“There’s a reason that some music has stuck around for hundreds of years, whereas some of the things we’re singing now, in twenty years, no one will have ever heard of,” says Rodney Derstine, music teacher at Christopher Dock Mennonite High School. I sat down with Rod recently to hear his views on music in the church and how hymns seem to be disappearing from our Mennonite church worship services. “I like hearing the four part harmony.”
Rod grew up in a singing family. His mother had a strong influence on his love of music in that she listened to classical composers on the radio. He also remembers playing forty-fives of classical music over and over again. From Bach and 17th century chorales to Sing the Story, Rod loves music of all kinds.
“It’s fun to see students enjoying hymns.” Rod tells his students each year, “I’m not looking to change what you listen to, but I’m looking to expand what you like.” He tells them it’s like when he first started eating Japanese food. “The more I ate it, the more I really started to like it and then even crave it.” He feels if music is constructed well and has a good text; ultimately, the kids will enjoy it.
“Many students today have no concept of hymns or even a religious background. But I keep plugging away at it, continuing to lead hymns in chapel.” He admits some years he has become discouraged with how the singing in chapel has sounded, but he tries not to take it too seriously if the singing doesn’t go well. “You don’t have to hit a homerun every time you sing.” Rod continues to introduce songs such as #118 (Hymnal: A Worship Book), “Praise God from Whom” in chapel. “I just try to expose them to different things.”
I asked Rod if he believes that community people are more attracted to the contemporary choruses than hymns. “That’s a myth, especially if you do old hymns with texts that have depth. There is a richness and so much variety in hymns, if done well.”
Rod believes that music is most powerful when we are moved beyond ourselves. “A number of years ago when we were living in Oregon, I chose to lead the hymn “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need” on a Sunday morning at Salem Mennonite Church. I didn’t realize that Rich Reger was sitting in the back row and had been estranged from the church for many years. When I led that song, he began crying. He told me later it was that hymn that brought him home. Rich later became a pastor. He died this last year of cancer. He was a dear friend…and that hymn brought him back.”