Is MCUSA Doomed? (And Does it Matter?)

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.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, September 29th, 2010 at 2:20 pm. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

10 Responses to “Is MCUSA Doomed? (And Does it Matter?)”

  1. Tweets that mention Work and Hope » Is MCUSA Doomed? (And Does it Matter?) » Eastern Mennonite University -- Says:

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  2. Alan Says:

    So, here’s my two cents on these thoughts. Ultimately I think you’re asking some good questions here, so I’ll just respond specifically to them.

    – Do we know what it means to be Mennonite or Anabaptist?
    No. By in large we’ve confused being Mennonite with being an ethnic group. Stuart Murray’s book “The Naked Anabaptist” has been an eyeopening read for me. Not because it presented anything that I didn’t know or believe, but for how little it resembles the people in our congregations.

    – Are we really committed to following Jesus?
    Depends. While you pick on the liberals, I think the same critique is equally valid for conservatives. The true center of Christianity is the deep connection between justice and faith in Jesus. They’re two sides of the same coin (to steal from the early Anabaptists). The problem is that we’ve wound up with them being disconnected. Liberals are all into Peace and Justice but Conservatives are just into a Jesus that doesn’t extend to far past our noses. In 16th Ce. terms, Liberals have turned into secular humanists and conservatives have turned into Lutherans. The Anabaptist critique, then and now, is that you have to have both.

    – Is MCUSA prepared to be an urban denomination?
    Not even close. For example: why is it that Harvey County in Kansas (with a population of about 30,000) has upwards of 30 or so Mennonite churches yet major cities like Houston, St. Louis, New York, etc.. have maybe on or two which are primarily made up of people who grew up in those rural churches and just moved to the city? If we knew how to be an urban church, we would be already.

    – How Serious Are We to Sharing the Gospel?
    Depends on what you mean. On one hand, you clearly say that evangelism will not look like it has in the past. But I was struck by your line “At a time when many churches face dropping membership numbers, evangelism may not only be a biblical mandate, but also necessary for survival” Even in your critique, the assumption is that Evangelism is necessary for survival, not for re-invention, re-birth, change, or any host of other things that would actually be more faithful in our changing world. If the goal of evangelism is to perpetuate what always has been, then we’ve got a big problem. If the goal is to spread the message of the Gospel, then yeah, I’m interested.

    -So is MCUSA doomed?
    A couple of thoughts. Yes the world is changing on a large scale around us (see Phyllis Tickle and ‘The great emergence’). However, in the same way that the protestant reformation didn’t do away with the Catholic church, neither will traditional denominations fade away either…..but they will change.

    As far as MCUSA specifically, I think it’s survival is threatened by two things. 1) MC/GC tensions. Remember that MCUSA is only about 8 years old and is made up of the former Mennonite Church and the former General Conference Mennonite Church. The problems that are most threatening aren’t just the cultural difference but rather how the two gorups approach the concept of a denomination, and thus they how view it’s role. (GC’s have seen conferences/denominations as simply representatives of autonomous churches working together, whereas MC’s have traditionally seen them as sources of authority) It’s hard to have a functioning structure if there are two major competing foundational views on what that structure is even supposed to be. (i.e. the U.S. government) Problem 2) is our ability to co-exist with others who hold divergent beliefs. MCUSA is a very broad denomination with a wide range of beliefs. We need to focus more on simply describing what MCUSA already is rather than trying to prescribe what it should be. If we can’t figure out how to focus on our vast common areas rather than focusing on a couple of hot button issues, then yes, we’re doomed. I have hope that we can ultimately work on our commonalities, though.

    So, that’s more than two cents, but hopefully it’s helpful.

    Oh, and for reference, I’m a 29 year old pastor working in a rural congregation in South Central Kansas. Just thought I should be upfront about my setting which probably informs me more than anything.

  3. jwy523 Says:

    Alan — many thanks for your response. I agree that one of the biggest challenges facing MCUSA is the clash between the GC and MC cultures and their different set of expectations regarding the relationship between congregations and denominational polity. I think that the current fight about homosexuality in the denomination is at one level also a culture clash between GC and MC.

    In regards to evangelism, I agree with your point that evangelism should be about “re-invention, re-birth, change” for the church and not simply maintenance of the status quo. Maybe I needed one more sentence to communicate that better. What I was trying to address was the allergic reaction that many of us have to the “E” word. I don’t advocate “business as usual” when it comes to evangelism or argue that we need to go out and get as many bodies as we can into the pews. But I did see first-hand the demographic crisis that many of the German “free churches” are experiencing and at some level, we do need bodies in the pews. I suppose the distinction between “old” and “new” evangelism depends entirely on how we go about and whether we try impose some preconceived notion of church in our efforts or provide space to allow transformation of the church to happen. I’d certainly like to hear more of your thoughts on the topic.

  4. jwy523 Says:

    I realized that after saying “evangelism shouldn’t be about getting bodies into pews,” I then say, “we need more bodies in the pews.” That’s not exactly what I was aiming for here…ultimately, evangelism should be about spreading the message of the Gospel and inviting people into our communities of faith. At the same time, so much of our current crisis is described as a kind of numbers game, which perhaps reflects our Western context — “success” means numbers go up and “failure” means numbers go down. Anybody have a better way of framing this?

  5. Greg Boyd Says:

    Great blog Jeremy! I deeply appreciate your clarity on the issues. It’s a bit ironic, and sad, that a blog like yours is necessary just as the Constantinian/Christendom paradigm of the faith is dying and individuals and tribes all over the globe are independently discovering the truth and beauty of the servant kingdom that Anabaptists have always embraced. And many of these post-Christendom Jesus followers (and I am one of them) are looking for an anchor in the Christian tradition they can align themselves with! But to embrace these Jesus followers, MCUSA will need to make the adjustments you;re calling for… and sooner rather than later!

    Can the MCUSA rekindle the historic Anabaptist passion for Jesus, for the lost (evangelism) and for keeping the kingdom “holy” (e.g.not equating “biblical justice” with partisan political programs)? I’m hopeful, but concerned.

  6. Mike Says:

    “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.”

    Interesting. As a conservative Mennonite I have not been unfamiliar with this critique, but what is unusual in this case is that it’s source is not a grave, plain-clad bishop warning his flock of worldliness. 🙂

  7. susan Says:

    This is an extremely interesting, compelling and needed conversation. Since there has been some conversation already on several of the topics you addressed, I wanted to pick out one point that you discussed but hasn’t been discussed further-Christian faith in the next generation. I have 4 young children and am hopeful for their future, but at the same time afraid when I think of the question that you asked-“how do we help our young people encounter the risen Christ in and authentic and compelling way?” in our churches today? I agree biblical literacy is an important part of faith development, but if the current Sunday School model isn’t effective, then what is? My husband and I work at home to model a Christ centered life daily, we read Bible stories and discuss them with the children, but will this be enough? I would love some discussion on how other churches are helping families address these issues!

  8. Arthur Dyck Says:

    Please permit a comment from Canada. I am a 57 year old former MB pastor who grew up GC and now work as a consultant for the Anglican Diocese of Edmonton (Episcopalian). My role is to bring some new perspectives to this mainline Protestant denomination because they, too, are experiencing the same loss in membership as they are in the US. Only we’re ahead of you. I just spent three wonderful days listening to John Franke and Brian McLaren. The conclusion I have come to is that today’s churches no longer know what the gospel is, how to frame it in a manner that our postmodern society understands, and don’t know what to do with people who want to understand. I know that that sounds cynical, but I believe it to be true. You can’t talk about justice and faith until you understand why there needs to be justice and faith. Justice for justice sake, anyone can do that. But to grasp the enormity of God’s love for us, our required response of love for our neighbor and the “sentness” of the church as a light to the Gentiles to demonstrate the kingdom of God needs to be at the core of our faith. Now you can talk about justice. You don’t need to be Mennonite to do that, but Mennonites can offer some unique perspectives. So I don’t know whether the question about whether the MCUSA can survive is terribly relevant unless you want to mourn the loss of an institution. I think the more appropriate question is how do we best participate in the missio Dei? Let’s forget about being Mennonite or Presbyterian or Episcopalian and focus on the essentials.

  9. David Says:

    If the church does not preach Jesus Christ, then it is doomed, and it doesnt matter. If the focus of MCUSA is on Peace and Justice, then they are just a social organization. MCUSA is not about saving souls. I go to EMU, and I can tell you they are deeply commited to peace and justice. I also grew up in the Anabaptist tradition, and I can tell you, the message of salvation is seldom if ever preached.

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