Do you belong to an ethnicity or a church?

Feb 11, 2019 by

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The accusation was stripped of niceties. “The only way your churches can stay afloat is by having large families. Few people are joining you from other backgrounds.” The Amish and Mennonites, this unnamed person was saying, are an ethnicity more than they are a vibrant church. What do we make of such a blunt assessment?

An ethnicity is a group bound together by common language, race, cultural origin and religion. Consider language. Most people in my subculture, the Beachy Amish, speak the Pennsylvania German dialect as well as English. Race? Unless we were adopted, a vast majority of us in the Beachy Amish church are white. Cultural origin? We migrated from central Europe to America sometime in the 18th and 19th centuries and are, many of us, descendants of the same ancestral couple, Jacob and Anna Hostetler. As for religion, let’s just say I have not found many Rastafarians in my lineage.

We seem to tick the boxes. Was our blunt friend correct? Are we an ethnicity?

First, it should be taken into account that many churches are composed of people with a similar background, whether that is a Southern Baptist church in rural Alabama or a Greek Orthodox church in Boston. The proverb holds true: Birds of a feather flock together.

Furthermore, we have made honest efforts to increase diversity. The contributions of Christian Aid Ministries, whose work extends from Jordan to Nicaragua and numerous countries between, should be highlighted here, as well as the contributions of various other ministry organizations.

Then also, it is difficult to separate cultural practices from the choices committed Christ-followers would naturally make. Holding worship services in German is a practice we have deemed strictly ethnic and abandoned; other Amish and Mennonite practices, however, have a more universal and legitimate explanation. For instance, some might call shape-note, four-part a cappella music an ethnic practice, but unlike German church services, there are good reasons behind this style of music. (It is relatively easy to learn, it promotes the group over the individual, it is an excellent picture of unity in diversity.)

Far too often, disillusioned Anabaptists have dropped practices they viewed as ethnic only to replace them with other imperfect practices, many of them borrowed from the individualistic popular culture.

We cannot expect to find a chapter and verse from the Bible to support all our practices.

Yet somehow each of our churches must create a culture where committed people from any background can cast their lot. Shouldn’t a healthy church create its culture by blending the best of all ethnicities represented?

Which current practice, if any, is our equivalent of German worship services and should be re-evaluated? Resisting change might allow us to survive as an ethnicity, but hardly to flourish as a church. Every practice and belief must be scrutinized under this question: Does it enable us to live out the Heavenly reality that has already begun on this earth, or does it promote human traditions and the spirit of the world (see Col. 2:8)?

What can we do to continue a vibrant church culture, passing on the original Anabaptist vision of voluntary, radical discipleship? Steven Brubaker, administrator of Faith Builders, a conservative Anabaptist educational program in Pennsylvania, recently lamented all the young people “hemorrhaging out of our churches.” How sad that so many are leaving a heritage as rich as ours.

Yet the church is not a cloistered ethnic framework around which our children can live comfortable lives but a call for all people to enter a beautiful, multi-ethnic gathering where “there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all and in all” (Col. 3:11).

If I were a new Christian coming to your church, would I see the principle behind each practice and belief? Do you have non-ethnocentric applications of the New Testament’s teaching on how everyday life should be lived in a Christian community?

“Conservative Anabaptists are almost the only church group around today still teaching what Christians taught in the beginning.” Those are the words of a highly respected Mennonite leader and teacher who spoke to me recently about how he has witnessed other churches neglecting important teachings of Jesus, even ostracizing their members who would dare to embrace them.

“But one of our main shortcomings,” my friend went on to say, “is that we tend to add requirements that aren’t in the Scriptures. We also have not done well in evangelizing.”

Ridding ourselves of unnecessary requirements and evangelizing are crucial steps if we are to be a church and not just an ethnic gathering. If we are serious about evangelizing, perhaps the first step is for more of us in the Beachy Amish church to leave our rural farming communities and move to urban settings and foreign countries. I am thankful to see a trend in this direction.

What about the group you fellowship with? Is it an ethnic gathering or a church? What are you doing to make it a church?

Gideon Yutzy lives in an Anabaptist community in County Waterford, Ireland, with his wife and four daughters. A version of this article appeared in the Beachy Amish Calvary Messenger.

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