Winds of change

Dec 26, 2017 by

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It seems like everyone is writing about church these days.

Asher Witmer wrote a series examining his history and experience with the Mennonite church, and what he is seeking and hoping for.

Harvey Yoder writes, “I’m old enough to remember the walls and ditches and barriers created by people from different church groups among the Amish and Anabaptists. When I was Amish, people who left the plain church were often excommunicated, including myself. Jumping into the Beachy Fellowship circle was liberating, freeing and we talked among ourselves how restricting the old churches are. The Charity movement raised an incredible hullabaloo as people from all the plain churches flocked into this seemingly radical, unnerving and yet strangely attractive cult-like fanaticism about family and church and no standards. . . .Charity groups sprang up like mushrooms after a spring rain all over the United States,. . .Fast forward to today. The hot summer sun of modernism seems to have withered most of the mushroom churches. . . . Many of the adults and most of the children growing up in those circles have left the Charity churches and have disappeared into the general society. All in the matter of roughly 20 years.”

It all makes me sit back in my rocking chair by the fire and reminisce about all the winds and trends that have blown through the American Christian church and especially the Mennonite church in the past 50 years.

And how those winds affected me. Or mostly how they didn’t.

My most disaffected stage was when I was at our Beachy Amish church in Minnesota as a young adult. Dear me, the rules, the legalism, the traditions. How could the old ladies like Mom and Joe Ketty and Alvin Mary just go on going through the same motions week after week and not want something more, something deeper, something with life?

How were they ok with just being so stuck and so spiritually dead?

I also had issues with the leadership. I felt then, and still do, that that congregation was almost cult-like in how difficult it was to leave. Surely, if someone wanted to leave, it would be much wiser to simply say, “OK, you’re an adult, and God is working outside of this little church. Go see what he has for you.” (Which is pretty much the approach my pastor-husband has taken, God bless him.)

Instead, I and others endured phone calls and meetings with ministers that were far too much like the woman taken in adultery, accused and condemned before Jesus and the crowd.

But then all my agonizing about leaving or not, and how and when, and trying to explain it to the bishop — none of that was actually necessary in the end because I chose the one single acceptable way to leave our church — I got married! To a Mennonite man who charmed everyone with his steady confidence and great insights into Scripture and life!

They still ask him to preach when we go back to visit.

After that, I never really went through those agonizing decisions about leaving the church. Instead, I am now a lot like Alvin Mary and Joe Ketty and Mom, plump and contented, sharing news and recipes after church.

Interesting how the grandmas, so traditional, so limited in their view of the world, so not on fire for Jesus by our fresh-from-Bible-School definition, quietly went around teaching children, feeding the hungry, helping the poor, and healing the sick, actually doing exactly what Jesus said to do.

Hmmmm.

But I was going to talk about the winds that blew.

Whenever a new breeze whistled through my religious world, the chief proponents were always the ones I saw as cool spiritual people.

They always seemed to be on a different plane than me, like they had sniffed the jet stream and knew deep and high things the rest of us couldn’t fathom. They used new and different words, and in their little groups, they immediately understood each other. Yes, mmm-hmmm, praise Jesus, my spirit bears witness to that.

I was never cool and spiritual. I was both attracted and repulsed by the changes I saw, wanting to be included, but thinking it was kind of pretentious and weird. But I would never have said that out loud. And I couldn’t bring myself to use the vocabulary.

Mostly, I always knew that I was a bumbling sinner with lots of issues. It was important not to pretend to be something I wasn’t, so no high and lofty spiritual life for me.

We note with all of the following examples that I had a persistent inferiority that colored my perceptions. Sometimes it made me cynical about trends that were actually timely and healthy, but it also saved me from following others down some bizarre paths.

There’s no place like a Mennonite Bible school for dividing the cool and spiritual from the not so much. I can still see them — their eloquent prayers, the books they read, the long discussions on apologetics and eschatology. They were deep.

And you-know-who was not-so-much, not a doubt about that.

During my school-teaching years, I attended a conservative Mennonite church that had a vocabulary and values surprisingly different from my Beachy-Amish background. These people were always talking about convictions. You were supposed to have them, lots of them, the more the better. It didn’t really matter what they were about, except they always had to do with church rules and being more conservative. They kept tabs on each other’s convictions. Conservative was good and even cool. So if you would say — and show — that you had developed a conviction for a bigger head covering and longer dresses, you got lots of approval.

I was very bad at this, with the resulting disapproval and pull-asides and earnest exhortation.

There was a wind that blew through a neighboring church during my teaching years. It was the chic place to attend, where people murmured “mmmmm, yes, praise God,” in normal conversation, and they would all get out of their seats during the service and hold hands and sing “Bind Us Together.” They learned to start their prayers with “Father God,” which was always one of the first signs of a traditional Mennonite becoming enlightened, and they were into speaking in tongues and exorcising demons.

I wasn’t sure what to make of this, and watched in awkward fascination from the sidelines.

I’ve written before about the Bill Gothard/Basic Youth/ATI movement which came after we were married. It was hard, sometimes, to have so many friends who were part of my life and yet immersed in a system that Paul and I were suspicious of. Some friends were accepting of our choices; others were a bit too forceful in their gushing to us about the joys of homeschooling, of not using contraception, or of following Gothard’s monthly schedule for sex, which seemed creepy at the time and now seems absolutely horrifying.

But what is hard to see from this perspective is that the people who were into Gothard seemed like the ones who had it all together, and we were just stubborn and weird, and we didn’t love the Word like they did.

When we were working in Canada, it seemed like anyone who was anything in the mission got into counseling, and touching lives of hurting people. Once again, they had a vocabulary all their own, and an aura of deep knowledge and insights. They quoted Dan Allender, went to Winnipeg for training and talked about heart issues.

Paul and I were never encouraged to become counselors. After the trauma of the riot at Stirland Lake, a counselor was brought in to meet with all who wanted to discuss their experience. I was in the depths of morning sickness and remember thinking, desperately, “I don’t need counseling; I need casseroles!” But I didn’t say it out loud, and I didn’t meet with the counselor.

Later there were the Charity churches and all their offshoots, which blazed over the landscape like a prairie fire. A Charity-offshoot preacher whom we sort of knew was in church one Sunday, a powerful-looking man, sitting there frowning darkly and analyzing it all — the Sunday school lesson, the sermon, everything — was it actually the true gospel or traditional platitudes? Somehow it was his to judge, and I was gratified that he reported to someone after church that Paul’s sermon was solid and true.

Why did I think this random pretentious guy was anyone to take seriously? That is just disturbing.

The shake-up in music in churches, from congregational hymns to “worship music” and choruses led by a band onstage, didn’t affect our churches that much. However, it seemed the people who left the Mennonite church always gravitated for churches with the newer music style. More recently, however, Mennonite young people gravitate toward liturgical churches.

Today, it seems like the cool spiritual young Mennonites are into adventure, photogenic missions and being as urban and hipster as possible but retaining just enough of the cultural flavor to be unique and to keep the community connections. They also seem to be into drinking alcohol, not in excess but just enough to be sophisticated and to show that they are free in Jesus. The girls often retain some kind of head covering, such as beanies and fedoras and toques, with a low bun and lots of dangling strands of hair around the face.

Once again I am thoroughly uncool and confused.

From my perspective in the rocking chair, I’ve seen the ending of many of these stories. Mennonites tend to judge your life by how your family turned out, so I will do the same. Honestly, there really is not much rhyme or reason. I can think of Gothard followers whose families are complete disasters and others who are healthy and thriving. Many of the traditional folks who stayed in conservative churches did fine, but the churches with lots of convictions also produced an alarming share of pedophiles and cheating husbands. And of those who left, some did very well and some serve as an example of what can happen if you go.

The only pattern I can find is that the people who were the noisiest about how we all ought to live often fell the farthest and crashed the hardest.

Meanwhile, the changeless, traditional Alvin Mary type of women were always plump and warm and welcoming, and always made me feel loved and special. The church of my childhood is still Beachy-Amish, but is a much more nurturing place than it used to be. Our church, where Paul has pastored for years, has had horrible hard times, but is still a spiritual home for our family and a place where people know my shortcomings and love me anyhow.

Some things I’ve learned:

  • We are all a bunch of sinners and Jesus is our only rock, foundation, salvation and hope.
  • Don’t let anyone fool you with his or her awesome spirituality. The most truly Godly people will be the most humble and the most honest about their flaws.
  • Both tradition and change can be good or bad, and you often won’t know which until 20 years later, so good luck with that.
  • A new wind blowing through your life and church might be a weird cult or it might be a fresh working of the Holy Spirit. Listen to Scripture and the Still Small Voice within about whether or not to move with the wind, and don’t listen so much to friends or enemies or persuasive leaders or the amazing spiritual people or the newest bestselling author.
  • If you follow Jesus, he will do all kinds of amazing things in your life, even if you are bumbling and stumbling and a little weird and full of issues.
  • All the glory is his, and you should be suspicious of anyone who wants a piece of it.

Dorcas Smucker lives in a farmhouse near Harrisburg, Ore. She is married to Paul, a pastor at Brownsville (Ore.) Mennonite Church; a mother of six; and the author of six books. She writes at Life in the Shoe, where this post first appeared.


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  • Conrad Hertzler

    I very much appreciate your “arm chair perspective”, Dorcas. I have a great appreciation for those in our own church who have weathered tremendous change with grace, warmth, love, and humility. They are nurturing to young people who tend to dash after the latest, greatest thing and yet maintain a strong sense of who they are, what they believe and the practical working out of being a Believer. Good words.

    • Dorcas Smucker

      Thank you, Conrad. That’s certainly the challenge for my age and stage, to be nurturing and gracious and wise with younger people excited about the latest thing.

  • Greg Leichty

    Excellent thoughts to ponder for the new year-a bit of spiritual uncoolness (aka humility) is not a bad place to be.

    • Dorcas Smucker

      If spiritual uncoolness is humility, I’ll take it.