Last fall, researchers from two Ontario universities set out to discover why mainline churches in Canada are dying. Of the 22 Anglican, United, Lutheran and Presbyterian churches they surveyed, all in Ontario, nine were growing and 13 were declining.
Based on that research, they concluded that the more theologically conservative a church is, the more likely it is to be growing.
The takeaway for many people was that if a church wants to grow it needs to be conservative. But is this always true?
One church bucking that trend is Charleswood United Church here in Winnipeg, Man., a theologically progressive congregation that has about 350 people attending services every Sunday.
According to minister Michael Wilson, the church is doing well because it is a “friendly and welcoming place, warm and active.”
Being the only United Church in Charleswood also helps, he acknowledges, but he says people are attracted by the church’s gay-friendly, progressive and liberal stance.
For Wilson, it isn’t as much about whether a church is conservative or liberal “as much as it is a willingness to change.”
Many churches, he says, “wait too long to make needed changes. The congregation shrinks to a size where it isn’t sustainable. Changes need to be made when it is still healthy.”
He cites Charleswood’s worship style. It is liturgical but also adaptable and flexible. The church has a traditional choir and a worship band.
“Leaders need to create a culture of permission,” Wilson says. “We have to not get in the way when people feel called to do something new and different.”
This doesn’t mean anything goes, he says, “but if it feels right, and people are enthusiastic, let them go to it.”
This can be scary, since it means giving up control. But thriving churches, he believes, don’t have a small group determining how things are done. They are dynamic, organic, fluid.
The key, he says, is to be always asking: “What is God calling our congregation to do?”
Ultimately, he says, “it’s not about being liberal or conservative but paying attention to people and their needs, honoring people where they are, affirming them, creating a safe place, being welcoming.”
One of the churches Wilson draws inspiration from is Hillhurst United Church in Calgary, Alta. Like Charleswood, it is liberal, progressive and affirming.
When minister John Pentland arrived, in 2005, the congregation was down to about 50 people and talking about closing.
Today about 500 people attend two services each Sunday. A third of the congregation are United Church, a third are from other denominations, and a third claim no church background at all.
Pentland believes many people are looking for what churches like Charleswood and Hillhurst offer.
“The culture is starved for what we are doing,” he says of those looking for an open, accepting and progressive theology.
Pentland has written a book about Hillhurst’s transformation. Called Fishing Tips, it describes how the church grew by “throwing its nets on the other side of convention.”
Says Pentland: “There’s never a better time to be the church. . . . People are searching for meaning, and they want a place to belong. They want a place to question. Same old, same old doesn’t work.”
At liberal churches like Charleswood and Hillhurst, it’s a formula that seems to be working.
John Longhurst, of Winnipeg, Man., is director of resources and public engagement at Canadian Foodgrains Bank.
Of all the musical settings of Psalm 23 that I enjoy, the tune and text that resonate most deeply for me is “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need” (No. 589 in Hymnal: A Worship Book). The text, set to an early American folk melody, is by Isaac Watts, known as “the father of English hymnody.”
The first stanza retells the psalm’s narrative, characterizing God as a nurturing Shepherd who cares for a flock of sheep. In the second and third stanzas, the agrarian imagery recedes, and what remains is a portrait of intimacy between two who dwell together in perfect harmony:
There would I find a settled rest,
while others go and come.
No more a stranger, nor a guest,
but like a child at home.
Long ago in my early 30s, while in the midst of a faith crisis, I listened to a soprano sing this amazing hymn, unaccompanied. In those moments, caught in the wonder and delight of the music, I found my doubt and resistance fading away. I felt compelled by divine love to return home — not as a guest or penitent but as one who belongs and is welcomed forever.
Inviting Sunday school class participants to tell about times when this psalm has sustained or renewed their faith could open fresh layers of meaning.
Perhaps almost as well-known as Psalm 23, the text from John 3 is also beloved by many. John 3:16 is the first “long” Bible verse many children memorize.
“Born again” language is common among evangelical Christians. Derived from Jesus’ nighttime conversation with Nicodemus, it is an image describing the utterly new life that begins when we open our hearts and lives to the presence of the living Christ. What many readers miss, however, is that this birthing language is a distinctly feminine image Jesus uses to describe his work of redemption (an image repeated in 1 Peter 1:3).
Just as a human mother endures the travail of labor to give birth to her infant child, so our Mother Jesus bears us — through water and the Spirit — into our new life as members of Christ’s beloved community. Drawing upon Julian of Norwich’s magnificent explication of this image in her 14th-century book, Showings, poet Jean Janzen captures its significance in the text of a treasured hymn, “Mothering God, You Gave Me Birth” (No. 482 in Hymnal: A Worship Book):
Mothering God, you gave me birth
in the bright morning of this world.
Creator, Source of ev’ry breath,
you are my rain, my wind, my sun.
Like Julian, Janzen goes on to explore the image further, recognizing the startling similarity between Jesus’ body feeding us in communion rituals (“This is my body, which is given for you”) and a breast-feeding mother nourishing her child with milk:
Mothering Christ, you took my form,
offering me your food of light,
grain of life and grape of love,
your very body for my peace.
Julian of Norwich and Jean Janzen have good theological company in their insight regarding Jesus as the incarnation of God’s maternal love, birthing the new creation on the cross. Writing of “the milk of the Eucharist,” Clement of Alexandria and other early church fathers also employ feminine images of God.
For very familiar texts, such as Psalm 23 and John 3 or the Easter story in John 20, the images of poetry and song can enrich and inspire deeper reflection on the mystery of God’s love made known to us in Jesus Christ. What songs have expanded your understanding and experience of the miracle of God’s love?
Marlene Kropf is retired from Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and Mennonite Church USA. She is the author of Faith Travels: Trusting God in Life’s Transitions (MennoMedia, 2016). In retirement she leads retreats, offers spiritual direction and enjoys hosting guests with her husband, Stanley, at their home in Port Townsend, Wash.
Many in our church are sure we should fully include those in same-sex marriages, blessing their covenants and credentialing their pastoral gifts. I would like to join them. Life is simpler when we move with society around us.
Of all the lines of reasoning in support of full inclusion, I observe one that is foundational. Proponents draw the most certainty from the argument from experience. We discern what is right and good through what we see and hear in our relationships.
For instance, a retired Eastern Mennonite University professor, Ted Grimsrud, reviewed “one of the very best books” affirming same-sex marriage. The author, Mark Achtemeier, an evangelical pastor, unabashedly builds his argument on what he calls “good sense.” He begins The Bible’s Yes to Same-Sex Marriage with this chapter: “The Harvest of Despair: Why Traditional Condemnations of Gay Relationships Can’t Be Right.”
Most Anabaptist supporters of full inclusion hasten to add that Scripture is also foundational. But what happens when we realize that Genesis 1 and 2 present male-female unions as central to God’s creative purposes, as divinely designed? And when we read texts like Rom. 1:18-32 where the strongest and most natural reading is that Paul includes consensual (“for one another”) same-sex intimacy on his list of sins?
When faced with the prospect that biblical interpretation leans toward the church’s historic stance, again and again I hear people cite the godly, healthy same-sex marriages they know or point to the trauma and pain that sexual minorities encounter in churches with a traditional view on sexuality.
Is an argument from experience able to bear the weight of overturning a longstanding teaching of the church? Are we comfortable with the idea that support of same-sex marriage finally rests not on Scripture but on our sense of what seems to work best?
Consider these cautions:
- None of our Confessions of Faith describes experience as our foremost authority for faith and life. Experience helps us as we interpret Scripture; it can give us eyes to see what a biblical author might be intending to say. But it is not reliable when placed above Scripture. As author and pastor Greg Boyd recently said to Anabaptists: “The minute a movement cuts the tether with biblical authority, it becomes something that just Christianizes the latest fad.”
- When we observe something, our pre-existing ideas and assumptions affect what we observe. We see what we expect to see. Also, there’s a huge amount of data that needs to be observed over decades.
- Our culture can skew our perception. Media in Western culture imply sexual expression is essential to human flourishing, though the lives of Jesus and many of his followers through the centuries bear witness that “lives of freedom, joy and service are possible without sexual relations,” writes the biblical scholar Richard Hays.
There is one more difficulty when our discernment on same-sex marriage rests on experience. Progressives observe churches causing grievous harm to those with same-sex attraction, stigmatizing and isolating them. But maybe the harm does not lie in the traditional view but in the way that view is implemented.
What if those churches would act like Christ when interacting with those whom they see going against the wisdom of God? What if they began conversations without reprimand or judgment and even let the other change the subject (John 4:7-26)? What if they, like Christ, made clear that they are a safe presence before speaking about a need to change one’s behavior (John 8:2-11)?
Further, what if those churches would show pastoral accommodation to, for instance, two lesbians who have children and who desire to follow Christ? Accommodation is godly; we see God displaying it throughout the Bible. God blessed David in many ways, though he was a man of violence. God allowed divorce, which falls short of creation’s intent, in order to limit the damage of the sin that flows from hardened hearts (Matt. 19:3-9). We see examples of accommodation in the church today. The Meserete Kristos Church in Ethiopia has chosen to receive converts who live in polygamy as members, though not as leaders.
As we see the trauma and pain that sexual minorities have experienced at the hands of traditional churches, some of us diagnose it as the bad fruit of a bad belief. But perhaps the bad fruit does not stem from the belief that opposite-sex relations are God’s wisdom but from our frequent failure to embody God’s patient love as we apply that wisdom.
My prayer is that our stance on same-sex marriage will not finally rest on arguments from experience. Instead, may we be the people whom the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective describes: ones who let “culture, experience, reason” and other sources of discernment “be tested and corrected by the light of Holy Scripture.”
Harold N. Miller is pastor of Trissels Mennonite Church in Broadway, Va.
AKRON, Pa. — As religious hostility, Islamophobia and anti-Semitic acts surge, a group of interfaith, peacemaking and mission workers from six Anabaptist agencies met to explore ways to improve interfaith engagement.
“I think religious minorities in this country, no matter who they are, are feeling under threat,” said Trina Trotter Nussbaum, interim director for Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Interfaith Engagement.
The Feb. 15-16 meeting, facilitated by Mennonite Central Committee and Mennonite Mission Network, gave participants a chance to look critically at their agencies’ roles in interfaith engagement and develop best practices for relating across faiths.
Other attendees represented Mennonite Church USA, Eastern Mennonite Missions and Christian Peacemaker Teams.
Gathered at MCC’s Welcoming Place, representatives helped each other identify weaknesses in the way their agencies, and the U.S. Anabaptist community as a whole, approach interfaith engagement.
One problem identified was a tendency to retreat into enclaves and not engage with those who are different, including non-Christians. Other weaknesses included insufficient passion for sharing the gospel, congregations’ fear of relating to people of other faiths and the involvement of Anabaptist churches in the U.S. culture wars.
Participants also agreed Anabaptists have strengths that give them great potential for rich interfaith engagement. Anabaptists have had a disproportionately large influence, relative to their size, on interfaith relationships. Anabaptist strengths include development and disaster response efforts worldwide, a history of respectful cross-cultural engagement, and pacifism, which has helped build trust.
Representatives wrote a list of 18 lessons learned from each other to shape future interfaith engagement. The first three lessons were to practice hospitality, to practice self-reflection before undertaking interfaith engagement and to approach interfaith engagement with humility and a readiness to repent.
MCC strategic planning and learning director Alain Epp Weaver said he came away convinced that Mennonites have an important niche in the work of interfaith engagement.
Jonathan Bornman, a member of EMM’s Christian/Muslim Relations Team, said the need for better interfaith engagement can be felt locally. Recently a friend, an asylum seeker from Iraq, told Bornman he feared a hearing to determine his status. If he is sent back to Iraq, his life will be in danger. But as a Muslim immigrant he is afraid he will not be allowed to stay in the U.S. He asked Bornman to pray for him.
Other attendees included James Krabill, MMN senior mission advocate; Rebekah Simmerman, research assistant at EMU’s Center for Interfaith Engagement; Jonathan Brenneman, coordinator for Israel/Palestine Partners in Peacemaking with MC USA; Jason Boone, MC USA peace and justice minister and a member of CPT’s steering committee; John Kampen, professor of biblical interpretation at Methodist Theological School in Ohio, who also works as a Jewish-Christian relations consultant with MC USA; and EMM global consultant David Shenk.
New Anabaptist frontier
“An explicit attempt to address the issue of interfaith relations is a relatively new agenda for the [Anabaptist] body,” Kampen said. “We come from very different places and experiences.”
Not everyone agreed how interfaith engagement should happen.
“We made some important steps toward common affirmations on how to proceed and agreed that we needed to give more attention to how our agencies equip the church to more effectively understand and engage our neighbors of other faith traditions,” Krabill said.
In letters to the editor, I notice that no matter which side of an issue one takes, there seems to be an agreement that the final arbiter is the Bible. We think that if we would simply read the Bible correctly, our differences would fade away.
This conflict among Christians has been going on for at least 500 years. “Scripture alone” was the Protestant battle cry. Obviously, that hasn’t worked. Even the Reformation leaders who agreed that differences could be settled by Scripture could not agree on some basic things. Martin Luther and John Calvin could not agree on the nature of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
Thousands of schisms later, is it not time to admit the Bible is not a unifying document?
There is irony in the Reformers proclaiming “Scripture alone.” The established church chose the books of Scripture. It took centuries to do that. Why did they think the church got the 27 books of the New Testament right while eliminating the Apocrypha? Luther was openly critical of some of the books of the New Testament.
The Bible is a testimony to a lack of unity among the people of God. We have the Bible because of disagreement in the church and among the Jewish people. The Apostle Paul wrote, “beware of the dogs” (Phil. 3:2), but didn’t suggest schism. He acknowledged some good might result.
Perhaps the Bible was given to us for a different reason than to arbitrate our differences. Perhaps it was given to us to enhance dialogue. The Jewish people have devoted much time and effort to argument and discussion. To disagree may not be a bad thing. I know it is difficult to claim as brothers or sisters those in our congregations who think the Bible says different things. It is especially difficult if the brother or sister is our pastor. Maybe over time we may see things their way, or they ours. Or together we may arrive at a new understanding. We may even find that we need each other.
Bible readers — scholars and laypeople alike — disagree. So it shall ever be. Yet, “we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Eph. 2:10). It will be a lot easier to fulfill our purpose if we stop trying to prove each other wrong by insisting our interpretation is the correct one.
Overland Park, Kan.
In his self-published memoir, Melvin D. Schmidt reflects on his life and nearly 50 years as a Mennonite pastor. It is a page-turner, wonderfully written with hundreds of anecdotes, picturesque language (beware of swear words and graphic farm examples) and an engaging pace of story, humor, family, service and witness that keeps the reader interested and, at times, surprised.
The playful title is translated as “wholly,” the whole story; “holey,” things missing; and “holy,” sacred narrative. A gifted writer and storyteller, Schmidt loves words and the beautiful narrative of God’s love of the world (specifically, the environment) and of humanity. His vocation as a pastor is shaped by decisions to follow a path different from the one expected of him.
Schmidt devotes the longest of eight sections to his childhood on a farm near Goessel, Kan. He rejected the “hayseed conspiracy,” which he understood to mandate a life forever on the family farm — a mantle often demanded of the eldest son. From early childhood he knew he was going to be a preacher. He preached to the chickens and practiced his oratorical skills in the echoing cylinder of the barn silo.
Despite role models of Sunday school teachers and gifted preachers in his home congregation, Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church, his parents offered no encouragement for his pastoral dream. In fact, his father discouraged it. When Schmidt extended a word of thanks to his mother, then nearly 100 years old, for writing out Bible stories so he could memorize them and present them in public settings, she objected: “Don’t you dare go pinning that one on me! You were supposed to be a farmer.” His father, depicted as a nasty, foul-mouthed man, was vicious with wounding words, tirades laden with profanity and criticism of Schmidt’s youthful ineptness at farming.
However, the emerging reverend pursues his dream with guts. Schmidt reflects that his father was a desperate man gripped by his own disappointments and culture. Schmidt determines to follow a path to the pastorate that leads through college (Hesston and Bethel), service (Mennonite Central Committee) and seminary (Yale Divinity School).
As the story progresses, we observe how Schmidt’s troubled growing-up years contrast with his own marriage and three daughters, who now all live within blocks of each other in Maryland.
“The Indonesia Interlude” is packed with descriptions of Schmidt’s work in a culture foreign to a Kansas farm boy. When MCC accepted him, he raced to the college library to find Indonesia on the map. In Jakarta, he plans for his wedding to Charlotte Graber, a Bethel classmate and now a nurse. It took 16 months for her visa to be approved. After Charlotte’s long freighter cruise trip, they were married twice: a civil wedding at the American Embassy and then a church wedding just 15 days after her arrival in Jakarta.
“The Yale Years” reveals a love of study. Schmidt reveled in history, theology, ethics and biblical studies. But it was a psychology class that compelled him to deal with his relationship with his father.
The next four sections cover four pastorates: First Mennonite Church in Halstead, Kan., Lorraine Avenue Mennonite Church in Wichita, Kan., First Mennonite Church in Bluffton, Ohio, and Hyattsville Mennonite Church in Maryland. Readers from those congregations will especially enjoy the recollections.
The first pastorate was the one where Schmidt, like most pastors, gets his pastoral identity and wings clipped. He writes: “It was the summer of 1967. I was fresh out of seminary, 30 years old and having most, if not all, the answers for what the church needed to do in those tumultuous times we call The Vietnam Era.” Ah, yes, guts! Embedded in this section is a sermon, his favorite Advent reflection.
Now a father with three young daughters, Schmidt’s restlessness with routine church events was evident. He wanted the church to be engaged with social justice and found ways to push the church to be like Jesus — unafraid to love. He helped organize (with Pastor John Powell in Wichita) Hispanic and African-American children to come 30 miles to Halstead to use the new swimming pool, an alternative to the whites-only ones in the city.
As Schmidt became outspoken and engaged in civil rights, he began to realize he did not fit among the very people who had raised him (family and church): “I could not go home again to my rural upbringing.”
“The Wichita Years” (1970-1983) is full of joy and development. His pastoral identity is shaped by a house-church experiment where the Schmidt family joined with several other units to live in community. The other major theme of this section is death — the ritual of funerals and the pastoral work that grief demands. The decision to make simple pine caskets was born. There are poignant stories of Lorraine Avenue church members building caskets when a member died.
Other themes show a pastor deeply committed to justice and peace. Schmidt became active in the General Conference Mennonite Church and Western District Conference witness against the death penalty. He advocated for women in ministry, which led to hiring a woman, Rosie Epp, as associate pastor.
In “The Bluffton Decade” (1983-1993) Schmidt shares a moving prayer that offers an exquisite plea to God to aid the people to be compassionate. A tender part of this decade was the death of Schmidt’s father, and he offers deeply moving reflections on their tortured relationship.
“Hyattsville: An End and a Beginning” brims with urban vibrancy and emotional tugs to be an inclusive church. Discussions about homosexuality and women in leadership plague and energize Schmidt. He shares his memorial meditation after his mother’s death at age 105 in 2013. It is loving.
Schmidt’s memoir reminds us that pastors are human beings with complicated lives, emotions and issues. He presents aspects of his life that others might reserve for intimate conversations. The goodness of pastoring — including the joy of preaching — stayed with him, and he rewarded each of his congregations with vigor and creativity. His narrative weaves together guts and goodness.
Schmidt writes: “In the final sense, the ‘wholly holey’ becoming the ‘holy’ is what a redemptive life story is all about.”
Well said, Pastor Schmidt.
Dorothy Nickel Friesen, of Newton, Kan., is a retired pastor and conference minister who succeeded Schmidt as pastor at First Mennonite Church in Bluffton, Ohio.
Paul instructs us in what it means to follow Jesus, when he stated, “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:1-2). Here Paul defines what it means to imitate God and to “live a life of love” not merely by pointing us to Jesus but by specifying that we are to follow the example of Christ who “loved us and gave himself up for us…” (Eph. 5:1-2, NIV, emphasis added). Paul virtually equates “following (mimētēs) God” (which could be translated as “imitating God”) with living “a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.”
Several verses later Paul applies this cruciform understanding of love to husbands when he tells them to “love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). While everything Jesus did reflected God’s love, it’s clear that Paul regarded the cross to be the ultimate expression of this love.
Reflecting this same perspective, Paul elsewhere declares that God’s love for us is demonstrated not merely in the fact that Christ became a human and lived a life of self-sacrificial service to others, as remarkable as these things are. It is rather most powerfully demonstrated in the fact that “[w]hile we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). So too, Paul fleshes out what it looks like for the Philippians to love one another by instructing them to have “the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had” (Phil. 2:5). This attitude was displayed when Jesus set aside his divine prerogatives, “made himself nothing,” and “humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-9).
So, too, when Paul explains why he and his colleagues appear to some to be “out of [their] mind” (2 Cor. 5:13) because of the sacrifices they make as “ambassadors of Christ” (2 Cor. 5:20), he declares, “Christ’s love compels us” (2 Cor. 5:14). He then elaborates on this love by appealing to the cross, explaining that Christ “died for all” so that “those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again” (2 Cor. 5:15).
The cross is clearly the definitive expression of Christ’s love and thus the criteria by which his followers must measure their love. It’s no surprise, therefore, when Paul later challenges the Corinthians to prove their love by sacrificially giving to brothers and sisters in need (2 Cor. 8: 7-8, 24). “Cruciformity” lies at the heart of Paul’s understanding of God, salvation and the kingdom life. More could be said (as I have two chapters on this in Crucifixion of the Warrior God), but I believe this suffices to demonstrate that the love that God eternally is, as revealed in Jesus Christ, and the love that is to characterize all who are “children of the most High,” is cruciform in nature.
Greg Boyd is senior pastor of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minn. This blog originally appeared on his website, ReKnew.org.
Renewal 2027 is a 10-year series of events launched by Mennonite World Conference to mark the 500th anniversary of the beginnings of the Anabaptist movement.
“Transformed by the Word: Reading Scripture in Anabaptist Perspectives” (the inaugural event in Augsburg, Germany, Feb. 12, 2017) fits well within the mandate of the MWC Faith and Life Commission to help member churches “understand and describe Anabaptist-Mennonite faith and practice.”
In the midst of the many Reformation commemoration celebrations, especially in Europe, it’s important to remember that the Anabaptists also emerged within the context of the Reformation and were decisively shaped by its rediscovery of the Bible as an authority for Christian faith and life.
Shortly before the first adult baptisms in January 1525, a member of the Bible study group that formed the core of the emerging Anabaptist movement illustrated this clearly:
“However, after we too had taken up the Bible and studied all the possible points, we have been better informed.”
The letter went on to describe how they came to a deeper understanding of Scripture.
Five central themes — visible in the quote above — distinguished their shift from walking alongside the Reformers to a posture of opposition:
- Scripture is the key point of departure for the renewal brought about by the Reformation.
- It is crucial to learn not only second-hand, but to read Scripture for yourself.
- The Bible study group read with an expectant attitude. They “studied all the possible points,” posed questions about the text and received answers.
- They reoriented themselves around these new insights. In this way, they were “better informed” in regard to the teachings of the Catholic church, but also in regards to Zwingli and the other Reformers.
To be “better informed.” At first glance, that statement sounds very positive. But it also carries some pain. It suggests that one has indeed been mistaken; it includes a readiness to let go of older, cherished understandings. This is often not easy.
The key question at stake here is: do we allow the biblical word (and the God who desires to speak to us) to scrutinize our convictions so that we allow ourselves “to be better informed”? Or does the admonition to “test all things and hold on to what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21) only apply to other people?
Up to this point, all the themes could be regarded as Protestant principles. But the fifth point is the most distinct Anabaptist principle:
- The “we” in the quote is crucial: not only does Bible study happen in community; but new understandings of Scripture are also reached collectively.
No one is forced to be part of an Anabaptist congregation — faith and membership are always voluntary. No single person has all the understanding or all of the gifts, but everyone has something. Therefore, it is crucial that we create frameworks for Bible study in which everyone can contribute to a better understanding of the biblical text: old and young, men and women, academics and laborers. Precisely for this reason the “we” in our text is so important!
But several dangers are already evident in this same quote.
To allow ourselves to be “better informed” sounds nice, but who can protect us from endless efforts to prove the superiority of one understanding or from the notorious church divisions that have occurred so frequently in Anabaptist history? How can we ensure that space remains for the recognition that all of our knowledge is partial and in need of additional insights? And how do we ensure that the “struggle for the truth” does not come at the cost of a “struggle for unity?”
If “renewal of faith and life” and “transformation through the Word” are going to happen within the context of Mennonite World Conference, then it will be essential for it to happen in the form of members from north and south, east and west, walking together alongside each other as “we.”
Hanspeter Jecker is a member of the Mennonite World Conference Faith & Life Commission and a professor of historical theology and ethics at Theological Seminary Bienenberg in Switzerland.
I am usually quite suspicious of oft-repeated expression, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” Actually, “suspicious” might be putting it rather mildly. I have something bordering on a pathological loathing of this phrase. It’s possible that I have even visibly shuddered in disgust in the various contexts where this expression makes its predictable appearance.
I usually encounter it in people who either refuse to consider church in the first place or who have left it behind for the usual assemblage of real or imagined grievances. Or people who can’t be bothered to think very hard about what they might believe or why but like the idea of seeming a bit deeper than they in fact are. Or people who imagine that they have grasped the deeper truth that all religions are inadequately and intolerantly pointing toward. Or people who like yoga. Or people who think that all religions are neat and cool and inspiring except for when they say things that don’t confirm what they already think. Or when they infringe upon personal liberties and preferences, or sleep habits, or weekend plans or… well, when they infringe upon anything, really. “I’m spiritual but not religious” very often seems to me to be among the more vacuous statements that a human could utter.
Oh, dear. I did say that “suspicious” was putting it mildly, didn’t I?
A funny thing happened last weekend, though. Over the course of a few conversations, I actually found myself developing a tiny bit of sympathy for this expression, even if in a heavily and qualified and belabored way. I was attending the annual meetings for our provincial conference of Mennonite churches. As is the case with many denominational gatherings like this in the post-Christian landscape, it was a bit of a grim experience at times. Deficit budgets; struggles to fill various committees; stories of aging, dwindling congregations; stories of congregations leaving over theological disputes (mainly around issues of sexuality), anguished conversations about “how to get the young people back in our churches” — these were the themes that floated to the surface. There were stories of hope and health and vitality, too, and it’s always wonderful to reconnect with friends and colleagues from other churches. But I think it would be fair to say that there was at least a wispy cloud of anxiety and uncertainty that hovered over many of the presentations and conversations last weekend.
This is, as I said, the shape of the landscape for many churches and denominations in the post-Christian west. The difference in our little Mennonite outpost of Christianity is that all of these issues are negotiated in the context of an ecclesiology that places a heavy emphasis upon communal discernment. So conversations about theological issues or about how church structures might need to change to reflect changing demographics and giving patterns or about how God might be steering the church into different expressions of worship and mission are negotiated together as communities.
Which sounds really good in theory. But in practice, it often means multiple layers of time-consuming and at times not-particularly-fruitful meetings at local, provincial and national levels. We have meetings and meetings about meetings and meetings to decide what we’re going to say at other meetings and meetings to reflect upon which future meetings we might need to process past meetings. We have feedback forums and collations of feedback that are re-presented at other meetings and workshops to allow opportunities for further feedback and… well, you get the idea. These discernment processes can drag on for years and years. We’re kind of like Tolkien’s Ents. We seem to think that nothing is worth saying unless it takes a long, long, long time.
On a theoretical level, I can easily make a case for the value of all of these committees and meetings and discernment processes and forums. They represent a guard against the abuse of power; they express our theological convictions about the priesthood of all believers, how the Spirit is present in each one of us, etc. Yes, yes. All true. But on a practical level, I (and others) see and hear many people — particularly younger people — looking at all of this and just saying, “yeah, not interested.”
Which brings me back to the two conversations. One was with a young man in the coffee line at the gathering this past weekend. We had just sat through a presentation about discernment about church structure going into the future. He looked as fatigued as I felt. “So what do you think of all this?” I asked. He sighed and said something like, “You know, I grew up Roman Catholic, and there are many things that I appreciate about Anabaptist theology. But you know, in the Catholic Church, when you come to Mass, your only job is to worship — to encounter Christ in the sacraments. You aren’t asked to constantly be figuring everything out all the time. It’s exhausting. It’s no wonder to me that people aren’t signing up for this! People want to encounter Christ in church, not spend a decade hammering away at some issue in a thousand meetings.”
The second conversation was with another young-ish person who was sorta, kinda, maybe in the process of leaving the Mennonite church. They said largely the same thing. They came to worship looking to encounter God. They wanted to be involved in the church to help others do the same, to form meaningful relationships through which to learn and grow in the love and knowledge of God. What they too often got, they said, was an inflexible commitment to structures and processes and meeting after endless meeting and committees and sub-committees and sub-sub-committees and discernment processes, and eventually they just got tired.
Now, I know that “church business” is not a synonym for “religion.” Not by a long shot. I know that the etymology of the word “religion” points to something true and beautiful and, in my view, vitally necessary. But I think that, rightly or wrongly, in people’s experience these two are not far off. “Religion” = “endless meetings and mechanical church services”; “spirituality” = “relationships, existential issues, prayer, connection with God!” And if we can suspend our judgment and work temporarily with these crude and, yes, not altogether admirable or accurate categories, it’s not hard to see that when people who are hungry for or curious about or open to God come to church expecting this hunger to be addressed… and what they in fact get is an invitation to serve on a committee…
Well, yeah. I guess I can get why someone might be tempted to say, “I’m spiritual but not religious.”
To head off any number of critiques or complaints that might arise based on the preceding, I know church structures matter. I know discernment processes are important. I know meetings must be held (even if I’m reasonably convinced that we could do with fewer of them). I know that serving on committees and encountering God are not mutually exclusive categories (who knows, it might even be possible to encounter God on a committee!). I know that past generations labored long and hard through many a tedious committee meeting to deliver to us the institutions and theological frameworks that form the ground upon which we now stand. I know that our manner of doing things as an Anabaptist church expresses deep and important theological convictions.
I guess I just wonder if all of these “I knows” might sometimes — particularly at this cultural moment — get in the way of the one “I know” that really matters: to know God. Because this is still the point of it all, right? To know God? Not to preserve our denominational identity or institutions, not to come up with a shiny new committee or task force to address this or that vital issue, not to be vindicated over our theological enemies, not to convince the broader church to pursue our pet agendas, but to “know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3).
The church is still about encountering God… Right?
Ryan Dueck is pastor of Lethbridge Mennonite Church in Lethbridge, Alta., Canada. He writes at Rumblings, where this post first appeared.
AUGSBURG, Germany — A five-year discussion of baptism among Mennonites, Catholics and Lutherans has yielded new insights.
Representatives of the Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Lutheran World Federation and Mennonite World Conference gathered Feb. 9-14 in Augsburg for the fifth and final meeting of the Trilateral Dialogue Commission on Baptism.
John Rempel of Canada said reflecting on each group’s practice of baptism helped participants learn to respect, trust and challenge each other.
“From the Lutherans, I have seen more clearly that their concern about justification by grace through faith is not that discipleship is a secondary matter,” said Rempel, who is professor emeritus of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind., and the Toronto School of Theology. “Their concern is that following Christ be a lifestyle of gratitude for God’s grace and not good works to earn God’s favor.
“From the Catholics, I have learned that the sacrament of baptism does not have an automatic role in salvation. If someone persistently lives life against the Spirit of Christ, baptism will not save them.”
Rempel said observations from Catholics and Lutherans prompted reflection on his own Mennonite tradition.
“One insight is that our concern for the human response to God’s grace in conversion and baptism is so central that we neglect to give God’s initiative toward us its due,” he said.
The commission’s final report will summarize three themes: the relationship of baptism to sin and salvation, the celebration of baptism and its relation to faith and to membership in the Christian community, and the living of baptism in discipleship.
MWC participants included Rebecca Adongo Osiro of Kenya, Alfred Neufeld of Paraguay, Fernando Enns of Germany, Larry Miller of France and Wolfgang Krauss of Germany.