September 29th, 2010 – by Jeremy W. Yoder, Editors Blog
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.
Do we know what it means to be Mennonite or Anabaptist? When I attended Goshen College a decade ago, I remember the never-ending discussion about Mennonite identity, particularly by those ethnic Mennonites (like myself) who no longer considered themselves Christian. Mennonites in North America have long associated Mennonite faith with a particular ethnic and cultural heritage — what happens to that heritage when we no longer have faith? Is it possible to be “Mennonite” without being Christian? What does that even mean?
It also appears to me that when my parent’s generation in the 1960’s and 70’s rejected the cultural particulars of conservative Mennonite dress, they bought into the generic American Protestantism of mainstream culture. As secularization sidelines Protestant Christianity from a position of privilege, what does that mean for us? At a time when more and more Christians (i.e. Greg Boyd and Stuart Murray Williams) are interested in the Anabaptist tradition of being the church on the margins, why do many ‘cradle’ Mennonites feel uncomfortable about being Mennonite?
Are we really committed to following Jesus? I have observed an element on the liberal side of the Mennonite Church that has a deep commitment to peace and social justice, but only a nominal commitment to Jesus Christ. I do think that social justice is an important component to the mission of the church, in the sense that the Bible depicts justice with social, political and corporate dimensions along with the emphasis on personal salvation. However, I am concerned about a Christ-less Christianity that I see among some of my fellow travelers who embrace the pursuit of social justice, but seem unsure or indifferent about following Jesus. The church advocates for justice as a response to who we believe Jesus Christ is. Without that foundation for the mission of the church, I believe the church ultimately ceases to be Body of Christ and instead morphs into something else. What do we do when our concepts of justice conflict with the exclusive claims of Christianity?
Is MCUSA prepared to be an urban denomination? MCUSA is in the middle of a demographic shift in which many Mennonites are changing from a rural context to an urban one. A survey by Ryan Ahlgrim last January in The Mennonite noted that along with “racial-ethnic” congregations, urban “Anglo Anabaptist” churches constitute a growing edge of MCUSA. This shift occurs either through migration to urban centers like Philadelphia and Denver (or in my case, Baltimore) or by the development of rural areas. The sprawl of Lancaster or Elkhart Counties mean that many traditional rural Mennonite areas are no longer rural.
And yet many of our churches continue to have a homogeneous rural culture. While there will always be rural and small town Mennonite churches, I also believe that MCUSA’s future also lies with the non-Anglo and urban congregations that may better reflect the theologically diverse and multicultural world that many of our young people grow up in. In other words, the ‘typical’ everyday experiences of Mennonites are dramatically changing, and it remains to be seen whether our conferences and agencies are willing to invest in building the kind of church infrastructure that will minister to Mennonites in these new contexts. We need urban church planting. We need an urban presence for Mennonite agencies and institutions. Last year’s move by MCC East Coast to Philadelphia was a step in the right direction. Will the rest of the denomination follow?
How Serious Are We to Sharing the Gospel? Evangelism and evangelical are dirty words in some Mennonite circles because they carry connotations of the Religious Right and the so-called ‘Culture Wars’ of the past thirty years. However, I wonder whether in our rush to prove that we’re not one of those Christians, we have failed to present the Gospel story in our churches and our communities in a compelling way. At a time when many churches face dropping membership numbers, evangelism may not only be a biblical mandate, but also necessary for survival. I recognize, of course, that traditional evangelism makes many of us deeply uncomfortable (myself included). At the same time, some of the most innovative thinking I encountered at seminary involved evangelism, due to a growing recognition in some circles that the traditional methods no longer work in a post-Christian culture. But regardless of the type of evangelism we do, they all involve getting out of the comfort zones of our churches and developing relationships with our neighbors and communities.
I also believe that part of the current crisis is a result of our failure to evangelize our own children. I was struck by an article in Mennonite Weekly Review over whether Sunday School is “becoming extinct” as it fails to compete with other activities. I’m not a fan of the Sunday School model, but I do believe that if the traditional methods no longer work, we need to deliberately explore and find others. Biblical literacy is an extremely important part of developing faith in the next generation. Do we need to view our own churches as part of the mission field as well?
But I also believe that the mass evacuation of the Mennonite Church by its youth also has cultural reasons. We have long expected the culture of the church to do our heavy evangelical lifting for us. We expected that our children would become Christians because we were Christians and dragged them to church every Sunday. While that approach may have worked in a predominately Protestant culture, I don’t think it works anymore. Christianity is now only one option among many and we must do a better job at telling the story of our own particular tradition in the cacophony of voices that bombards us from every direction. Cultural Christianity is not enough — how do we help our young people encounter the risen Christ in an authentic and compelling way?
So is MCUSA doomed? Probably not — the word doom carries an idea of finality to it and I don’t believe that the denomination’s future is written in stone. But we are facing a period of contraction, when the church will not have the same amount of resources to embody and live out the mission of God in the world. We do have some hard and painful choices ahead of us. But we also have the opportunity for creativity and innovation — to find new ways of being church in this complicated world. After all, we come from a long tradition that has often greater challenges than what MCUSA faces today. If the worse case scenario happens and MCUSA ceases to exist, I am also convinced that someone else will pick up where we left off.
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