Learning from those who left

Conference on ex-Mennonites offers a message of grace, humility

Nov 10, 2014 by and

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Phil Kleinsasser urged the faithful to sow their money in the offering plate in order to reap abundance in all areas of their lives. Kleinsasser is a Hutterite surname, but his admonition came not in an austere colony chapel but at Springs Church, one of Canada’s most successful and success-oriented megachurches, where Kleinsasser — his suspenders and beard long gone — serves as an assistant pastor.

That was the image with which Kate Bowler, a professor at Duke Divinity School and author of Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, began her presentation to the “Ex-Mennonite/Near Mennonite” conference hosted in October by the chair in Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg.

Bowler estimates ex-Anabaptists form the largest ethnic minority at Springs, though the church could hardly be less Anabaptist, with its rock star pastor up front and holy Starbucks look-alike at the back. She told of people who found an antidote to legalism, permission to embrace the ever-changing urban ethos, physical healing and acceptance of nose rings — in short, a place of belonging.

Not surprisingly, one person asked a question that presumed Springs does little to help the disenfranchised. His critical inclination matched my own initial impulse to mentally shun. My more considered response was to ask what posture we Mennonites assume, or ought to assume, in relation to other churches, other faiths, “the world” and those among us who opt for one of those paths.

The stories of those who leave us, either by choice or de facto banning, raise a more fundamental question: How do we create and maintain community without hurting people?

As soon as a group identifies in some way, by definition it excludes certain people. A pacifist Mennonite church will not draw Catholic war vets. But if boundaries are made too porous, as conference organizer Royden Loewen noted in a later interview, you risk losing your center and identity altogether.

This is the dilemma of community and identity played out in a thousand wars, reformations and excommunications, and in at least one Hutterite-farmer-turned-megachurch-minister.

How, for instance, do we identify as nonviolent without causing the pain experienced by the Mennonite World War II vets who started Altona (Man.) United Church upon rejection by their Mennonite churches, as presenter Conrad Stoesz explained? How can we be distinct without being prideful?

Or perhaps distinction is the wrong goal. Paul Doerksen of Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg said we are preoccupied with defining what a Mennonite is and what makes Mennonites distinct. He implied we should get over ourselves.

In a related presentation, Paul Martens of Baylor University argued that, as part of a process of consolidating Mennonite identity around the things we do, a string of Mennonite heavy hitters — Harold Bender, John Howard Yoder and J. Denny Weaver — have oversimplified rich Anabaptist history into a narrow and human-centered focus — discipleship, “brotherhood” and the politics of nonviolence.

Martens takes the argument further, saying this circumscribed focus has made Mennonite theology superfluous. But the more basic point, identical to Doerksen’s, is that we should focus less on ourselves and more on God.

We’re not as unique as we think. The starting point should be what God does, not what we do. This should make us more open to reaching over the social chasm that Loewen says tends to separate Mennonites from those who have left us.

The Mennonite tendency to stake out a unique identity is understandable. We are scattered across the globe in an era of dizzying change, held together by neither a geographic nor an administrative center. No pope. No Mecca. The pressures of assimilation, the enemy of distinctiveness, pull with a force as inescapable as gravity.

That’s what makes the Springs case interesting. It is the apex of assimilation, with the possible exception of nonbelief. Anabaptist participation at Springs represents one conclusion of the gradual path of acculturation on which the majority of us — whether black-bumper or buffed-bumper types — find ourselves.

How do we respond? With defensiveness, judgment, fear, grace, openness?

If distinct identity is the bottom line, there is little to be said about Kleinsasser — or the esteemed Muslim leader Elma Harder, who spoke of her path from a Mennonite farm to Islam — other than that they are wrong. The conference invited a softer, more engaged response.

The original Anabaptists set themselves apart from the dominant religious practice of their day. But what they critiqued, in large part, was the claim made by a segment of the church to a corner on truth. They critiqued the blind guarding of a legacy.

Our calling is not to guard the Anabaptist legacy or claim theological high ground. Our history and character are gifts from God but not ecclesial trump cards. We must be open to the gifts God has given others, which can serve as correctives for us.

To allow Yoder back into the discussion, we need to believe that weakness, not distinctiveness, wins. We must resist the urge to steer the Mennonite legacy toward a particular position or end.

After a conference attendee asked about Springs’ presumed neglect of the marginalized, Harold Jantz, a Mennonite Brethren elder, gently encouraged us to consider the mega­church’s sizeable donations to Mennonite Central Committee and the admirable work it does in Winnipeg’s personal care homes. He did not condone its prosperity gospel, but he didn’t let us get away with sitting too smug.

Will Braun is senior writer for Canadian Mennonite. Reprinted with permission of Canadian Mennonite.


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