Is MCUSA Doomed? (And Does it Matter?)

September 29th, 2010 – by Jeremy W. Yoder

This post emerged out of a number of on-line and off-line conversations I’ve been having over the past several weeks about the status quo and future of the church. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Christianity in the West is ‘in trouble’ as the center of the church shifts from North America and Western Europe to the Global South due to growing secularization. For Anabaptists, the end of Christendom should be a moment of opportunity due to our own historical place at the margins. Yet MCUSA is experiencing some of the same challenges and problems as the rest of North American mainline Protestantism.

As a result of these conversations, I started to ask myself whether MCUSA is ‘doomed’ to shrivel up and disappear. I’m not exactly an optimistic person, so as I mulled over these questions, I realized that doom might not be the right word to describe the current situation. However as I mused, I did come up with a list of what I think the biggest challenges that MCUSA faces during the post-Christendom shift.

Note: this is my list based on what I’ve observed and experienced as the current state of the Mennonite Church. It’s not an exclusive or exhaustive list. Feel free to disagree with me and please let us know what you think are the main challenges the denomination faces in the comments section below. (more…)

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I Surrender

September 16th, 2010 – by Laura Lehman Amstutz

Sometimes I take on too much. Okay, more than sometimes, always. I have a very hard time saying no. Partially because so many things sounds like fun, are interesting, or seem like the “right thing to do.” This week has been one of those weeks when all the things I have agreed to do have come together to clobber me.

Last week I was at a consultation for the missional church. The consultation was put together by the executive board of Mennonite Church USA, and the purpose was to talk about the structure of the church. At some point in the future, I hope to write a post about structure in the church. But today I wanted to focus on something else I learned, or was reminded of, at that meeting. It’s something I tend to forget in the midst of the responsibility I feel to do my part in keeping projects, institutions and other good works going.

I was reminded again that the Holy Spirit is supposed to be the prime-mover in the church, not me. Maybe it seems obvious, but it’s something I easily forget in all the running around I do to make sure everything works out just right. I forget that God is in charge.

Lois Barrett, one of the speakers, shared a prayer by Charles de Foucauld that I am working on praying.

Father, I abandon myself
into your hands;
do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do,
I thank you.

I am ready for all,
I accept all.

Let only your will be done in me
and in all your creatures.
I wish no more than this, O Lord.

Into your hands
I commend my soul;
I offer it to you,
with all the love of my heart,
for I love you, Lord,
and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself
into your hands,
without reserve,
and with boundless confidence,
for you are my Father.

I wonder what would happen if I would live this prayer and actually believe it? It scares me. What does it mean for my life if I truly surrender? What would it mean for the church if we all prayed this prayer?

Would my feeling of responsibility for the success or failure of the things I do decrease? Would I find myself doing things I didn’t expect? Would I discover more fully my call?

I don’t know, but maybe it’s time to find out.

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Wednesday Link Potluck: Not Dressing Like Lady Gaga Edition

September 15th, 2010 – by Jeremy W. Yoder

This past Sunday at the MTV Video Music Awards, reigning pop queen Lady Gaga caused a stir when she accepted the “Video of the Year” award in a dress made of meat. Throughout her career, Lady Gaga has often pushed boundaries by dressing provocatively in order to make statements on politics and sexuality (of course, once you can buy Lady Gaga costumes for your infant, I’m not sure the message has punch anymore). To say the least, Lady Gaga has a distinct and unique taste in clothing.

Of course here in Mennodom, we’ve had our own traditions of distinct and unique clothing. While perhaps not as flashy and provocative as Lady Gaga’s choices, plain Mennonite dress has often seemed strange and confusing to the outside world, a visual boundary between the community of faith and the rest of society. So in honor of Lady Gaga’s clothing, today’s Link Potluck features (kind of) the distinctive dress of plain Mennonites.

  • The paperback version of Rhoda Janzen’s memoir Mennonite In A Black Dress continues to chart on the New York Times Bestseller list. When Hollywood inevitably turns this into a movie, I bet they will transfer the location from the Mennonites of borscht and zwiebach to the Mennonites of Lancaster County and Julia Roberts will run around in plain clothing shooting people just like Harrison Ford did in Witness.
  • GAMEO has a good, comprehensive essay on North American Mennonite plain dress written by J.C. Wenger in the 1950′s and updated by Robert Kreider in 1989. The article suggests that the practice of plain dress has both theological and sociological reasons.
  • In February, the Oregon legislature repealed an eighty-seven year ban on religious dress by teachers in public schools. Prior to the vote, The Oregonian posted a series of comments by believers of various traditions who wear distinctive dress, such as the Sikhs, Orthodox Jews, Mormons and Mennonites.
  • Plain dress has primarily been worn by Swiss-German Anabaptist groups. Karl Landis laments that we often confuse “Swiss-German” ethnicity for “Mennonite.”
  • In one of those weird cultural mash-ups on the Internet, there’s an on line community and market for plain and “modest” clothing. Conservative “Quaker Jane” provides guidance and resources for plain dress. Plain and Simple Headcoverings sell exactly what you think they sell. Rachel’s Seamstress Services and  Mennonite Maidens are online plain clothing stores. Or you could always make your own clothing.
  • Googling for “plain dress” will also bring results  for “plane dress” — i.e. how to dress on an airplane. Perhaps someone could make a movie about Amish travel and call it Plain on a Plane (Groan).
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From Hell to Heaven in an Elevator

September 10th, 2010 – by Jeremy W. Yoder

On Tuesday, I wrote about the experience of watching as an adolescent an evangelistic film that depicted unsaved people going to hell in an elevator after death. Along similar lines, Marco Brambilla’s Civilization is a video mural installed in the elevator of the Standard Hotel in New York City that utilizes clips from hundreds of movies to depict a journey from hell to heaven.

Download Civilization by Marco Brambilla

According to the artists, the mural is a 1920 x 7500 pixel digital canvas that scans up and down according to the direction of the elevator. Over 500 clips from stock footage and films like Ghostbusters, 300, Flash Gordon, and The Wizard of Oz run in a loop as the elevator travels through these digital landscapes.

It’s a project that seems both playful and a bit creepy. I’m not sure I’d want to see it through the window of a darkened elevator.

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Wednesday Link Potluck: Anabaptist Heresy Edition

September 8th, 2010 – by Jeremy W. Yoder

We Mennonites and our ilk tend to think we have a good handle on what it means to follow Christ. Not everyone agrees. Until the 20th Century, most Christians considered Anabaptism to be a radical, militant heresy. Today’s Link Potluck is dedicated to the spirit of divisiveness in the Body of Christ.

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Sheep & Goats Part I: Cosmic Judgment

September 7th, 2010 – by Jeremy W. Yoder

When I was in middle school, a church group showed an evangelistic film in the park near my house. This short film depicted a group of teenagers waiting in line at the gates of heaven after dying in a car crash. As each teenager stepped forward, an angel checked a computer database to see whether they had accepted Christ back when they were alive.  The angel directed the souls with names listed in green to the right and they passed into heaven. However, the angel directed those whose names were listed in red to the left and they rode straight down to Hell in an elevator.  After the film, one of the evangelists grabbed a microphone and in a booming voice, led the neighborhood kids in a sinner’s prayer to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

For weeks afterward, I had nightmares about going to Hell in an elevator.

The Last Judgment

"The Last Judgment" from "Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry" (15th Century). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

I recently reflected on this eschatological trauma as I prepared a sermon on Jesus’ parable of the goats and sheep in Matthew 25:31-46. In this parable, Jesus uses the separation of a flock of sheep and the goats as a metaphor for cosmic, universal judgment. Growing up, I frequently heard that the parable meant the following: sheep go to heaven; goats go to Hell, so make sure you’re one of the sheep and not a goat.

Many of us in the church feel uncomfortable with cosmic judgment.  We live in a culture that values ‘tolerance,’ but is intolerant of intolerant people.  Many of us fear that to believe in cosmic, end-times judgment means that we end up being part of the intolerant camp.  Besides, for us liberal Christian peaceniks, the thought that God would still punish the poor and oppressed whose rights we advocate for seems counter-intuitive to a social justice commitment. Therefore, we either avoid any mention about cosmic judgment, or argue that the image of Hell in the New Testament is a result of philosophical pollution by the Greeks and advocate universal salvation.

This avoidance of cosmic judgment undermines a central claim of the Bible — that Christ will return at the end of history in order to restore the relationship between God and creation. Part of the process of making this relationship whole will involve cosmic, divine judgment. As both the Old and New Testaments emphasize, God is concerned about justice and in order for justice to exist, there needs to be both accountability and judgment. If I truly believe in a merciful and good God, then whatever judgment God renders at the end of time will also be merciful and good.

On the other extreme, there are also many Christians who seem to derive to much delight and pleasure from the end of the world, as they breathlessly discerns signs of the apocalypse in every natural and human-made catastrophe. With all due respect to the various traditions of millennial thinking within the church, there’s something obscene about cheering for global apocalyptic suffering in order to validate our own opinions. Perhaps I’m being overly harsh here, but I don’t believe that God is about to usher in the End Times so that every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess the truth about our pet economic and social theories.

While the Bible does claim that God will judge humanity at the end of history, I would also argue that scripture is more ambiguous about the specific criteria of judgment. In the imagery of cosmic judgment throughout the parables, there’s often a sense of the unexpected. In other words, those who are saved and who are damned are surprised by the verdict. We need to always approach the biblical text with humility and be careful not to assume that God favors our preferences and condemns our dislikes.

I do believe that eschatology is profoundly important for the church. The hope of Christ’s return and the restoration of creation should inform how we live our lives as Christians today. At the same time, we need to be careful to allow the Bible’s depiction of cosmic judgment to stand on its own. We need to allow God be God and resist the understandable temptation to try to dictate and control God’s way of working in the world.

To Be Continued: The Ambiguity of Judgment

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The Space Age

September 2nd, 2010 – by Laura Lehman Amstutz

A few weeks ago a former professor posted this article from the New York Times on his Facebook page “Digital Devices Deprive Brain of Needed Downtime” Here’s the synopsis: If we’re constantly “plugged in” to our digital devices we don’t learn as well as we would if we had space to process those things we’re learning. If we fill every spare minute with entertainment or news or work we aren’t really processing what we are experiencing.

The real irony for me was that I read this article off my phone while I was eating breakfast.

We are moving into a time where we aren’t limited anymore by the technology. We can’t say that we won’t check our email because there isn’t a computer nearby, the computer is in our pocket. Because the technology doesn’t limit us anymore it’s up to our own discipline.

Unplugging and creating space is a spiritual discipline and sometimes I wonder  if it’s one the church fosters. I recently heard of a pastor who uses Twitter during his sermon to get feedback as he’s preaching. Part of me is impressed by the ability to multi-task. And part of me is not sure this is the spirit the church ought to be fostering in this age.

If our brains need space to process and learn, how are we creating that space in our worship communities? Would we do better to create more silent space and reflective time during worship, rather than adding more video clips, technology, and powerpoints? Are we really an age in need of space?

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Wednesday Link Potluck: Glenn Beck Edition

September 1st, 2010 – by Jeremy W. Yoder

A new feature of Work & Hope is the “Wednesday Link Potluck,” a weekly link dump of articles and blog posts of interest from across the Internet. In response to last weekend’s Restoring Honor rally in Washington, DC, the links below focus on commentary about the event and the intersection between faith and politics.

Was Saturday’s rally about faith, politics or both? Contrasting views:

  • Jim Garlow argues that Beck’s rally was about faith and sought to restore virtue and God’s place in American society.
  • Virtue smirtue. Joe Conason believes the rally is really intended to mobilize evangelical conservatives and to assert the power of the Religious Right in the upcoming election.
  • Elizabeth Scalia views the rally as a “sensible tent revival meeting” that avoided as a political event avoided politics, and muses about the eschatological issues inherent in calls for revival and restoration.
  • Russell Moore compares the rally to an evangelical apocalyptic novel as Christian embrace “vacuous talk about about undefined ‘revival’ and ‘turning America back to God’” to accommodate political ideology (or at least Glenn Beck’s ego). Also: Mormons are icky.
  • Nate Richards praises the rally’s message that “individualism must reign in our nation” and that we cannot rely on the government to “bring this nation into an age of liberty and faith.”
  • Mark Silk thinks the rally was a throw-back to the “I Love America” rallies of the 1970′s and seems kinda bored by the entire thing.
  • Agnostic James Wall Kirk is irked by all the God-talk and argues that non-religious Americans are good, moral people too.
  • Graham Hill has some thoughts on engaging politics as a Christian.
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