Deconstruction and Rebuilding in Community: Mission in the 21st Century

September 12th, 2011 – by Hannah Heinzekehr

This post is part of a series on mission/evangelism. Email the editors at workandhope if you would like to contribute to the series.

Since moving to Southern California, my husband Justin and I have had a problem: we can’t keep plants alive. Our outdoor porch plants slowly withered and died –from overwatering, or conversely dehydration or for reasons unknown. Our first attempt at community gardening failed when our small plot was eaten alive by California critters that we didn’t know existed. Now, as we’ve started to grow some small potted herbs on our porch, we are watching with fear and trepidation, like worried parents, hoping that somehow, against all odds, these new plants will grow into fruition. We’ve had to deconstruct the ideas about gardening we learned in Indiana. We’ve had adapt and re-learn gardening here: what plants to grow, fertilizers to use, where pots should be placed, how to keep lizards off our “crops” and how much water to use.

Similarly, our ideas about mission have been deconstructed in Los Angeles. When we moved to California, I had already been working for Mennonite Mission Network for two years. I spent a lot of time talking with people about mission, and I thought I had a pretty good idea of what it meant. But moving to an area as cosmopolitan and diverse as Los Angeles County meant that my ideas about what mission meant had to change. I couldn’t make the same assumptions about what church looked like, how theology impacted mission, what language we worship in etc. This is a gift! But it also meant that some of the assumptions that I brought with me, as a European, middle-class, English-speaking, Mennonite from Indiana , were called into question simply by virtue of the place I was living.

Just like we had to reshape our models for gardening, our models for mission needed to be re-shaped. Some of the needs were the same. Just like our plants still needed water, fertilizer and soil (just different types and amounts), there is still a hunger here for church planting, church revitalization, and peace and conflict training, theological education and community outreach, but the ways that these needs are expressed and responses to them needed to change. Sometimes, it was little things that made me aware of these assumptions. The Mennonite Central Committee Relief Sale here features Nigerian puff-puff (delicious) and kimchee instead of apple fritters and funnel cakes. “International mission” doesn’t feel very far away. In fact, many church leaders are actively involved in mission in their home towns in Nigeria, Belize and Indonesia.  Four-part harmony was not as familiar, and worship services are often conducted in two or three languages. Building space, which is highly expensive and limited in crowded Los Angeles County, was hard to come by, and many congregations share space and/or meet in homes or parks. And the list could go on…

I realized that I would need to sit at the feet of new teachers and people who had been involved in mission in Los Angeles for many years. I would need to be willing to stay still, listen and learn, instead of being in the middle of the action.  Mission Network has been working for a long time to cultivate radical and “post-colonial” ways of thinking about mission. But it took actually moving to a new and different space before my own structures about mission and church could be re-formed. So, when I think about mission in the 21st century, I think our first challenge is to examine our own assumptions about mission and expand our ideas.

The second piece of this process is to re-build a concept of mission in collaboration with the communities and people where we live, work and minister.  If we believe that mission involves finding the places and spaces where God is already at work in the world, and finding ways to join in that work, then what better way to discern this than in community? As Anabaptists, we are wrapped in a lineage and historical theology that emphasizes the role of the community: in interpreting the Bible, in prayer together, in hospitality and in a myriad of other ways.

As the Mennonite Church continues to receive the gift of increasing levels of diversity, it will be our challenge to find ways to sit down at the table together: to discuss, to argue, to pray, to discern and to laugh together. I believe that this act of coming together is an act of mission.

Hannah Heinzekehr lives, works and studies in Claremont, California. She is a Church Relations associate for Mennonite Mission Network, and a graduate student at Claremont Lincoln University, studying the intersections between community development and theology. In her spare time, she enjoys visiting the beaches in southern California, hiking in the San Gabriel mountains, and reading something that hasn’t been assigned for class!

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We Come in Peace: A Response to Mark Tooley

November 18th, 2010 – by Jeremy W. Yoder

What if Mennonites ran the world? According to Mark Tooley, we are about to. In October, the president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) ominously warned on the website of the American Spectator that the rise of neo-Anabaptism among academics and hipster Christians threatened to become a politically dominant force for the ‘Great Satan’ that is American liberalism. For Tooley, the popularity of Stanley Hauerwas and Greg Boyd signals the rise of a militant pacifism that undermines historic Mennonite sectarianism and seeks to force pacifism onto the world by expanding the power of government. In other words, the great sin of the neo-Anabaptists is that they are liberals.

It’s difficult to take Tooley’s critique seriously. The IRD has long had a history of attacks against perceived liberalism within the church and has often been a provocateur in the current battles over sexuality among the mainline denominations. While IRD’s mission statement claims that it seeks to “reaffirm the church’s biblical and historical teachings” the positions the think tank considers to be “historic” often seem to have more to do with the so-called culture war and a particular type of Christian conservatism that conflates the worship of God with nationalism. For example, in a 2007 IRD press release, Tooley called a Washington, D.C. anti-war march a “pacifist and an anti-U.S. rally” since the promotional literature advocated “the principles of pacifism upon which Jesus based his life and ministry.” As atheist commentator Austin Cline noted, Tooley pretty much condemned a pacifism “that is based on teachings attributed to what he regards as his Lord and Savior.”


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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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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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Why I’m [Still] Mennonite – Hope and Peace

July 19th, 2010 – by Laura Church

Laura ChurchI am still a Mennonite because of the Presbyterians.

On a daily basis, I am surrounded by gun shots, drug deals on my front stoop, and questions from the police over whether my husband and I are lost as we pull up outside of our row home in Baltimore.  The adjustment to life in my neighborhood was difficult for me. Just a few months after moving there, I felt frustrated with my neighbors, sad that anyone had to live in this situation, and tired of seeing people make destructive life choices. I saw little hope for those around me, and wasn’t sure what “peace” was anymore. I wanted to move, and often retreated into my house to avoid my neighbors. However, both my husband and I felt a deep sense of call to live in this neighborhood. We realized that we needed a community with a similar sense of call in order for this to work.

We began looking for this community at church. I was surprised to find myself drawn to a Presbyterian community near where we live. I was raised in the Mennonite Church, and as an adult, I continue to hold to its values and commitments. I felt skeptical that I would find what I looked for in this community. However, on the first Sunday we visited, I knew I had found a place that truly sought and followed the footsteps of Christ. We found a rainbow of people worshiping together. The pastor talked extensively about core values of the church: Reconciliation, Redistribution, and Relocation. He spoke on the importance of living among those you serve, share resources, and bringing together groups of people who would not normally interact. I realized everyone in that service lived in the neighborhood and came from a variety of backgrounds. Some had grown up locally, and some were transplants. Some continued to struggle with their daily needs, while others had never known poverty. However, they all were committed to loving each other and providing for each other’s needs. They knew each other, loved each other, and lived their lives together as one body. I found hope in their commitment to each other and discipleship to Christ. While they would not consider themselves a “peace church,” I saw persons working for peace more clearly than ever before.

I no longer desire to move. I learned that in order to love my neighbors, I must know my neighbors. Instead of watching my neighbors from my house and feeling frustrated, I now spend my time sitting on my front stoop talking to them, helping people apply for social security or unemployment, pumping up balls and tires for the children, or having a family over for dinner. I still have some of the same frustrations that I did before, but I see my neighbors differently. They are now my family, people I love, and the idea of leaving them breaks my heart. I learned that to provide hope and peace for those around me, I must know them, live with them, and share in their daily life struggles. I also learned that not only do I have something to offer them, but they have something to offer me. I am regularly loved, called family, and looked after by my neighbors. I no longer work for hope and peace for my neighbors — we now work together to find hope and peace for the neighborhood. Ω

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Why I’m [Still] Mennonite – Community

July 19th, 2010 – by Sherah-Leigh Gerber

Sherah-Leigh Gerber

Perhaps I’m “still” Mennonite because I’m a bit weird. And I say weird, because I think it’s counter-cultural to think that denominations matter, but I’m in that group that does. I think denominations are important. Yes, it can get messy and hierarchical. Yes, it can be bureaucratic and broken, but ultimately, denominations provide both a historic rootedness and an ongoing accountability that is important for faith.

I grew up as the oldest daughter of Mennonite pastors. Both of my parents grew up in Mennonite homes as well. So one might assume I am Mennonite because of my upbringing. While I am an “ethnic Mennonite,” I’m an Anabaptist Mennonite by conviction. Living out my faith through the theological understandings of Anabaptism is a choice that I continue to make. And that choice is not because I’m unaware of other options.

Through my public high school experience, I made friends who were strong Christians in other denominations (and a dear friend who claimed atheism). This provided a wonderful opportunity to for me to learn and grow in my own faith tradition in ways that I may not have had to otherwise.

I clearly remember when one of my friends came over for dinner. Our family held hands as we sang grace; we enjoyed a leisurely dinner, talking and laughing as a family. As she got ready to leave, my friend asked if my family did this every night, and if so, could she come again? It was the first time I realized that not everyone’s family did things as our family did. What a gift she provided me with that insight! The faith that my parents claimed deeply impacted all areas of their lives. The Anabaptism modeled for me was not a Sunday morning experience or a merely personal salvific moment, but a way of living and loving that impacted everyone in our family sphere.

The theological framework provided by Anabaptism is the way of understanding faith that resonates with me, and so I am “still” Mennonite. I’m sure the opportunity and affirmation I have received within the Mennonite community also has impacted my commitment. I appreciated the opportunity in Seminary to go deeper into these ideas, and I came through, still believing that the Anabaptist lens is most helpful.

In particular, I’m drawn to the centrality of Christ and understanding Jesus as non-violent in his approach and call to discipleship. I appreciate the way Anabaptism holds together peace and justice through the person of Jesus. I’m attracted to the practical, rich and serious way that Mennonite theology takes the teachings of Jesus. I am encouraged and challenged by both the personal and communal elements of living out an Anabaptist way of life, and these dynamics are particularly significant for mission and service activities.

In a recent Sunday School class discussion, we were talking about the value of community, a significant feature of being Mennonite. While reflecting on how challenging working things out “in community” can be, I realized that the accountability and support of my community is a significant part of how I understand faith, process my experiences and make meaning of this journey. Yes, it’s messy and difficult and takes time and energy, but really all things worth having seem to be that way. Ω

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Why I’m [Finally] Mennonite

July 19th, 2010 – by Adam M. L. Tice

Adam M. L. TiceThe strange thing about saying I am “still a Mennonite” is that I haven’t officially been a Mennonite all that long. For my first three years of life, I attended a Mennonite church. After that, my family lived outside of Mennonite enclaves. We were generally Anabaptist in orientation at home, but on Sunday we were just plain Baptist.

By the time we moved to Elkhart, Ind. when I was 15, I felt detached from the Mennonite world and didn’t regard it as a priority to attend a Mennonite Church. My older brother and I began attending a Missionary Church. I continued there for 11 years, through college at Goshen, and during my time at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary. Through higher education, I did discover a deep resonance with Mennonite theology. And yet education and personal theology did not really make me Mennonite. I had not committed myself to a local body of believers.

My baptism at age 13 did not entail church membership. For theological reasons, I never became a member of my Missionary church. So by the time I finished seminary, I was neither a Mennonite nor a member of any church. My identity was finally solidified within community when I became the Associate Pastor at Hyattsville Mennonite Church, just outside of Washington, DC. In fact, I was licensed as pastor a full week before officially joining the church.

My choice of a Mennonite identity was by no means inevitable. I was not nurtured (or indoctrinated) through Mennonite Youth Fellowship. Even Mennonite higher education couldn’t shake the hold of another church, although it ultimately led me to ministry within MCUSA. I am Mennonite, first and foremost, by conviction and choice. I have (finally!) committed myself to a local body of believers; I have also committed myself to a conference and MCUSA as a denomination through the process of credentialing.

And so the answer to the question, “Why am I still a Mennonite,” is that I’ve only really been a Mennonite for three years! I have chosen to be Mennonite because of my convictions about what God is doing in the world. Through Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, God is bringing about a new creation, and we as Christians take part in that work. Mennonites articulate and live out this work in a way that I have not seen in any other faith tradition.

There are substantial issues that make my relationship to MCUSA tenuous. The minute I became an official Mennonite (and as a credentialed minister, I even have a card to prove it), I also became a marginal Mennonite. My conference placed my congregation “under discipline” several years ago for a long-standing practice of welcoming members upon confession of faith without regard to sexual orientation. By accepting their call, I also accepted the discipline.

I take comfort in the fact that growth occurs at margins; creativity flourishes and new ways of understanding emerge. At the same time, growing edges need to be fed and maintained by a healthy core. I wish that more of the church would have the opportunity to see God’s work of new creation as I do—alive, active, expansive, and inclusive, at the urban edge of the Mennonite world. I worry that we might be pruned away—that the denomination will lose the gifts that we bring, and that we will lose our connection to the denomination’s deep, strong roots. Ω

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Why I’m [Still] Mennonite – Heritage and Grace

July 19th, 2010 – by Laura Lehman Amstutz

Laura AmstutzIf denominations were dog breeds, I’d be a pure-bred Mennonite. It’s hard to get more “Mennonite” than me, with family roots traceable to the Netherlands and Switzerland, thirteen years of education in Mennonite institutions, nine years as camper and counselor at a Mennonite camp and attendance in a Mennonite church for all twenty-nine years of my life. Oh, and did I mention I’ve worked in Mennonite institutions for all but one job on my resume?

My husband likes to talk about my Mennonite bubble. I like my bubble.  Heck, I am the bubble, but this isn’t an essay about how I’m a Mennonite (with so much indoctrination, how could I not be?) — it’s about “why” I’m a Mennonite. Mennonites believe in letting people make a choice about their faith, and although we could have a discussion about whether thirteen-year olds are really making a choice, it is part of our heritage that we hold dear. I think the choice for my generation isn’t something we decided at twelve or thirteen, when many of us were baptized.  I think the choice really happens sometime around college or early adulthood, when we start making decisions about our lives for ourselves.  And it’s not a single choice, it’s a daily choice, or weekly choice, or a moment-by-moment choice.

So, why do I choose to be a Mennonite? With so much Mennonite education I probably should say something intellectual about following the ethical way of Jesus.

But I won’t.

I’m partially a Mennonite because people I respect and admire are Mennonites.  People I want to be like are Mennonites. People who have mentored me are Mennonites. Some of these people are pastors, who showed me that church is mainly about loving the people, with all their imperfections. Some people are faculty who showed me that it’s okay to think critically about the denomination and even criticize the church and that criticism does not mean I can’t stay connected to it. I am still a Mennonite because of people.

More recently, my choice to remain Mennonite has to do with the roots of the denomination. Early Anabaptists did what “emerging church” folks are just now talking about. They sought to follow Jesus in life. I’m used to thinking about Mennonites as about 50 years behind on all major trends, but in this one thing, it seems that we are ahead. Or at least we would be, if we could follow our roots.  I’m proud of that heritage.

Beneath these things, there is a warmth in knowing that I’m connected to a group of people that mostly tries hard to get it right, that mostly seeks to follow Jesus, that mostly intends to live their faith. And when they fail, I recognize that I cannot call myself a follower of Jesus without extending to them the same grace I hope to receive for my own failings.

I am a Mennonite because of breeding, education, people, heritage and grace. Ω

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Why I’m Mennonite [Again]

July 19th, 2010 – by Jeremy W. Yoder

Jeremy YoderThe Gospel of Luke contains a number of metaphors that might describe my spiritual journey — lost sheep; lost coin; lost son.  Jesus often spoke about his love and compassion for the lost and forgotten, and that includes those who wander away from the community of faith.  Like many of my peers, I spent years outside the Mennonite church.  Unlike many of them, I eventually found my way back.

Even though I grew up outside the typical “Menno ghettos,” I am deeply affected by my Mennonite heritage.  My family comes from the Conservative Mennonite Conference and I spent many summers as a child visiting my “plain” grandparents and attending church with them.  At the same time, I also attended Reba Place Church in suburban Chicago with my family. There I experienced an urban Mennonite community that was committed to radical Christian discipleship.  Looking back, I believe these two experiences kept me connected at least culturally to the Mennonite faith during my “agnostic period”, but they weren’t enough to keep me active in the church.

Why did I leave? I had questions and doubts.  Part of the problem was that my family background prized certainty.  My grandfather, who was a lay minister in the Conservative Conference, often emphatically used the phrase “I firmly believe” when making faith statements.  Weak faith was almost as bad as no faith at all.  He knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Christ had redeemed his sins through the cross and resurrection.  I concluded that if I could not believe in this Christianity thing completely, then I couldn’t believe in it at all.

At the same time, I had mentors and adult friends who encouraged me to question, explore, and doubt.  I did have space to explore hard questions, so the problem was not just that I came from a “religiously restrictive community,” but rather that Christianity itself stopped making sense.   Once I no longer accepted its fundamental story, all the apologetics, rituals, preaching and testimonies stopped making sense as well.

Why did I come back? I came back because one rainy Sunday morning, in a small Mennonite church in the Inland Empire of Los Angeles, I felt the Spirit nudge me to ministry.  I came back because I started “showing up” at church and the more I participated in the life of a congregation, the more this Christianity thing made sense.  I found ways of entering the Christian story spiritually, intellectually and imaginatively that not only connected to my experience, but also began to shape me in unexpected ways.  When I finally was baptized in my mid-twenties, I still had my doubts, but I also felt that I could commit to this faith community in spite of them.  As I continue to seek Christ, I continue to be surprised by how this story shapes who I am.

I’m a Mennonite because this tradition, with all of its problems and shortcomings, is my spiritual home.  I’m a Mennonite because of my ethnic heritage.  I’m a Mennonite because I trust its hermeneutic and witness to the world.  I’m a Mennonite because I seek to follow Christ.  I’m a Mennonite because Jesus found me and brought me back to the church.

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