This year—2017—will bring changes for members of Mennonite Church Canada, a denominational entity to be reconfigured into a proposed structure of five area churches doing the work of a denominational centre in Winnipeg. It is uncharted territory, to say the least.
An Interim Council is already at work in fashioning the shape of this new entity, but if it is true, as one of its members, Peter Rempel, moderator of MC Manitoba, has declared, that “pastors tell me 90 percent of the people in the pews are disinterested in the process,” the Council is not only in new territory but is swimming upstream.
In meeting the formidable task, Keith Regehr, hired to lead the transition, cites the two tasks the Future Directions Task Force, at work now for three years, had as its goal, namely:
- Downsize and streamline the present organizational structure.
- Develop a renewed vision for the church today.
We respectfully posit that these two goals might be in reverse order. We read nowhere in Scripture what shape the community of faith should take, but the wisdom of the ancients does say that where there is no vision, the people perish”(Proverbs 29:18). It seems that if the 90 percent are to get excited about any kind of restructuring, we need to first hear the vision.
What does the Interim Council have in mind that inspires us, as congregations, as we face an uncertain future in the 21st century? Will it rally us to a renewed faith, to a new excitement about being a “believers church” in a post-Christendom world, to enthusiasm about sharing the “gospel of peace” with our neighbours and friends, to what it means to be a true Anabaptist 500 years in the making?
We submit that the first order of business should be a “re-visioning” of our Anabaptist-rooted faith that will require a lot of listening—to each other and to our neighbours. Have we lost sight of our primary calling to be followers of Jesus as he instructed us in the New Testament—a basic tenet of Anabaptists led by Menno Simons, who broke with the state church in the mid-16th century with a movement comprised of godvruchtige (“men and women who feared God”)?
Maybe a starting point for re-visioning is to reclaim what it means to be Anabaptist Christians in a modern age, re-visiting with zeal the theological themes that have given us purpose and identity. These themes, as articulated by our historians and theologians, are:
• Community: A primary distinctive belief that in a spiritual sense the church is a disciplined, mutually caring community of persons (in contrast to individualized religiosity). The reconciled relationship between individuals, made visible by their linkage to the church, is God-given—a product of grace. We are all “priests,” to borrow the parlance of the 16th century. The true Anabaptist believes that this reconciliation, this caring between individuals, belongs as much to salvation as does reconciliation to God. When applied to Mennonites, the term “community” is basically a religious concept with certain sociological implications.
• Discipleship: This means that the essence of Christianity is following Jesus, that is, obeying his teaching and following his example. It is not primarily a matter of doctrine or confession statements or of the intellect; rather, a transformation of life. It demands an outward expression of the inner experience. Repentance must be “evidenced” by newness of behaviour.
• Peace: Originally and still as a rejection of war and violence, peace is a principle tied to our identity as citizens of a heavenly kingdom. It involves justice, not in the legal sense, but rather deals with God’s justice for a fallen world. Just as Anabaptists believe that the church is not a power among powers, it is rather a power to confront centres of power in economics, in government and in religious establishments. We have aligned ourselves with a God who transcends national interests, a God interested in the salvation of the whole world, not just parts of it.
• Kingdom citizens: This belief holds us to a higher standard as “kingdom residents” and brings an inevitable tension between modern Anabaptists and other Christians, especially noticeable in our time with renewed efforts by evangelicals to identify nationalistic goals with the Christian religion. Anabaptists believe that government goals are almost always in tension with “kingdom goals,” no matter how similar they may appear in different eras and among friendly ideologies.