I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the wider Mennonite church these past few weeks, as there have been discussions about the future of Mennonite Church Canada at the gatherings of each of the regional churches.
In some ways, I find these discussions draining and disappointing: the bureaucratic way we speak about the church as if it’s just another corporation, the lack of serious consultation of those younger than middle-aged in discussions about the future church, the way this process is being rushed through without thoroughly consulting congregations, even though it’s being spoken of as “discernment.” As a worst case scenario, I picture the Mennonite church being dismantled regionally as well, about ten years from now, until it’s just a collection of loosely-affiliated congregations.
But there are also some signs of hope.
The work of the Emerging Voices Initiative reflects a certain kind of hunger that is becoming apparent—hunger for the theological depth that has been lacking from the Future Directions Task Force reports and process. As a group of Canadian Mennonite University students from across Canada who have taken up discerning and responding the Future Directions materials, their approach reflects a theological grounding of our identity as the church that I find really encouraging. (You can read their materials here.)
Interestingly, that same theological turn is reflected in the recent Canadian Mennonite survey results as well. In his Feb. 29, 2016, editorial, Dick Benner wrote, “What the younger demographic wants to see, however, is striking. They are ‘very interested in more Christian and theological teaching in response to issues.’” He continues, “While web survey respondents enjoy the discussion and letters, they want some “theology” to go along with it. This was the only group to articulate the desire for a stronger Anabaptist presence; others wished for more theological views, some from leaders, but not exclusively.”
What we’re realizing, I think, especially those younger than middle-aged, is that if we’re going to start dismantling some of our many, many Mennonite institutions, we’re going to have to ground our togetherness as a church in something else. And I, for one, am in full agreement with the turn to theology that is more than implicit!
Though I haven’t worked out all the details, there are three major issues we need to speak about together, as we envision how we are the church together. I’ll leave you with these three topics and some of the questions I see as important for each one.
Identity. What is the relationship between our theology and our cultures, especially the so-called culture wars between “liberals” and “conservatives”? In what way can our faith both affirm us and challenge our worldview(s) as Canadians? What’s distinctive and life-giving about our Mennonite identity—our emphasis on peace and justice, on lived and communal discipleship, on voluntary and non-hierarchical church, etc.? Most importantly, how can we figure this out together, as a communal body?
Leadership. How do we practice being a “priesthood of all believers” (i.e., an egalitarian church community) while having professional pastors and leaders? Are our pastors “servant-leaders” or are they simply not respected sometimes? Are we a democratic body, or do we strive toward communal discernment and consensus? To what extent are the wealthiest members determining the direction of the church, which I would suggest is problematic?
Unity. How can we reinterpret unity so that it is not based on sameness or uniformity, but relationships across our differences? How can we be realistic about and address the power dynamics that get in the way of unity and trusting relationships? Before we discuss the growth of our Mennonite church and its witness—or perhaps alongside these discussions—can we look more introspectively at ourselves as a church, and build up our trust and relationships with each other?