“Something Magic": A 50th-anniversary Analysis of the Kansas Mennonite Men’s Chorus
The church sanctuary fills quickly as men pour in through the open doors, shaking hands and patting each other on the back. Eventually, the knots of conversation separate and the men file into the pews, holding maroon-and-black folders full of paper. Eyes look expectantly on a lone figure in the middle of the stage – he is not behind a pulpit, but stands right on the edge of the top step. A quick breath. The wave of a hand. Hundreds of male voices burst forth in joyous song, and the opening notes of a glorious anthem ring throughout the hall. This is the beginning of a rehearsal of the Kansas Mennonite Men’s Chorus (KMMC).
The KMMC represents a rich tradition of male choral singing stretching back 50 years to a relief sale hosted by Mennonites for worldwide hunger and natural disaster relief. The KMMC, made up in its 50th year of more than 300 men, celebrated its anniversary while looking back on a past full of annual concerts, bus convoys and fellow singers and directors. Fifty eventful years of men celebrating a sound unlike any other.
Why discuss a men’s chorus at all, let alone devote a history and analysis to it? The reason the KMMC is special lies in its makeup – Mennonite men, the reason it has lasted five decades. These singers join together for a handful of rehearsals and a few concerts annually for a specific reason – they are a community that enjoys shared values and shared music. From the KMMC’s inaugural year in 1969 to its golden anniversary in 2018, the group has always gathered to celebrate each other and the closeness of the community built around male singing, a subsection of choral music that is slowly disappearing around the country. The KMMC unites men with the common purpose of participating in two distinct aspects of Mennonite culture: gathering in community and performing sacred choral music.
Mennonite culture: Lifting voices
In a foreword written for Marlene Kropf and Kenneth Nafziger’s book Singing: A Mennonite Voice, John L. Bell articulated that should the task fall upon him to describe the Mennonite faith through a single object, he would select a pitch pipe “because it enables the church to begin to sing.’
Bell, like many others, saw music – especially hymn-singing – as integral to the Mennonite church and sums up the whole of Mennonite culture in this one aspect. Bell also implicitly included gathering in community as a primary aspect of the Mennonite experience – he described the usefulness of the pitch pipe in relation to the church community. The pitch pipe does not enable the individual to sing; rather, the pipe is used to lead a group of people in song together, as a unit, the “church.’ In the Mennonite experience, these two aspects – community and song – are indispensable.
The church is more than a building, with walls and a roof and pews. A church is the people gathered together, the Body of Christ. Mennonites, a denomination of Christianity that claims the Bible as the ultimate guide to life, would surely agree with passages from the New Testament such as Hebrews 10:24-25, 1 Corinthians 12:12, and Romans 12:10, verses that encourage the gathering of worshippers in the name of God. The Bible has many passages like these, verses that call for community assembly and caring for other believers. Mennonites hold these values very dearly, committing themselves to joining together in fellowship.
The value of community is expressed in the Mennonite Church USA’s (MCUSA) 1995 Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, which outlines basic tenets of the denomination in articles devoted to describing the role and usefulness of the church. Article 9 states that the church is “an assembly to proclaim the reign of God.’ Article 16 lays forth the idea that participating in church leads believers to be edified and improved spiritually. Article 14 delineates the commitment members have to helping one another maintain a “right relationship with God.’
Similarly, the Mennonite Brethren’s (MB) 1999 Confession of Faith details the responsibility of believers to gather together and uphold one another. Article 6 defines the church as a gathering of believers, mentioning that the church grows spiritually as members regularly meet and worship. The Confession also lays forth the importance of rebuking and caring for fellow believers. The value of the local church is not undersold in the Mennonite faith. If two of the largest denominations of Mennonites (MCUSA and MB) include mention of community throughout their central tenets, surely the concept of gathering together is one valued by the Anabaptist group.
While both the MB and MCUSA “Confessions’ mention the importance of community, they are hardly the first documents to do so. The “Brüderlich Vereinigung etzlicher Kinder Gottes sieben Artikel betreffend,’ or “Brotherly Union of a Number of Children of God Concerning Seven Articles,’ was a confession of faith of early Anabaptists. Also known as the “Schleitheim Confession’ after the city where the treatise was written in 1527, the declaration was an explanation of Anabaptist beliefs and customs on seven topics: baptism; “the ban’; Communion; holiness; teachers; nonviolence; and swearing oaths. Article 2 of the Schleitheim Confession, “The Ban,’ discusses how to discipline members of the church who continually fall under the temptation of secular living. This confession, according to Anabaptist leader Balthasar Hubmaier, used the ban as a last resort. Hubmaier used a “three-strike system’: first, the sinner should be reprimanded privately; second, with a small group of witnesses; finally, in front of the church. If the sinner still refused to repent, then the church used the ban – the sinner was excluded from the community until s/he repented and changed her/his sinful ways. The sinner would be ignored by every member of the church, and “all deeds of friendship must cease.’ Total social exclusion awaited any person placed under the ban. For one used to community and gathering together, isolation was the worst possible sentence, as s/he was shunned on the streets, separated from her/his spouse, and not allowed to return to church until s/he had displayed a change of heart and action. That separation from the community was considered the most severe punishment available shows the value Anabaptists, and later, Mennonites, placed on fellowship and togetherness.
A second aspect of culture commonly recognized as integral to the Mennonites is the performance of sacred music. Whether used as an act of worship or an entertaining performance, singing sacred music is widely associated with the Mennonites, due to the group’s well-known penchant for hymn singing. Few Mennonite churches exclude music from their services, as they view singing as a means of worship and praise, especially in community. As Bernie and Marjorie Neufeld wrote in “Worship in Youth and Children’s Groups,’ worship is “a corporate act for the Christian’ and takes place through interactions among the congregation in order to “build up and strengthen this body.’ While the pamphlet was meant for organizers of children’s church music, the words ring true for worshippers of all ages. The Neufelds also stated that musical worship is especially powerful because music creates unity among worshippers that is specific only to song.
The sentiment that music brings special meaning to the worship experience is echoed in Singing: A Mennonite Voice, from which Bell was quoted earlier. A section entitled “What Would You Do Without Music?’ quotes several Mennonites interviewed by the authors. Their answers unanimously revolve around leaving the church because they would feel like they had lost connection with God and with the purpose of church: “Singing is the moment when we encounter God most directly.’ For Mennonites, music is not simply an addition to the service or sermon. Instead, it is perhaps more important than these for the authenticity, emotion and spirituality music brings to a church service. Music, according to Kropf and Nafziger’s interviewees, emphasizes the meaning behind the text and makes the connection to the text stronger for the singers.
Kropf and Nafziger state that music serves three primary purposes for Mennonites: it shapes how they view God; it forms community; and it guides them in daily Christian life. First, the authors argue Mennonites can view God in two different ways – indirectly through Scripture and directly through the Holy Spirit. Music, especially hymns, often contains pieces of the Scriptures within the lyrics, and as participants (either performers or listeners) connect with the music, the message of the text is taken to heart more fully. This enhances understanding and interpretation of the Bible, and thus, understanding of the God revealed in the Holy Book. Music also allows people to view God in less tangible ways, what the authors call a “mystical experience.’ Musicians can view God in the notes and harmonies that send chills up and down the spine, in the feeling of joy as a chorus swells towards the finale of a song, or in the looks on listeners’ faces. In these areas, Mennonites may have an advantage over other denominations due to their long history of communal singing, especially four-part hymns.
The second purpose of music for Mennonites is to form a sense of community. The two aspects of Mennonite culture are intertwined as Mennonites often make music when gathered in groups. True to biblical teachings, Mennonites value relationships both vertically with God and horizontally with other people. Mennonites, and Anabaptists in general, believe in Gelassenheit, which Kropf and Nafziger defined as “a willingness to surrender one’s self and strength to God and to others.’ This concept accentuates the connectedness to the surrounding people a singer might feel by giving themselves up to the community through voice. Making music is exposing – a voice is easily identifiable and criticized. When a community collectively chooses to be vulnerable, a sense of trust and closeness is developed between members of the group. The authors also assert that music can be a cultural identifier. Hymn number 606 (“Praise God from whom’) has been called “the Mennonite national anthem’ for its easy recognition and status as a Mennonite favorite. This song is identifiable with Mennonite culture for these reasons and those who know the hymn are welcomed into the group with open arms. Kropf and Nafziger concluded: “When we breathe together, we are bound together as one.’
Kropf and Nafziger’s final purpose that music serves is that music shapes how Mennonites interact with the world around them. Just as music can lead to new interpretations and connections with the Scriptures, so too can it lead to putting action to teaching. The authors claim that “we eventually become what we sing and pray,’ so by singing hymns and worship songs, Mennonites will come to act out the convictions and beliefs that are professed in their hymns. Because music familiarizes singers and listeners with the texts, they are more likely to remember and act upon those familiar words. The community also plays a role in holding believers accountable; theoretically, a person is less likely to forsake the Scriptures if they were witnessed by the congregation singing about Jesus’ teachings during a service.
Mennonite culture is united in identifying music and community as shared values but fractured in how to enact the ideals. Whereas some churches believe that only hymns should be sung in church, others believe popular praise and worship songs should be allowed as well. Another divide is on the congregation’s purpose in musical worship – should the congregation be included in singing or is it the duty of a choir to sing for the congregation? Bernie Neufeld’s collection of essays, Music in Worship: A Mennonite Perspective, discusses the topic in depth.
First, an essay entitled “Contemporary Church Music Issues’ by Christine Longhurst argues for the importance of congregational involvement in musical worship now that praise bands are becoming more popular. Longhurst observes that church attendees are singing less because of the growing use of contemporary praise bands, which often have a higher-volume output than the congregation, which can lead to discouragement among church-goers. “High volume levels can easily send the message that individual voices are not really important,’ Longhurst states. She also cautions against worship leaders becoming seen as an elite group among church members. A final point Longhurst made identifies a shift from music-focused worship to text-focused worship. While this trend may emphasize the Scripture and teachings used in the lyrics, it may sacrifice that intangible connection with God felt in traditional Mennonite singing.
An essay by Kenneth Nafziger, appropriately titled “And What Shall We Do with the Choir?,’ comments on a conversation many Mennonite churches are grappling with. Nafziger begins with a statement of purpose: Choirs are meant to enhance worship, not take over the congregation’s singing duties. When a choir commandeers the entirety of the music in a service, members of the church may feel slighted or lose interest in worshipping. The choir is also meant to entertain the congregation, though not as a distraction, but rather in a hospitable sense. A choir must care about what the congregation is getting out of the performance. Nafziger also answers the question of how a choir educates its church. As a singing body, the choir sets an example for the voices of the church members. Tone, pitch and style are all conveyed by a choir. A choir may also demonstrate the community a group of singers builds as well as teach younger generations the importance of hymns and traditional songs. Where contemporary music is quickly replacing hymns, choirs are keeping the tradition of four-part singing alive in Mennonite churches by continuing to perform this style of worship.
Churches are now facing a difficult decision – whether to integrate two styles of worship (both contemporary praise bands and hymn singing) into a service or to choose one over the other and risk alienating a part of the congregation. As “Worship in Youth and Children’s Groups’ states, “It is very important for children to have new music which speaks their language.’ This holds true for older congregational members as well. If a person cannot relate to the music of a church, s/he will become disinterested and perhaps leave the church. At the same time, the pamphlet states that it is a good idea to test new forms of worship to keep traditional means from becoming stale or boring. A healthy mixture of both old and new styles of song and worship seems to be the answer for a church that wants to appease every member of its community.
Some churches are set in their ways and have no desire to change the way the members of the church engage in the act of worshipping. Bethel College Mennonite Church, North Newton, Kansas, involves little to no contemporary music. The congregation enjoys a traditional service of call-and-response readings and hymnals. The church has a chancel choir, and hymns are led from the front of the sanctuary. Although the church is directly adjacent to Bethel College, few young adults attend the services there, in part because the service does not attract their interest. The congregation is made up of senior citizens and adults who value a traditional worship. Bethel College Mennonite Church is an example of a church that has made peace reconciling its community and its worship style, and therefore will not change to attract more members.
First Mennonite Brethren Church, Hillsboro, Kansas, is an example of a church that has managed to combine worship styles in a way that is pleasing to all comers. A blend of traditional hymns and contemporary praise songs permeate the service, and the congregation is a mixture of elderly traditionalists who enjoy the choir and Tabor College students who sing along with the worship band. By combining old hymns and new worship songs, the church has attained a level of attraction to a wide range of ages and preferences. First MB has maintained a large choir that leads most of the worship service, but the church also has its own praise team with a band and vocalists. Part of the church’s success in combining the two genres of worship lies in the praise band’s participation in the hymn singing – the guitar and piano often play along – while the choir participates in the newer songs.
Finally, First Mennonite Brethren Church of Wichita has placated members of its congregation by offering multiple services with individual styles of music. A traditional service begins the morning, including hymns, a choir performing special music, and readings, while two contemporary services cater to the large population of young adults and families that attend. In doing so, the church has split its congregation on the average Sunday. However, on holidays such as Christmas and Easter, the church unites to offer a blended service (much like Hillsboro First MB) that contains both styles of music. By offering different services depending on the wants and needs of the congregation, Wichita First MB has managed to keep a large congregation while mitigating worship complaints.
The conversations occurring within Mennonite churches concerning which style of worship to offer are important ones to consider. To keep the sense of community that is so valuable to Mennonite culture, churches are discovering which style of music best suits their congregations so that divisions do not destroy the fellowship felt within their sanctuaries. Music is such an important factor in Mennonite churches that even the idea of changing worship drives wedges in the community. To reconcile these two essential values, Mennonites continually work to find new ways of building community and worshipping together.
History of the Kansas Mennonite Men’s Chorus
The year 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the Kansas Mennonite Men’s Chorus, a group that works to embody Mennonite ideals of music and community. Begun in 1969, the group started as a respectably sized choir that quickly exploded into a phenomenon of more than 500 men joining to lift their voices together in worship. From its humble origins at a closing worship service for the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Relief Sale to a traveling, performing group, the KMMC has enjoyed a fruitful and eventful history.
According to Carol Duerken’s 25th-anniversary book on the KMMC, We Sing That Others May Live: The History of the Kansas Mennonite Men’s Chorus, the chorus began with two men, Vernon Wiebe and David Suderman, and an idea – an all-male choral concert to augment the first-ever MCC Relief Sale. The proposal was accepted and the choir was given the go-ahead to perform at the close of the sale. The men gathered and sang, and thus the first iteration of the KMMC was born, the Mid-Kansas Relief Auction Male Chorus.
But where exactly did the daunting idea of forming a men’s chorus hundreds strong come from? Duerksen wrote that Wiebe was inspired by a record he saw of a 500-man European choir. Vern Zielke, a long-time member of the KMMC (he joined 1970), confirmed this history, recalling that Wiebe had seen a record of a Welsh men’s chorus and recruited Suderman from Bethel College’s music faculty to direct what would evolve into the KMMC. With Wiebe and Suderman at the helm of the project, the Mid-Kansas Relief Sale Male Chorus began to take shape.
On May 18, 1969, on the Tabor College campus in Hillsboro, Kansas, the men gathered and performed the first concert at the first MCC Relief Sale. The chorus consisted of only 140 men, but Wiebe hoped that the 1969 concert was only the beginning of a much larger event. Calvin Buller, another nearly lifelong member of the KMMC (he joined in the early 1970s), recalled, “After the first experience of 140 voices, they organized.’ Zielke and Duerksen stated that Wiebe’s next step after the 1969 concert was to meet with Irvin Pauls, a General Conference (GC) Mennonite, to discuss recruitment. Pauls recognized that the first concert had been limited in scope of recruiting, collecting only Mennonite Brethren (MB) singers and only through spokespeople sent to individual congregations. He worked hard to expand the recruitment process to singers outside of the MB church, and the choir steadily grew.
One of the most effective ways of contacting potential singers was to go directly to the source – churches. Several KMMC members were recruited by what Duerksen terms “contact men’ –individuals representing the choir to Mennonite congregations. Some members remember being recruited via contact men visiting their home churches or by word of mouth in the community. A 1965 Tabor College graduate, Calvin Buller knew of the recently formed men’s choir by way of friends and family. His father sang in the group, as did many of his friends. Vern Zielke learned of the group via word-of-mouth at his home church in Sterling, Kansas. Delbert Tieszen (joined in the early 1990s), current president of the KMMC, mentioned in an interview that he was overheard singing at church by a contact man and was later recruited to join the chorus. “Some acquaintances talked me into [joining the KMMC],’ said Tieszen. A former president of the group, Mitchell Stutzman (joined 2007), heard of the chorus from fellow students during his time at Hesston College (a Mennonite college in Hesston, Kansas). Stutzman moved away from the area after completing a degree at Hesston, but returned years later to live and work in North Newton. He rejoined the choir then “to get to know the community.’ Current KMMC director Greg Bontrager (joined 1982) sang in the KMMC in high school, and returned in 2007 to conduct the ensemble. Bontrager also had friends and family in the chorus who helped persuade him to join the group. Contact men were the first step towards finding new members of the KMMC in 1970, and the tradition of word-of-mouth recruitment continued to be valuable as the group grew.
From the first 140 men in 1969, the KMMC quickly grew due to the efforts of the contact men and the Steering Committee behind the group. Only one year after the initial formation of the group, the choir had grown to 495 active members. On April 4, 1970, the Inter-Mennonite Men’s Chorus (as the KMMC was called then) gave a concert to a packed hall in Wichita’s Century II concert venue. Duerksen’s book reports that the audience was past maximum capacity – 2,500 listeners sat in an auditorium meant for 2,300 – and a line of more than 1,000 people had to be turned away from the door. Buller reminisced that one of the thousand listeners turned away was Herbert Richert, an arranger of several songs performed that night.
What accounted for the rapid growth of the KMMC, aside from the relentless pursuit of new members by the contact men? Men wanted to join the group. Buller believes it was the social aspect that drew men to the choir. “Everybody was there,’ he said. “That generation of men sang a lot.’ He mentioned that one of the strengths of the KMMC is that the ensemble has members who have sung every year for all 50 years of the choir’s existence. Zielke was of the same opinion – “camaraderie’ was the reason to which he attributed the group’s growth and continued success. Stutzman shared about some men from Hays, Kansas, who traveled more than two hours to the Sunday afternoon rehearsals. He believes that group came for the community the singers build together. “There’s something magic when 300 guys get together,’ he added. Stutzman also claimed he joined “as a means of being connected to the community,’ and that joining a chorus like the KMMC, made up of members who are of similar backgrounds and the from the same geographical area, is a good way to get to know a community as well. Bontrager is of a similar mindset, saying the KMMC is “therapeutic for men,’ to get together in a space reserved for men to gather, talk and sing. The weekly gathering of 300 men – or as it used to be, 500 – is certainly a unique heritage claimed by few other groups.
The history of the KMMC is just one section of a long history of Mennonite singing. After being asked what the group contributed to his understanding of Mennonite culture, Buller explained that participating in the choir deepened his understanding of the long tradition Mennonite male singing. He recalled being young and listening to Mennonite men singing in Bethel College’s Memorial Hall as part of a choral festival. This memory contributed to his understanding of the KMMC’s place in the long line of Mennonite voices. Zielke responded to the same question by explaining singing in the ensemble strengthened his appreciation for “Mennonite ethnicity’ – the close, religious communities of Mennonites that are linked through familial ties. He said the group shows Mennonite ethnicity as “valid, something to celebrate.’ Tieszen expressed a deeper knowledge of how interconnected and close Mennonite communities can be, especially compared to other groups (both religious and secular). Stutzman didn’t think he learned much about Mennonite culture from the group – rather, participation simply deepened his appreciation for Mennonite music and values. He remarked that four-part music is very Anabaptist in that “you have to listen to one another to make it work, which is a very Mennonite value.’ Each KMMC member has a connection to Mennonite community and culture, even if the singers themselves are not directly involved in Mennonite churches. This connection can deepen a singer’s appreciation of both Mennonite culture as a community practice and of the men on either side of him.
How does one organize a group as large as the KMMC year after year, concert after concert? The short answer is, one does not, but several do. The KMMC was guided by a Steering Committee from the very beginning. The Steering Committee handled the financial aspects of the ensemble, planned concerts and secured venues, and was in charge of approving the music the KMMC sang each year. Music selection in particular has changed throughout the years, as have concert venues and engagement with the community. Other changes governed by the Steering Committee have included expansion of the demographic diversity within the KMMC, methods of reaching out during recruiting processes, and shifts in attitudes regarding the mission of the group.
Music selection has always been critical to the success of the KMMC. Duerksen writes that at the beginning of the choir, the late J. Harold Moyer arranged several works for the ensemble to perform. He described the process of music selection to Duerksen: “When the Music Committee meets, each person brings ideas and suggestions. The director often brings a majority of the music we consider.’ This tradition of the director picking what music the men will sing has continued throughout the history of the KMMC. Zielke, when asked about the music selection in the first years of the choir, said that once then-director Paul Wohlgemuth brought his selections to the Steering Committee, “We pretty much rubber-stamped it.’ When asked how music was selected in more recent years, Tieszen confirmed that Bontrager has plenty of creative license with his song selections. Bontrager is, in Tieszen’s eyes, “trying to keep it fresh.’ Stutzman agreed, saying “Greg has done a good job of mixing styles.’ Bontrager said he still answers to the Steering Committee when selecting music. He described the process as sending his selections of music to the committee while striving to maintain a balance of new and contemporary styles with older, more traditional songs.
KMMC members certainly seem accepting of Bontrager’s selections. The director said he had not experienced any severe pushback against his choices, adding, “[The men] like what’s in front of them.’ However, Bontrager recognized that there are limits to his influence. Having conducted for 11 years, he knows not every man in the choir is ready to commit to a drastically different song set. “I know what I can push and what I can’t,’ said Bontrager when asked what the men thought of the music. Even in the early years of the choir, singers experienced a mixture of styles and songs. Duerksen quoted Moyer as saying approximately half the music sung by the choir was recycled from the previous year, whereas the rest consisted of new additions to the set list.
While Bontrager may not receive direct rejection from the Steering Committee or members of the choir, some singers cited differences of opinion pertaining to song preferences. However, differing opinions are nothing new to the KMMC. Buller recalled a difference between the GC and MB singers in the early years of the chorus – the GCs preferred songs that were chorale-like, classical and referenced God as transcendent and omnipresent, while MBs liked songs in a gospel style or Romantic style, featuring a more personal relationship with the Lord. With the GCs, God is “the Almighty’ whereas, according to Buller, the MBs sang songs with the message “Jesus is my friend.’ Zielke described the beginnings of the choir as rooted in traditional songs, such as arrangements of well-known hymns. As the choir grew more established, directors tried to incorporate new styles and genres of music into the group’s repertoire with varied success. Bontrager has introduced several new types of music within his own tenure as director. Stutzman listed jazz, bluegrass, barbershop, blues and other contemporary styles as having been successfully introduced to the group under Bontrager’s direction. Buller added that these songs would not have been sung in the early years of the KMMC, but with the changing musicianship of the choir – adding more experienced singers and college choir graduates – the new styles could be attempted.
One story relating to dissent over music involved the Bethel College male a cappella group, Open Road. Zielke recalled Open Road singing an arrangement of “Ave Maria,’ which had the effect of offending a KMMC member who thought the Catholic song did not belong in a primarily evangelical concert line-up. After the performance, the man came forward and complained about the song, threatening to leave the KMMC if anything similar was sung again. Tieszen recounted a joint concert with the Kansas City Men’s Chorus that rubbed some singers the wrong way. Some of the songs were “maybe a bit too militaristic’ for the KMMC singers and even the audience. Another instance of complaints about musical choices occurred as Bontrager tried to introduce electric instruments and drums into the choir’s repertoire. According to Stutzman, several older members expressed dissent and dissatisfaction with the introduction of modern instrumentation to a primarily a cappella group, but “Greg pushes the idea that God is experienced in different ways.’ Such occurrences of complaint were rare, as the majority of the men were happy to trust in and sing Bontrager’s selections.
Members of the KMMC saw benefits to adding variety to the concerts the men perform, and expressed their appreciation with the direction the ensemble was taking. The new genres and songs styles added interest and opportunities to connect differently to audiences. Stutzman opined that the KMMC could “expose a wider audience to more traditional stuff or contemporary stuff.’ Expanding the repertoire of the group means the audience can hear more than solely traditional hymns or only contemporary songs. A mixture of styles allows different cultures to be celebrated, messages to be received differently, and the concerts to remain interesting and fulfilling for the listeners. Bontrager strives to keep consistency within the song selection, however, by choosing songs that have a “similar message and a similar theme,’ something very important to Stutzman and other members of the choir. Tieszen complimented Bontrager’s efforts of “trying to keep it fresh.’ By including a “contemporary feel with traditional roots,’ the KMMC has tried to attract younger members and keep audiences interested and returning year after year.
Another change in direction experienced by the KMMC was the incorporation of demographics not originally included in the group – non-Mennonites. As stated previously, the beginning choir in 1969 was entirely Mennonite Brethren men from the Hillsboro area. The initial idea to include non-MBs in the choir was discussed while Vernon Wiebe and Irvin Pauls were at Rocky Mountain Mennonite Camp in Colorado, according to Duerksen’s book. Other denominations began joining the choir as the large men’s group gained attention. Zielke remembered incorporating Amish and more conservative Mennonite groups into the choir. Stutzman included other Christian denominations in the makeup of the KMMC as well, including Lutherans and Evangelical Free Church members, saying, “Mennonite is in the name for the history.’ Buller had seen a lot of change over his nearly 50 years with the choir. When questioned what shifts in makeup of the choir he had noticed, he echoed that many more non-Mennonites were joining the KMMC. This trend was welcomed among the members of the choir whose goal it was to see the group match the former glory of 500 men.
But why were non-Mennonites joining a group that seemed, at least nominally, exclusive to Mennonite men? According to several singers, because they were recruited. Tieszen mentioned that contact men, the men sent out to area churches to raise awareness and recruit singers, were now actively reaching out to non-Mennonite denominations. “Word of mouth is the best method [to recruit],’ Tieszen stated. This seemed to prove true, as different faces began to appear in rehearsals. Bontrager mentioned that “some guys surprise[d] me’ when he saw them in rehearsals.
Another reason non-Mennonites might have joined the KMMC was that the group did not seem exclusive in practice, even with a name that covered a limited population. Several times throughout its 50 years of existence, the choir has hit the road to bring its music to different audiences. On these tours, Zielke recalled sitting next to and around Amish, conservative Mennonites and non-Mennonites alike, but the topics of theology, philosophy or personal credos never came up. “It’s just not an issue,’ said Zielke. “One of the strengths of this group is to bridge those gaps. Because we all grew up in our own separate communities, you form your camaraderie as part of the singing instead of ‘what does this guy believe.’’ Bridging gaps, however, is not always as straight-forward as singing next to someone of a different background. Tieszen mentioned that, sometimes, the strong Mennonite community of central Kansas could become a little too gated. “It’s like you’re wrapped in a warm blanket,’ he said of being around all Mennonites. The KMMC had to work to not come across as clique-ish or closed off to outsiders, and with the flood of non-Mennonites joining, it seems as though the choir was successful in that particular endeavor.
Other reasons many non-Mennonites joined included for the values and ideas expressed by the KMMC, and the lack of other chorales or singing opportunities. Stutzman commented that the KMMC was “really just a Christian chorus.’ The values of Mennonites can transcend many denominations, and translate to different branches of Christianity. As Stutzman said, the KMMC was a Christian choir seeking to spread the message of God’s love, which surpasses denominational boundaries. Tieszen agreed, speculating that while many non-Mennonites may not know about the Mennonite values of the KMMC, the expression of the values “resonate with them.’ The non-Mennonites in the choir may not have wanted the Mennonite-ism of the chorus, but instead enjoyed the shared Christian values preached through song. Agreeing with Stutzman’s assessment of why the chorus retains the “Mennonite’ moniker, Zielke asserted that while some may want to remove the limiting descriptor from the group’s name, “it has to do with our origins, it has to do with our identity.’
Another group of singers whose inclusion may cause surprise amongst audience members are those not from Kansas, but according to Stutzman, non-Kansans have been a part of the KMMC for quite a large part of the ensemble’s history. He listed Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma and even Minnesota as locations from which the KMMC has drawn members. With such a large group of men, a majority of whom come from Mennonite backgrounds, there was little wonder that word would spread throughout the greater Mennonite community in the United States. A chance to be a part of an enormous male chorus attracted men from all over the Central Plains region of America, and the KMMC welcomed the new voices. Tieszen recalled not noticing the different demographics in the KMMC, especially when he first joined. He was not aware that there were non-Kansans and non-Mennonites in the ensemble.
A final new demographic many people would miss, singers and audience members alike, is the lone woman in the Kansas Mennonite Men’s Chorus. Tieszen shared how the woman came to be in the “all-male’ group, saying she was a daughter of a longtime singer who had no sons to carry on the tradition of participating with the group. Many of the men did not notice the new addition until a few rehearsals had passed. The chorus does not strive to draw attention to the female presence; she still wears the blazer and tie of the men, and sings tenor. Several sources have enjoyed telling the story of a singer noticing the first woman in the group. The man approached Bontrager and asked if he knew there was a lady singing with the tenors. Bontrager reportedly replied, “Yes, and she’s been [to] more rehearsals than you.’ After that conversation, the woman faced no more opposition. When asked if he thought more women would join the KMMC, Bontrager said the group would not say no, but he did not think any more women would ask to join. Stutzman concurred, saying he doubted more women would want to join, but he also doubted the group would turn women away if they did ask. The question of beginning a women’s chorus or hosting a joint concert with women and the KMMC had been raised in the past, but leaders thought that idea was years from coming to fruition. As the KMMC expanded its boundaries and began including groups that would nominally be excluded, the incorporation of different people groups and the “it takes a village’ attitude of the choir perfectly attested to the Mennonite value of creating, building and sustaining community.
Hopes and visions for the future
Like any entity, the Kansas Mennonite Men’s Chorus has evolved and developed over its 50 years in existence. The additions of new demographics and new genres of music may have faced some resistance, but eventually the group welcomed the changes. Members and leaders alike have appreciated the shifts in direction, but now look to the future to continue the betterment of the KMMC.
From time to time, it is important for a group to ask, “Why do we do what we do?’ The mission of the KMMC has been always to raise money for the Mennonite Central Committee Relief Sale. However, according to Duerksen, it was not until 1974 that then-president Irvin Pauls decided the group needed its now-famous motto – “We Sing That Others May Live.’ This motto, reflecting the KMMC’s goal of raising money for MCC’s relief efforts and ministry, still holds true today. Current KMMC president Tieszen explained that members pay dues to cover renting concert spaces and buying music, and to support the group’s other needs, so that every cent (or as close to as possible) of the donations given at concerts goes to the work of MCC. The idea of membership dues has come with its own difficulties. Many members of the audiences that came to see the KMMC were wives or family members of the men, so when offerings were taken, the money was coming from the families of the singers. “We’re double-dipping our own members,’ said Tieszen. Regardless of the difficulties, however, the KMMC was determined to keep its mission of donating to MCC. Stutzman commented that while the KMMC planned to continue donating to MCC, it would not turn down other charities. “It’s easy to send funds to MCC,’ he said, because of MCC’s “dual purpose’ – relief and Christian ministry. The KMMC has raised over $750,000 for MCC since the group’s inaugural year.
Charity may be the main goal of the Steering Committee and on paper, but the KMMC is also a performing group, tasked with giving entertaining concerts. Balancing the desire to perform well and entertain with giving God glory and raising money for charity has been hard for some men in the KMMC to reconcile. One member worried that the line between sharing the joy of the love of Christ and focusing on entertainment factor was in danger of blurring. He said the group has to strive to find songs that are “meaningful to Christians listening, and maybe to those that aren’t [Christian],’ which, he added, “sharing joy and love is something Greg [Bontrager] stresses.’ Another member of the choir felt as though the KMMC had strayed from tradition. He cautioned the group to not “sell out,’ and to focus on dignity as well as the music and entertainment.A singer mentioned a possible European tour for the KMMC, but wondered what motives were behind the decision to travel. Would the men go to raise funds? To witness to new audiences? Or would the group go to advertise its name and fame? Questions of motive will continue to surround the choir, but as Stutzman said, “I don’t see [the charity] going away.’ Indeed, the KMMC seems firmly rooted in its traditions, and a focus on ministry and charity is the longest-lasting tradition the group has, indicating that the choir will remain focused on spreading the love and message of Christ.
Another concern a few of the members of the KMMC expressed was that the traditional music was slowly being replaced in or removed from the song lineup. These men felt the choir was departing from a tradition that had been in place from the beginning – a focus on anthems, chorales and classic hymn arrangements. One man remarked, “I wish we did more high-church anthems,’ referring to songs historically sung in conservative churches (Anglican, Presbyterian and Episcopalian, to name a few). The same singer had hopes of raising national prominence of the KMMC, but worried that doing so would require the group to change its repertoire even more. Another KMMC member hoped to see an equal balance between traditional choral music (based on hymns and Scripture) and new styles. Yet another member commented that if the group, and indeed, singers in general, did not continue to sing traditional songs, “We’ll become ‘harmony-illiterate.’’ The concern and drive to keep older music alive and strong was important to these men because the songs in question were what they heard growing up, and represented “church’ to them. While new styles resonated with audiences, it was important to consider how the music resonated with the singers as well.
A third concern raised by KMMC members was the age of the singers. If one were to attend a KMMC concert, one would immediately notice a wide range in ages. The group still has singers from its first incarnation, 50 years ago, performing in concerts and coming to each rehearsal. But one might not notice the presence of young men. The choir has struggled to remain attractive and important to younger men, a trend that is increasingly worrisome as men age and leave the choir. Most interviewees mentioned this disparity in youth engaging with the KMMC, hoping that more young men would join the group to revitalize and extend the lifespan of the choir.
Buller offered his assessment of the choir, estimating that the average age had remained roughly the same since he joined in the early ’70s. The average age of the choir is around 60. Stutzman added that the original iteration of the KMMC, the Mid-Kansas Relief Sale Male Chorus, contained a huge group of 30-year-olds, many of whom still enjoy singing with the choir in their 80s and 90s. Despite the median age staying the same, Stutzman described the ensemble as “an aging chorus,’ and said that for young men, singing used to be a cultural experience but priorities have shifted. In rehearsals, only a handful of men under 20 sing, including Buller’s grandson.
This sentiment of shifting priorities was echoed again and again among the interviewees. Tieszen cited contemporary praise music as one reason youth are not as interested in singing choral music, explaining that “as praise songs become more and more prevalent in worship services, the ability to sing and appreciate four-part songs decreases.’ He added that part of the reason the KMMC’s song folder was looking different was because “people believe we need praise songs to attract younger people to church.’ Buller agreed with the shifting priorities assessment. He mentioned that the older generations grew up singing, but people are not being raised with the same exposure to four-part singing and chorales. Stutzman shared a different take on the reason young men were no longer coming to the choir. In his eyes, youth have not been exposed to the idea that choral communities like the KMMC are not solely focused on the music; rather, it is about the community experience and the worship aspect of singing – something the older men recognize and appreciate. A common thread in all the interview responses was that church demographics have changed, and young people are as a general rule not as involved with church as past generations.
One way the KMMC was hoping to combat the falling interest in the men’s choir was the involvement of area groups of young singers. Most notably, the Bethel College Men’s Ensemble, under the direction of William Eash, has joined with the KMMC every year for a concert. Tieszen expressed hope that bringing in these young college men would attract young singers to the group after graduating from school. Zielke was of the same opinion. In his interview, he expressed how much he enjoyed seeing the Bethel Men’s Ensemble sing with the KMMC and enjoying themselves. Eash expressed gratitude to Bontrager for inviting the Men’s Ensemble to sing with the KMMC when Bontrager first began directing in 2007, saying the joining of the groups “was Greg’s brainchild.’ Eash explained the reason the younger singers joined with the older men was to sing in a large ensemble of men, gain experience singing with others of varying musical skill, and make connections with men in the community. The KMMC also serves to connect Bethel singers with music outside the traditional secular male arrangements, giving them experience singing sacred choral music.
Other college groups have also sung with the KMMC, including Hesston College’s male singers. The men were encouraged to attend each rehearsal to build relationships and connections, according to Stutzman, contrasting the Hesston singers with Bethel’s, who only join with the KMMC in dress rehearsal and concert. Tabor College, the third Mennonite school in the area, has not been as involved with the KMMC as Hesston or Bethel. Stutzman mentioned that he understood why many collegiate men choose not to sing with the KMMC, due to distance, scheduling and the fact that “young people today are very transient’ after college. Director Bontrager’s Buhler High School choir students have joined the group in the past, if only for the experience of singing in a large male chorus. Nonetheless, the KMMC looked forward with hopeful hearts towards increased youth presence and participation in the choral community.
As with the age demographic, the KMMC was starting to reflect the church’s changing ethnic demographic. Generally speaking, the Mennonite community in America and Canada has been very white. Yet elsewhere in the world, the Mennonite community is looking very different, with Africa and Asia representing the fastest growing Mennonite populations. Mexico and South America also boast healthy Mennonite congregations. As immigrants move from their home countries to America, they get connected to existing Mennonite communities, resulting in a diversification of the American Mennonite church. This change was also beginning to show in the KMMC make-up. This was a happy revelation for the choir, which seeks to expand the definition of community. Stutzman recalled seeing more non-white singers in the chorus recently, saying, “We are looking different [now]. The church is looking different, so we are looking different.’ Stutzman went on to add that the group was a historically Anglo choir, but he was hoping that would change as the group diversified – even if the diversity came just within the growing global Mennonite community. He hoped to attract that change by adding song in new languages and pushing the choir to “be more globally-minded.’ Tieszen, as previously mentioned, believed that the local Mennonite community could easily be clique-ish, but he hoped the KMMC would set an example by mixing cultures and actively reaching out to welcome others.
Linked to the concerns and new goals of the KMMC are the hopes and visions for the future of the group. In keeping with its mission statement, the ensemble hopes to keep raising money and donating to the MCC Relief Sale and ministry world-wide. Other goals include expanding the choir, growing the listenership of the group and continuing to make music in the male chorus tradition.
The KMMC, as it looks to the future, hopes to return to its previous number of 500-plus men. The group hopes to do this a number of ways: through increased involvement with area colleges and groups, through new recruiting techniques, and by making efforts to reach new groups. Buller mentioned he would like to focus on connecting with local groups to recruit members. “One of my laments is that the men of the Newton Chorale don’t sing in the KMMC.’ Buller also went on to explain the benefits that the KMMC offered to singers in the area. The Mennonite singers are a community group, made of amateurs and non-auditioned, and are the only group in Buller’s opinion that have such a high level of participation and such a high-quality finished product. It is true that the KMMC is one of only a few choirs available to community members in the area. Others include the aforementioned Newton Chorale, and the Wichita Chamber Chorale, but the Newton group is by invitation and the Wichita singing group is auditioned. The KMMC, because it is not limited to Mennonites and is open to any comer, is a choice group to join. Several interviewees mentioned a Facebook page hosted by the KMMC, used for community announcements and recruitment, as well as using the video-sharing platform YouTube to boost awareness of the hundreds-strong men’s chorus. These social media platforms are used to reach possible singers who are perhaps too far away to contact personally, as well as to attract younger singers who use social media. Another new use of technology is the new practice of mailing out “part CDs.’ These CDs are the songs the choir plans to sing for the year, recorded twice: once with all four parts balanced and once with each vocal part emphasized. According to Tieszen, the CDs allow men to practice, even if they are from out-of-state or miss several rehearsals. Bontrager is a fan of the CDs as well. He mentioned the new innovation has resulted in a better-sounding choir and provides incentive to join the group, even if a singer cannot come to all the practices.
Another hope the KMMC has is the hope of growing the ensemble’s listener base. Buller recalled past concerts with enormous audiences, saying “We used to fill Presser Hall at Bethany College [in Lindsborg, Kansas] for two concerts.’ The story of the 1,000 audience members being turned away from Century II concert hall in Wichita from the KMMC’s 1970 concert was a testimony to this claim – the Mennonite men attracted huge crowds. But recently the crowds have been smaller, and the concerts less full. Buller claimed the reason for the decline of the audience size to be that the listeners “expect hymns, chorales, and gospel songs. They don’t know how our repertoire has changed.’ Tieszen reiterated his belief that the KMMC is “singing a message,’ – one that can be appreciated by any audience, regardless of beliefs. There is also talk of traveling concerts, like the ones to Denver, Illinois, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Minnesota mentioned in Duerksen’s book, in order to find new, fresh audiences to sing for and spread God’s love among. The goal of finding larger audiences is paramount to the KMMC’s goal of raising the most money possible for MCC, while spreading the Christian gospel as far as possible.
The final goal of the KMMC might be self-explanatory – the group wants to continue to sing for the fundraising, the audience and the love of music. Buller, when asked if the group would be around in another 50 years, replied, “I would like to say so!’ The example of four-part singing, so ingrained in Mennonite tradition, set by the KMMC is an example that preserves the cultural act for new generations and carries on a tradition from centuries before.
In 1969, as Vernon Wiebe stood smiling in front of the Mid-Kansas Relief Sale Male Chorus, did he know he was starting a tradition that would be around 50 years later? Did he understand the impact on generations of male singers the group would have, decades in the future? When Buller, Zielke, Tieszen, Stutzman and Bontrager first joined the group, did they understand that the choir, this body of men, would play such a memorable role in their lives? In 2018, its 50th anniversary, the KMMC can look back on memories of laughter, tears, and above all else, a tight-knit community of singers built on shared values: creating lasting relationships and singing music together.
As the history of the Kansas Mennonite Men’s Chorus is explored, it is easy to see that the group is something special. Buller, at the close of his interview, remarked that the KMMC is a “testament to Mennonite male singing.’ By this, he meant that the group is carrying a long history on its back, a tradition full of music and, to use Zielke’s preferred term, camaraderie. The community of the KMMC comes together to celebrate, each singer bringing their own meaning to the group. As Tieszen observed, “Some like the social, some like the spiritual, some the joy of music, and some the good cause.’ As each of the men brings an individual purpose to the group, the community within the group gets tighter and more attractive to new singers. The cycle then continues as new men bring new perspectives and grow the community. In another 50 years, the men of the Kansas Mennonite Men’s Chorus will gather in the church, shake hands and pat backs and, turning the pages of their folders, lift their voices as one voice – a community of song.
Greg Bontrager, interview by author, Hesston, Kansas, Feb. 4, 2018.
Cal Buller, interview by author, North Newton, Kansas, Dec. 12, 2017.
William Eash, interview by author, North Newton, April 3, 2018.
Mitchell Stutzman, interview by author, North Newton, Dec. 19, 2017.
Delbert Thiezen, interview by author, North Newton, Dec. 18, 2017.
Vern Zielke, interview by author, Wichita, Dec. 18, 2017.
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