Adult seminars: growth comes when values are lived

Institutional baggage not that appealing to newcomers

Jul 20, 2015 by and

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The greatest periods of growth for the Christian church have been the most removed from institutional religion.

Author Alan Hirsch offered critical, but optimistic, thoughts about religion getting in the way of God July 3 at the Mennonite Church USA convention.

Hirsch, author of The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church, said there were about 25,000 Christians in the year 100, but that number grew to 20 million by the year 300. Similarly, the communist revolution in China reduced believers to about 2 million in 1950, but in spite of many challenges Christians have grown to an estimated 120 million today.

Both movements lacked buildings and met in houses. Each was illegal and severely persecuted. Neither had clergy or full Bibles but relied on passionate followers to cling to scriptural fragments and Jesus.

“If it took the leaders to be taken out for the people to grow, what were the leaders doing prior to that?” he asked a packed room of about 200 people, mostly pastors. “The clergy are often the bottlenecks. . . .

“If they are maintaining a certain reality that is keeping people of God from God, that is a problem.”

Hirsch said it doesn’t take a seminary degree to carry the Holy Spirit’s DNA.

“Most churches don’t have a decent pathway to Christ,” he said. “Jesus can do more with 12 disciples than he can do with 12,000 consumers.”

Ordinary people who are passionate carry the code for sharing Christ, so long as the process of growing a movement isn’t killed by complications.

“If it takes seven years to become a pastor in the church of Jesus Christ, you’re not moving very fast,” he said.

Thirst for values

Hirsch’s call to shed religion but hold onto Anabaptist values was echoed by a panel who spoke on “Emerging Interest in Anabaptism” in a July 4 seminar.

“There are a lot of folks . . . interested in Anabaptist theology if you don’t call it that,” said MennoMedia marketing director Ben Penner. “If you say it’s about caring for each other, that interest is quite broad.”

Anton Flores-Maisonet, found­er of Alterna Community, a bilingual Anabaptist community in La Grange, Ga., encouraged Mennonites to market their values, like radical spirituality and community, but not the denomination or the brand.

“There’s a thirst both inside the denomination and outside the denomination,” he said. “Incarnate it. Once you do that, it’s easier to communicate it.”

Marty Troyer, pastor of Houston Mennonite Church, said Mennonites’ simple way of extending themselves into the community makes them stand out and will attract interest.

“Very few of these people or interests have said, ‘Yeah, we’re really excited to change our name to Mennonite or become Mennonite,’ ” he said. “They see us as a resource in history and something to learn from.”

‘Farewell to Mars’

One such example is Brian Zahnd, pastor of Word of Life Church, an evangelical mega­church in St. Joseph, Mo., and author of Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastor’s Journey Toward the Biblical Gos­pel of Peace.

He grew up comfortable with military violence and cowboy justice, even ordering pizzas to watch the war live on television with friends during the first Iraq war in 1991.

Zahnd said in a July 2 seminar that in his 40s he moved into more robust Christianity, read John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus and was overcome by the Holy Spirit during the war’s second act in 2006.

“I lost all of my composure, and it just broke me down,” he said of seeing himself being entertained by such violence. “I repented and asked God to forgive me. I asked my church to forgive me, but they didn’t understand what the sin was.”

He now understands the world is run on an axis of power that revolves around violence, present already when Cain sees his brother Abel getting in the way of his manifest destiny.

“So he kills him, and he hides the body,” Zahnd said. “That’s what flags and anthems are for. We hide the bodies.”

Cain then left the garden to found the first city.

“We have inherited the model of civilization on the model of Cain,” he said. “But it’s all built upon a lie that our brother is the other. He is the enemy. . . . Jesus tells you in John 8 the truth will set you free from the lie that murder is the way we have to arrange our lives.”

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