Book review: ‘A Living Alternative’

Nov 9, 2015 by

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Some of the brightest new voices in the Anabaptist tradition fill a recent anthology, A Living Alternative: Anabaptist Christianity in a Post-Christendom World. Twenty contributors offer their spiritual pilgrimages, experiments and experiences in being the church, observations on post-Christendom and living out the Christian faith.

A Living Alternative

A Living Alternative (2014)

In an anthology, one is drawn to writers one knows. So I first turned to Donald Clymer, for whom I edited a book on spirituality, The Spacious Heart, which he co-wrote with one of his sisters, Sharon Clymer Landis. The Spacious Heart touched on their spiritual pilgrimages. Here Clymer fills in the missing pieces while adding his take on post-Christendom — a time when Christianity has lost its cultural dominance. His chapter, “Conversion from Ethnic Mennonite to Convinced Anabaptist,” follows a path familiar to many — growing up culturally Mennonite without really understanding what Anabaptist faith is all about.

Brian Gumm’s chapter, “Seeking the Peace of the Farm Town: Anabaptist Mission and Ministry in the Midwest,” speaks of his vision as a bivocational pastor for the Church of the Brethren. The approach he describes is sometimes called “slow church,” where you emphasize getting to know the community and becoming an everyday part of it.

This approach bears in mind that God is already at work in a given community, so one shouldn’t “parachute” into a situation attempting to change or fix things, especially when your “fix” might not be right for the local context.

I’ve never met Jamie Arpin‑Ricci, who writes on “What Anabaptists Can Learn from St. Francis of Assisi,” but I was intrigued to learn more of his background and thinking. He leans toward a Franciscan spirituality — following the example of St. Francis of Assisi. When he and others first started Little Flowers Community in Winnipeg, Man., he wished to call it St. Francis Mennonite Church. The group settled on Little Flowers as a tribute to the flowers and animals we associate with the nature-loving St. Francis. Arpin‑Ricci’s chapter is fascinating and one of the book’s easier reads.

From my work curating content for the Third Way website and hearing from many folks interested in Mennonite or Anabaptist churches over the years, I know many people live in areas where they desperately wish there was a Mennonite congregation. So it is insightful to hear from some of these writers who are pastors or laypeople in underserved communities. Justin Hiebert, a Mennonite Brethren pastor, addresses this need directly. In “The Ministry of Availability and Community Transformation,” he notes that the MB denomination set a goal several years ago to plant six churches a year. He includes great ideas for involving ourselves in our neighborhoods.

I resonated with the chapter from Chris Nickels exploring the concept of table fellowship. As a pastor, he notes “the table’s effectiveness as a tool for ministry is that it helps theory become practice. . . . Sitting down at a table invites us to break from our regular activity and shift our focus. It is a place where we choose to slow down and really be present with other people.”

He tells how his congregation, Spring Mount Mennonite Church in suburban Philadelphia, tried a table-church liturgy for an experiment. A member who works in construction came across some handsome but well-used round tables being discarded from a work site and asked Nickels if the congregation wanted them. They did, and they’ve used the tables in a variety of settings, including a once-a-month worship liturgy incorporating a meal. Their “potluck theology” also helps members think about the home table as a place for fellowship and spiritual growth.

Drew Hart, another Philadelphia pastor, is a man to watch in the years ahead as he cuts through the sometimes superficial conversations about race to face down prejudice and racism. Did he coin the word “Anablacktivism”? He uses it to pinpoint his vision.

He recounts how he stumbled upon Anabaptists, has researched black theology and Anabaptism, and is working on a doctorate on that topic, along with a popular-level book. He writes: “Those who desire to find inspiration from the Anabaptist legacy ought to consider and pursue this by also engaging the Black church and Black theology, all while joining the struggle against white supremacy and the systemic racial violence that continues to disproportionately devastate Black life in America.”

Hannah Heinzekehr and Deborah-Ruth Ferber are the lone female voices, besides editor Joanna Harader. I found Ferber’s chapter on singleness most engaging, probably because I gravitate toward personal stories — and recall experiencing, when I was 23 and single, many of the same feelings.

I commend the editors, A.O. Green and Harader, for compiling an anthology of Anabaptist-related thinkers with depth. A Sunday school class could use this rich volume to create a study for its particular interests.

Melodie Davis is a managing editor and writer for Menno­Media in Harrisonburg, Va. Parts of this review appeared first at her Finding Harmony blog.


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