Church splits will never resolve the traditionalist, progressive divide

Feb 20, 2015 by

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Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit . . . until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God . . . ” — Paul (from Ephesians 4)

Mennonite Church USA’s Virginia Mennonite Conference held a delegate session held Feb. 7 in Waynesboro, Va., where sociologist and pastor Conrad Kanagy raised sobering questions about whether the Mennonite church will be able to reconcile its differences and stay together. Kanagy conducted a recent survey of MC USA’s credentialed leaders. He noted that we are becoming two distinctly different groups, one made up of upwardly mobile professionals who tend to be more liberal and “progressive” in their views and another that remains more rural in their way of life and more “traditionalist” in their beliefs.

“What if the Holy Spirit were dismantling the church?” he asked. “How can we work with rather than against God’s Spirit, recognizing that the church is God’s, not ours?”

We were shown plenty of evidence from Kanagy’s recent study of what he described as a “progressive narrative” and a “traditionalist narrative.” His prayer is that these two can find a way to remain in vital connection.

A part of me wanted to ask whether this was really a new phenomenon. Hasn’t the church always had at least two narratives of this kind? And what if some of this tension could be seen as a good thing, recognizing that traditionalists need progressives to help keep them from stagnating, and that progressives need traditionalists to keep them from going off in unwise directions?

Years ago, I heard Mennonite missionary and church planter, Donald Jacobs, present a version of the following diagram in a seminar he led at Eastern Mennonite University (then EMC) in Harrisonburg, Va.

circlesHere are the main players in his model:

Preservers: Jacobs stressed that all groups, and certainly churches, need a stable group of members committed to preserving its core values. Around some issues, he said, any of us may find ourselves resisting change and working to preserve the “old order” of things. When conservative-minded folks begin to feel their concerns are no longer heard or respected, they may feel strongly enough to leave as a group to form their own separate community.

Pioneers: Healthy groups also need innovators who advocate for change, lest a group become ingrown and stagnant. These folks tend to operate on the outer fringe of the community and are often viewed with suspicion and fear. When these innovators no longer feel heard or respected they may likewise form another group or simply drift off one by one.

Note: In either case, when new groups form, they form alignments similar to the groups they have left, except now some of the more liberal “pioneers” may find themselves labeled as conservative “preservers” in the context of the new group.

Settlers: These folks are the more or less silent majority in the group in a given conflict, and are not as strongly aligned with either the pioneers or preservers on a particular issue, but may have varying degrees of sympathy for one or the other — or both.

Note: In a healthy group, individuals are able to change roles depending on the issue. Let me speak personally. On some issues, like advocating for more house churches instead of investing in ever more church real estate, I may be seen as a pioneer. On other issues, like preserving our Mennonite peace stance, I may be seen as a strong preserver. On certain other issues, like what style of church music to use, I’m often in the middle, open to those of either camp. In some settings or in some periods of history, house churches would be seen as a decidedly conservative idea, whereas the advocacy of nonviolence would be seen as a very radical one. Depending on the issue and on the makeup of the group, we will find ourselves at different places — and therefore aligned with different persons — which is as it should be. This kind of dynamic reshuffling has the effect of bonding us to a variety of different people and tends to have an interlacing quality that makes a group stronger and more division proof.

Mediators: Each of us, whenever possible, needs to serve in intermediary roles within the group. Sometimes we may serve in the role of interpreter for the preservers, promoting good conversation between them and the pioneers and between them and the rank and file middle. At other times we may advocate for the innovators, to help make sure they are clearly understood and their ideas are being respectfully considered.

Final note: When we see differences as normal, and as actually having potential for making the group healthier and stronger, and when each member feels valued and needed, everyone is better off, and the health and growth of the group is enhanced.

Maybe we need to embrace the fact that whenever human beings associate together, differences and disagreements are inevitable, and can even prove to be a blessing.

Harvey Yoder is an ordained pastor and member of Family of Hope, a small Virginia Mennonite Conference house church congregation. He blogs at Harvspot, where this first appeared.


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  • Elaine Fehr

    Kanagy asked, ” “How can we work with rather than against God’s Spirit, recognizing that the church is God’s, not ours?”

    Excellent questions! And the answer may seem surprisingly simple – humble obedience to God and His word by His grace, through faith.

  • Conrad Ermle

    An Old Order Amish bishop once told me, “Only good wood splits”. — Conrad Ermle