Medium, message and Jesus: Future Church Summit observations

Jul 24, 2017 by

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Think of a memorable scene from a favorite film. Conjure it in your imagination: characters speaking and acting, musical score playing. Now imagine it without music or with different music — it becomes a different scene. Adding music doesn’t add just audible background — it adds meaning to what the characters say and do. The music shapes your perception of the scene as happy or sad, pleasant or frightening, triumphant or tragic.

This illustrates the phenomenon observed by media theorist Marshall McLuhan. How what we view, hear, or read is packaged and presented — the medium — shapes what we perceive to be the meaning of it — the message. McLuhan summed this up in a dictum: “the medium is the message.”

This dictum came to my mind several times during the Future Church Summit at the Mennonite Church USA convention in Orlando, in which I participated as a delegate.

Planned by a “design team,” the FCS was a highly structured, closely managed, professionally facilitated process. Through a series of interconnected sessions, each focused on preset questions, the FCS process transformed inputs into outputs: out of thousands of responses submitted electronically from table groups, a “theme team” synthesized a long list of “themes.” The FCS report was then adopted by the delegate assembly as a “guide” for further discernment by the church.

The FCS was a methodically designed medium. If the FCS is the medium, I wondered, what is the message?

I thought about this especially regarding the pair of questions at the mid-point of the FCS: “What does it mean to be a peace church in the 21st century? What is our evangelism in the 21st century?” Peace and evangelism — these would seem core matters for Anabaptists. What is the message of the medium concerning evangelism and peace? Wanting to do my own analysis, I took notes as an observer-participant.

These questions were addressed in a plenary session with an open-mic format. The facilitator invited self-selected speakers to come up on stage. The center of the stage was set with a semi-circle of chairs. The facilitator instructed the speakers: those wishing to speak on evangelism, ascend the stage from the left and sit in the chairs left of center; those wishing to speak on peace, ascend the stage from the right and sit in the chairs right of center.

The facilitator acknowledged that some speakers might see these as connected questions and want to speak to both. But she instructed speakers to restrict themselves to one or the other — and then alternated groups of evangelism-comments and peace-comments.

The medium sent a message: evangelism and peace are distinct matters that concern distinct groups, who enter the church through opposite doors, sit in separate pews, and do not engage in dialogue.

Thankfully, one speaker bridged the divide and voiced a unified question: “How do we bear witness to the gospel of peace made possible through Jesus Christ?”

Jesus — that stood out to me. I had noticed that the preset questions on evangelism and peace didn’t refer to Jesus. So I was keen to see whether speakers, unprompted by the process, would connect peace and evangelism to Jesus. Although several speakers made reference to Jesus, only a few — five of 20-plus — made Jesus the substance of evangelism and peace.

Dorothy Jean Weaver, bible professor at Eastern Mennonite University, stated that evangelism is essentially proclaiming “Jesus is Lord.” Elizabeth Soto, former moderator of MC USA, said evangelism was about “producing disciples of Jesus.” Another speaker said, similarly, that evangelism was about “following Jesus’ example.”

One speaker said, “Peace without Jesus makes no sense — peace comes from who Jesus is.” Another speaker said, likewise, that peace is based on the conviction that “what Jesus said and who Jesus is” are true.

While all solid statements, I still noticed an absence: none named Jesus as Savior or said the gospel is about salvation; none connected peace to salvation. The process thus exposed a degree of disconnection from salvation in what we think and how we speak about evangelism and peace.

Anyway, the FCS report did not capture these comments. The previous plenary session with open-mic format, which addressed diversity and differences, was followed by discussion in table groups and inputs to the theme team. A similar process did not follow the plenary on evangelism and peace, however. Consequently, there is no section of peace and evangelism themes in the FCS report.

The medium sent another message: peace and evangelism are lesser themes for guiding our church.

Thankfully, the FCS report includes this entry, synthesized from inputs in a subsequent session: “The church witness should be the full shalom of God — salvation, justice, and peace together.”

The FCS medium sent a two-fold message: division between evangelism and peace, and lesser emphasis on evangelism and peace. Further, the FCS process exposed a Jesus-deficit and salvation-disconnect in our thinking and speaking about evangelism and peace.

As we continue discerning future direction for MC USA, I pray that we will be intentional about keeping the gospel of salvation and peace through Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior at the center of our church.

Darrin W. Snyder Belousek is a member of Salem Mennonite Church, Elida, Ohio. He is the author of Atonement, Justice, and Peace: The Message of the Cross and the Mission of the Church (Eerdmans Publishing 2012), Good News: The Advent of Salvation in the Gospel of Luke (Liturgical Press 2014), and The Road That I Must Walk: A Disciple’s Journey (Cascade Books 2014).

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  • Daniel Hoopert

    Thank you, Darren, for your post. I skimmed parts of it, but read more closely your comments on evangelism in the central part. I offer some observations, that you might very well speak to in your book. One observation is that there seems to have been a movement to the Christus Victor view of the atonement; I see in that a move away from viewing Christ’s death as a sacrifice of atonement by which God forgives the sins of those who accept his offer of salvation by means of that death. It also seems to me that some proponents of what is called the New Perspective on Paul view the gospel message differently from what I would say it is. Paul reviews elements of the gospel message in 1 Corinthians when he recalls the message that he presented to the Corinthians when he first came to them: that Christ died for our sins, that he was buried, that he was raised the third day, and that he was seen by many witnesses. He died for our sins; John Werner expands this in a paraphrase to say that he died for our benefit, to make us right with God, because we have sinned, which makes us to be not right with God, and the only way for sinners to be made right with God was for Christ to die (that is something of a synopsis of his paraphrase). We might add that in vv. 1 and 2, Paul writes that the Corinthians had taken their stand in that gospel, “you have committed yourselves to believe it and to act accordingly” (Werner, First Corinthians, an Expanded Paraphrase, Notes on Translation No. 105A, (October 1985):1-43).

    • Berry Friesen

      Daniel, when I confess that Jesus died for me sins (a confession I make regularly), I imply that Jesus voluntarily gave up his life in order to change a vital aspect of my reality. This vital aspect has been described via metaphor by various atonement theories. When I make my confession, I am referring to my captivity to sin, to the false consciousness of empire, to my fear of death.

      We have centuries of exposition about which metaphors are helpful and which are misleading. While that debate goes on, let us remember that Paul’s confession is an integral part of many of those metaphors, not just the particular ones you or I may espouse.

      • Daniel Hoopert

        Yes, Berry, there are several ways that the Scriptures refer to God’s work to redeem, forgive, reconcile us to himself. All need to be held onto. This doctrine is the entry way into the church, into the Christian life – it is all important.

      • Brad Anderson

        Berry, I like the language of “changing a vital aspect of my reality.” But I wonder if it goes far enough. Salvation in Jesus is the salvation, and radical reordering, of creation, not just our individual selves. As persons, we fit into that larger salvific act and event. So it’s actually not all about us, though we are an integral part. Therefore, it also isn’t changing “an” aspect of “my” reality, but rather changing the whole of reality, wherein we find ourselves changed and in a broader changed context. I appreciate the author’s emphasis on salvation, but we need to ensure that we don’t just speak of salvation in the sense of individual, human souls, but rather enacting a new reality in our midst, of which we each (and together) are a part. Hence, salvation is important, but it’s what we’re saved into that matters most.

  • Evan Knappenberger

    I wonder based on these descriptions if MCUSA is not becoming over-reliant on a certain class of professional mediators. Is it possible that using such people and processes at every opportunity is actually leaving no room for more spiritually emergent guidance in the church? The medium of professional moderation, comment periods followed by drafting committees and meeting agendas is not exactly contiguous with the nature of the spirit as Jesus reveals it.

    Evan Knappenberger