Future Church Summit: Where’s ‘quirky’ church going?

Summit sparks ideas that delegates call a guide for discernment

Jul 7, 2017 by and

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ORLANDO, Fla. — After 14 hours of talking about how to follow Jesus as Anabaptists in the 21st century, Mennonite Church USA delegates faced the question of how to describe what they had done.

Had they set a direction for the denomination’s future or made a list of ideas that needed further discernment?

Mennonite Church USA delegates discuss the Future Church Summit resolution July 8. — Vada Snider for MWR

Mennonite Church USA delegates discuss the Future Church Summit resolution July 8. — Vada Snider for MWR

It quickly became clear that many believed the nine-page document summarizing the Future Church Summit had not charted a definite path. Yet a resolution proposed by the Executive Board called it “the direction of our national body.”

Delegate Dean Wimmer voiced the concern: “We are being asked to affirm this as the direction, and we can’t even say what that is.”

Sensing the need for an amendment, the resolutions committee sent one of its members, Samuel Voth Schrag, to the podium. The committee, he said, was “hearing energy to soften the language of direction.”

He proposed less prescriptive language. The summit report might be called “a dynamic document that is offered to the church to guide further discernment for living into God’s calling in agencies, conferences, constituency groups and congregations.”

And so it was. The 500 delegates adopted the amended resolution, with about 10 dissenting votes, as they wrapped up their work on the final day of the MC USA convention July 8.

“We wanted a list of things we hold in common but also flexibility for these to be used by congregations and conferences,” said Iris de Léon-Hartshorn, a member of the “theme team” that wrote the report, in an interview. “It’s hard to rank what’s more important. We didn’t want the themes to be in competition with each other.”

The themes — short phrases of description and aspiration, critique and praise — emerged from a process of recalling the past, evaluating the present and dreaming about the future.

The phrases are grouped under categories such as “Important things we do together” and “How can we be constructive in living with our differences?”

Samples from the list

There are 154 bullet points, including:

  • Critiques of failure: the “marginalization of people of color, women and LGBTQ people” and “painful patterns of splitting/division.”
  • Affirmations: “nonconformity to empire (materialism and nationalism) — speaking truth, simple living and quirkiness.”
  • Observations: “We struggle together with the boundaries of our church body — regarding our biblical vision for inclusion/exclusion.”
  • Categories for action: “immigration: tending to the undocumented.”
  • General advice: “Listen. Learn. Change. Repeat” and “Like a marriage, some things would be easier to do on your own, but other things are done better together even though there are some headaches along the way.”
  • Broad visions: “bold humility in risk taking, in repentance, in hope — living in joy and love as a demonstration of God’s love” and “be the full shalom of God — salvation, justice and peace together.”

Summit participants were polled twice to see if the report accurately reflected their discussions; 89 percent and then 85 percent gave it the highest or second-highest rating.

Spanning parts of three days July 6-8, the summit included all of the convention’s more than 500 delegates, plus about 100 others.

They gathered around 97 tables, each equipped with an iPad, sending thousands of comments for the theme team to summarize and report back.

Affirmation and lament

The process began with a review of denominational history, because “our imaginations of the future are colored by the legacies of the past,” said facilitator Catherine Barnes, a professor at Eastern Mennonite University.

The historical review led to discussion of what to affirm and take forward and what to lament and leave behind.

A timeline of Mennonite history helped Future Church Summit participants consider how legacies of the past shape dreams for the future. — Vada Snider for MWR

A timeline of Mennonite history helped Future Church Summit participants consider how legacies of the past shape dreams for the future. — Vada Snider for MWR

The theme team recorded a list of laments, including “using assimilation to white Mennonite culture to deal with differences,” misuse or abuse of power in relationships with people of color and LGBTQ people and a “declining focus on spiritual vitality and formation.”

The tables produced 1,254 affirmations, which the team’s report distilled to eight, including being a Jesus-centered community that studies Scripture and discerns the moving of the Spirit, “saying no to war and yes to peace” and affirming women in ministry.

Individuals had a chance to speak to the entire group in a “spiral” process and a “Samoan Circle.” People lined up by the stage to join in.

Some gave their names, hometowns or affiliations, and some did not.

“We are not seeing privilege for what it really is in our church,” an African-American woman said, “and how it affects those who are not in the privileged groups.”

Adrian Suryajaya of Philadelphia lamented slowness to support undocumented immigrants, who are present in his church.

“Some of us are still living in a bubble, not recognizing the implications of including these people,” he said. “We need to take down our walls and welcome these strangers as our own.”

A woman who identified herself as a new Mennonite said she was drawn to the church by its emphasis on Jesus-centered discipleship, yet “we leave parts of that out. Jesus sought out the marginalized. . . . I lament that there has been silencing and blaming victims of abuse while protecting perpetrators.”

Power and poverty

Emily Hostetler said: “We cannot talk about diversity without talking about power. We can be as diverse as we want, but does it mean we are really in this together? What does it mean for us to relinquish the power we have?”

Tamira Good of Quakertown, Pa., said loving did not necessarily mean agreeing.

“We love each other when we . . . stand together and say we are one even though in many ways we are different and disagree,” she said. “That is true love.”

Cyneatha Millsaps lamented that in the discussions about diversity no one had mentioned the poor, “and that’s who Jesus spoke about over and over again.”

Participants were asked to consider how to be evangelists and peacemakers. Several emphasized the two cannot be separated.

“Peace without Jesus doesn’t make any sense,” said Gary Wolfer. “Our understanding of peace comes from who Jesus is.”

Matt Lehman Wiens said evangelism begins with asking others what they need. “Evangelism is something we need to do with and not to,” he said.

Evangelism “is not a triumph­alistic proclamation, but it is a humble and bold one at the same time,” said Dorothy Jean Weaver.

‘Ancient values’

Hillary Watson wryly noted that “I’ve converted more people to vegetarianism than to Christ. . . . The question of evangelism is, What do you love so much that you want to share it with people? And if you don’t feel that way about your faith, what is going to get you there?. . . Anabaptism at its best is very similar to hipster culture at its best,” and the church could build on that.

Todd Wynward lamented that even “peace people are going to war on the Earth, attacking Mother Nature.” He urged bringing back mutual aid and the “ancient values of neighborliness and sharing. . . . I’d like to pass a resolution saying we’re still in the Paris [climate change] accords.”

Among several ideas for specific action, Ryan Ahlgrim of Richmond, Va., observed that a lot of baby boom pastors will retire in the next 10 years. “How about if all of us start a new church in our retirement?” he asked. As a volunteer, “they can’t fire you!”

Participants discussed what kind of church God is calling MC USA to be.

Jessica Miller of Franconia Conference said: “We need to be a church that prays for each other, and not just the prayer chain emails that we send when somebody is sick but intentionally praying for empowerment to follow Jesus.”

Juel Russell said: “I want us to be the kind of church where we white people give up our power and allow our persons of color and LGBTQ siblings to lead us.”

‘Tip the scales over’

Nathan Ebbs of Albany, Ore., suggested flipping the denomination’s power structures upside down and overrepresenting those who are underrepresented now — “not just balance the scales but tip the scales over.”

Nick Detweiler-Stoddard of Freeman, S.D., said: “We are called to be a church that still does the simple things” — worshiping, reading Scripture, eating together and with neighbors — while trying to figure out the complex and messy issues of life together.

When delegates received the summit’s final report on Saturday morning, one suggested it did not reflect unspoken conservative views.

“I affirm diversity, but as a person who holds the traditional view of sexuality, I have not felt safe to express that,” said delegate Larry Diener.

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