessories. I’ve even been through a few church fights regarding hymnals.

Naw, it just doesn’t even seem worth it sometimes.

And so, when I arrived in Cameroon, finding a “hymnbook” was not high on my “things-to-do” list. Besides, the congregations seemed to do fine without them – their memorized song repertoire seemed rich and endless.

Fortunately I revise my “to-do” list often. At some point, I realized that having a common song/prayer/liturgy book would be a helpful and stimulating development. That’s when I called in a friend for advice and consultation – Rev. John Thornburg, who has been plugging away ever since at the Cameroon Hymnal Initiative.

At this moment, John is on his way back to the States, having completed his second trip to Cameroon in the last nine months. This time he brought a friend, Mitzi Scott, from St. Luke’s UMC in Houston.

I have never been so excited about the hymnal project. The first time in-country, John simply listened to the music that the people of the UMC in Cameroon sing. He took notes, made recordings, and spent a little time teaching people some new songs. It was a total immersion experience for him.

On this trip, he brought copies of a small hymnal sampler which he created to “test” in the Cameroon UMC. These samplers included three basic kinds of songs – songs that teach the faith (including Charles Wesley hymns), songs from other parts of the world, and songs from Cameroon.

When he and Mitzi arrived two weeks ago, he quickly assembled a small team of church singers and musicians – Therese Nomo, Alexis Godonou, Michael Mbappe, and a young man named Israel. This team spent four days in Yaounde going through the sampler, talking about music, sharing songs, teaching each other new tunes and putting together a small festival to present to churches.

John made it very clear that this small sampler was not “the” finished product – it wasn’t even “a” finished product! It was just a test run to see how people would respond. And respond they did! Everywhere we presented the festivals, the pastors and people begged to keep their copies. (John only brought enough for each congregation to keep ten samplers.)

The good news is that there is a sense of ownership already with these songbooks. The United Methodists of Cameroon want to learn new songs and new ways to express their faith.

Our hope is that the future Cameroon hymnal will include songs written by Cameroonian church members. In the music festival, team members taught some songs they had written. Therese taught the lovely children’s song, “Dans La Barque Avec Jesus” ("In the Boat with Jesus"); Alexis led people in his praise song, “Adorons L’Eternel” ("Let’s Praise the Lord"); and Michael taught everyone an adaptation of John 3:16.

On subsequent trips to Cameroon, John will begin the more tedious task of compiling the list of songs, prayers and liturgies that must be included in a final book. This is no small job; it’s a demanding and difficult process of discernment.

Yes, the hymnal is a valuable document. The future Cameroon hymnal is going to be worth fighting over. Because, while it never ranks as high as Scripture, it will nevertheless be “our book.” It will help form, shape, and teach us as we become the people whom God wants us to be.

While talking about the creation of the hymnal in the music festivals, John challenged the people of our churches to pray and meditate on this question: “What songs must we sing in order to be the kind of church that God is calling us to be?”

I’d never considered this question before, but I like the sound of it. There are certain songs that we must sing … simply to be ourselves. What song do you need to get busy singing?