What does church mean to us?

May 19, 2016 by

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I spent a good chunk of one recent morning in an online discussion about the future of Mennonite Church Canada with a handful of other young-ish pastors from across the nation. It was interesting to be invited as I tend to be less suited to thinking on my feet at meetings or committees or focus groups than I am to writing blog posts where I can hedge my bets and endlessly qualify every statement and default to lame attempts at self-protective humor. I mostly agreed to participate in this conversation because I was frankly giddy at the prospect of being located in the “young-ish” category of something.

At any rate, after two of these meetings, I found myself thinking about some familiar patterns that tend to emerge internally for me. Usually, I end the meeting thinking something along the lines of, Who on earth am I that I could contribute something meaningful to questions about the future of our national church?! That’s a big job. A job for, you know, grown-ups. Not for, ahem, young-ish folks like me. It’s for people who know stuff about stuff and are used to making all kinds of important decisions.

As I was mowing the church lawn in an attempt to de-clutter my post-meeting brain, I began to wonder just who exactly it is that I imagine was instrumental in forming some of the structures that we are now discussing altering or abandoning? Who do I think actually put things like “Mennonite Church Canada” (or any other expression of the institutional church) together in the first place? Ordinary young-ish (and old-ish) people like me, that’s who. Ordinary people who had to make decisions without guarantees about the future and without unanimity among the bodies that they represented. So why does it seem so daunting for me, here and now?

The answers to this question would be myriad, certainly, but they must surely have something to do with the cultural moment in which I am situated as compared to previous ones. My knowledge of Mennonite history is undoubtedly full of inexcusably cavernous gaps, but I know enough to know that there was an urgency motivating the people who formed the institutional structures currently teetering on edge. Often, these structures represented lifelines to tightly knit immigrant communities seeking to make their way in a new context. People came together and got stuff done because they needed each other and they knew it. They needed each other in practical ways to preserve and protect identity, to teach their children, and to help one another find their way in the world.

They seemed to have a much keener sense that their need was existential, as well. The church was not an optional extra to add some private meaning to busy lives. It was about the meaning of all of life. It was the social fabric upon which people depended, the means through which they connected to God, were baptized, married and buried. It was the entity that commissioned them and sent forth with good news. The church mattered because God and sin and salvation mattered deeply.

The above is a romanticized picture, certainly, and it would not at all be difficult to find stories that point to much darker realities of this period of the church’s life. But in very general terms, I think it would be uncontroversial to claim that the church that gave birth to institutional structures that we (and other denominations) are now reconsidering played a much more central role in the lives of those who helped shape them.

The church in 21st-century Canada does not always (or even often!) look like this. Based on my nearly eight years as a pastor in two Anabaptist churches, I would say that two huge factors in our shaping context are individualism and consumerism. Church is something that people do if and when they feel like it and often on their own terms. Our need of it is much less comprehensive and much more selective. It is something we do if we have time, or if we’re looking for a spiritual boost or a bit of inspiration. We come to church for “community” (we sometimes tolerate all the God-talk because it is, alas, part of the social package). The church is useful, we think, in fortifying the personal brands we are constantly cultivating, providing the requisite social causes or ideological justifications or theologies to ground our personal identities. We choose churches like we choose products, selecting those that best reflect our own self-understanding and that speak to our own personal hopes and ambitions for ourselves and for the world. I’d like a double-shot of certainty with some political conservatism, please… I’ll have a low-doctrine, eco-friendly, peace and justice church, please. And go light on the evangelism. To go.

Again, there would be alternative stories to this one. There would be those for whom the church still represents the lifeline that it once did to our ancestors. There would be those who still come to church out of a deep hunger for God, some who feel keenly the weight of sin and the hope of salvation. But I would suggest that the picture sketched above is recognizable to many. This is the world we live in.

Here in Mennonite Church Canada, we have invested enormous time and energy in two national discernment processes. The Being a Faithful Church process (BFC) sought clarity primarily on human sexuality. The Future Directions Task Force (FDTF) has sought to address how to move forward with/without various iterations of the institutional heritage bequeathed to us by our ancestors. In both cases, after long periods of collecting and clarifying and calibrating feedback from congregations across Canada, we discovered that — lo and behold! — we are a people with very diverse, often irreconcilable views. Which we kinda knew before we started. And which still kinda leaves us in the same boat of having to make tough decisions in the absence of anything even remotely resembling unanimity.

And, perhaps equally importantly, we do all of this in a cultural and church context that conditions us daily to treat everything in our lives — including the questions we ask and the answers we consider — as an extension of the individual self and its preferences. We simply don’t have the same needs driving us toward rather than away from one another, as we once did.

I don’t know how we will handle important decisions like those represented by the BFC and FDTF processes at our national assembly in Saskatoon this summer. But I suspect that whatever we end up deciding (or avoiding) and whatever new issues loom on the horizon, we ought to at least be open to considering the role that our own assumptions are playing in the process (about ourselves, mainly). Perhaps these processes could have among their modest goals the recovery of the truth that we are not consumers or personal brands but human beings who have been entrusted to each other and for each other.

Ryan Dueck is pastor of Lethbridge (Alta.) Mennonite Church. He writes at Rumblings.

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