“Table talk: Does the church still have legs,” the 2020 Mennonite Church Canada study conference, is a virtual event happening on Oct. 24. Plenary speakers from MC Canada-affiliated schools will share on themes of ecclesiology, worship and mission.
For the five-person team planning the conference, these themes are essential for this time, as the global pandemic has scattered worshipping bodies and introduced new ways of being church together. The team sees the present moment as an opportunity for participants to discern, discuss and explore what is really meant when people say, “We are church.”
“It’s become essential to reclaim a more sustainable and authentic way of being part of God’s mission in the world,” says Doug Klassen, MC Canada’s executive minister.
In a roundtable discussion, the members answered questions about why this conference is important, about the future of the church, and what their hopes are for this nationwide virtual gathering.
The themes of this conference are ecclesiology, worship and mission. Why are these themes important to you?
Ryan Siemens (of Langham, Sask., executive minister for Mennonite Church Saskatchewan): Over the last three years, MC Saskatchewan has worked through the journey of “Deepening our walk with Christ, each other and the world.” The themes of the study conference connect directly to our journey and will hopefully enhance our conversations/discernment. As we continue to grapple with what it means to be the church in Canada today, we must ask the why questions, which tie directly to mission and purpose. Why do we gather on Sunday morning for worship [in-person or by Zoom]? Why do we pour our energies into “being church” together? And how do these activities/practices shape our understanding of the mission/vocation/purpose of the church in Canada today?
Marilyn Rudy-Froese (of Kitchener, Ont., MC Eastern Canada’s church leadership minister and a former pastor and chaplain): Ecclesiology has been a topic of interest for me in the last number of years. I have seen the decline in connecting with the church—among my peers and among my kids and their peers. I have been in conversation with pastors who are both energized by the possibilities of this time and discouraged by the long, slow work of addressing the things that no longer work in how we structure the church. In conversations with my children and their peers, and with pastors, I’m struck by the passion, love and vision for a life of faith, and hope this study conference will be a place where these voices can be heard.
Gerald Gerbrandt (of Winnipeg, Man., a former president of Canadian Mennonite University, 1997-2012): I have, for some years, been convinced that the way we Mennonites came to understand church in the last part of the 20th century needs review. Our traditional understanding resulted in too hard of a boundary forming around church. It also gives insufficient attention to the mission of the church within our context.
Doug Klassen (of Winnipeg, MC Canada executive minister and a former pastor): The primary theme of the conference is on the identity/nature/essence of the church. As a Mennonite church, we naturally gravitate toward structure, or restructuring, when we have any kind of problem. When we know “who we are,” then it’s much easier to figure out how we organize ourselves.
Do you think the church still has legs? Why or why not?
Rudy-Froese: I think the church still has legs, but the legs need to stand in a new way. This pandemic has knocked the church off its feet, and everyone has scrambled in good and creative ways to figure out how to respond. I’ve been excited by the creativity I’ve seen, but I’m not sure how sustainable these new ways of being are, if this pandemic is going to last for months, even years. I think the church has legs in so far as it names its centre in Christ, and lets the Spirit of Christ guide us. I think the world is hungry for the gospel of peace and good news, and the church has legs if it can embody that message in ways that are authentic.
Kim Penner (of Kitchener, Ont., an adjunct professor of Christian ethics at Conrad Grebel University College and of ethics at the University of Toronto): Yes, I definitely think it does, but potentially in some radically different forms. The pandemic is a valuable opportunity to reflect on the heart of what it means to be/do church, which is related to the question of “Why church?” For me, this means bringing our focus back to the heart of what matters: the hope, love and justice that God wants to embody with us and in all creation. What role do mission and worship play in this context? And how do we understand them?
Gerbrandt: I believe the church is the Body of Christ, not an institution that we humans control. I expect significant change in the way this church works in the years ahead, but I firmly believe that it “has legs,” that in some format Christ’s body will continue to exist.
Klassen: For sure, but I think since Christendom has been waning the legs have been getting loose and shaky and the ground beneath the table is moving.
What is your hope for this event?
Siemens: That we open ourselves to God and one another as we discern the Holy Spirit’s leading for this time and place.
Rudy-Froese: I hope this event will be a place for honest conversation about the identity and mission of the church. I hope that younger generations will participate and contribute to the church-wide discussion, offering their vision, passion and love for God and for the world.
Penner: That we are able to draw in people who do not typically attend conference events [in addition to those who do], so that we can have a dynamic and honest conversation about the state of the church and where to go from here.
Gerbrandt: My hope is that MC Canada leaders from across Canada, both pastors and laypeople, will take some time from their regular preoccupations to think about the church, what it is and is called to be, in relationship to the Canadian context. This thinking should then lead to some practical implications for how their congregations contribute to the mission of the church in their local settings.
Klassen: For us to come to a renewed sense of who God is calling us to be in this time and why.
For conference information, visit mennonitechurch.ca/tabletalk2020.
MC Canada study conference goes virtual