Mennonites’ crisis of secularism

Mar 23, 2018 by

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My millennial generation is post-Christian, and we in Mennonite Church USA urgently need to talk about this. In the United States, religious engagement among youth is at a low not seen in decades, if ever, and we see this in the Mennonite church.

We see it in attendance at Mennonite schools and in the pews. We see it in the choices of majors and interests among the young. We see it in the lowest levels of participation in Mennonite service in the history of our service programs, which have nurtured hundreds of our current pastors but are rapidly fading.

Politically, I love my progressive generation. Come the revolution. Religiously, I’m concerned.

There are numerous and understandable reasons for youth disillusionment. These include abuse, hypocrisy, inaction and conservatism. But young secular Mennonites in liberal cities do not sleep in on Sunday mornings because there are no progressive, engaged churches available. There are plenty, and they need support. But “ethnic” Mennonite millennials (those of European ancestry) are not flocking to these churches. Rather, they are abandoning a Christian worldview altogether.

Nor are we seeing the creation of new churches. In the baby-boom generation, Mennonites and former Amish who felt existing Anabaptist institutions were too conservative created new ones. Many of our urban churches come from this time. This occurs rarely today.

“Ethnic” Mennonite youth tend toward Western European-style secularism to a greater extent than previous generations. For many, to talk about Jesus as a political and spiritual head or to discuss miracles or an engaged God is weird and sounds like far-right Christian-speak. Many endorse church, if at all, primarily as a venue for addressing social issues. Justice concerns or an academic perspective on Scripture are the typical subjects in millennial religious discourse, theology classes at Mennonite schools, and articles by millennials in the Mennonite press — though most Mennonite millennials aren’t engaged in Mennonite churches, schools or press.

Jesus believed in God

Anabaptism cannot thrive in secular contexts. It rests on the authority of Jesus, who taught love, healing and peace — and also was a theist. That might sound obvious, but, in my experience, the point needs emphasis, because a deep secular impulse has led many Mennonites to forget or neglect it.

Jesus proclaimed our epic, awesome God. The disciples and early Christians believed in miracles and the resurrection. Jesus prayed and taught his followers to do likewise. He worshiped, invoked God’s blessing and, as a practicing Jew, honored the Lord.

In our shift toward Western secular liberalism, we re­imagine Jesus as a moral teacher or meditative mystic or justice activist. He was those. And also a servant of God.

Jesus’ teachings about God cost him his life. Almost every apostle likewise died painfully, proclaiming God’s kingdom.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength” is first among equal commandments with neighbor love, not a footnote. It is worth living every day for and dying any day for.

Anxious for my people

If we don’t get better at nurturing theism in youth, MC USA will, and should, wither and die. There are much more efficient ways to do social justice than by maintaining church buildings, employing pastors and congregating on Sunday mornings.

If we don’t hold similar core beliefs about God, unity in the Anabaptist world will flounder. African-American and Latino Protestants are intensely theist compared to white Protestants. So is the global Anabaptist church, of which white liberals are a tiny but disproportionately rich and influential piece.

Secularization confronts us with a crisis of integrity. Our schools were built to equip the church and are funded with Mennonite donors’ money. What does it mean, then, that Bible and religion majors are almost extinct, that tiny slices of institutional budgets go to campus ministries or departments that have religious missions, and that few people graduate from our colleges claiming Anabaptist Christian convictions?

I give to Mennonite schools for the community service they do, but many other donors would be sad if they knew how weak the church-school relationship is. Our schools are largely post-Christian. Their supporters don’t know it, and that’s not honest.

I am not concerned for Anabaptism broadly, as it has more reach than ever. The average Mennonite is a young Congolese woman. I’m anxious, however, for my people, the Mennonites of North America. Secularism, materialism, sex worship, patriarchy, militarism, zealous careerism, nationalism, racism — all are religions that compete for our allegiance. We cannot contend with them if we can’t name them.

If you value what following Jesus has done for you, name that, in its spiritual and social dimensions. Anabaptism is not passed on genetically. And, as history shows, not all institutions that claim Mennonite identities are Anabaptist. Neither loving neighbor nor loving God encompasses Jesus’ call by itself. Both are essential to the gospel.

David Lapp Jost lives in Goshen, Ind., and is transitioning into overseas service.

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