Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Why I like the Mennonites

I've always liked the Mennonites.  I have a childhood friend that came from the Anabaptist - Mennonite tradition that introduced me to their "peace and justice" ways.  I married someone who attended a Mennonite high school and has remained close to many of her classmates.  They have become my friends too.  A few years ago I read Brian McLaren's book, A Generous Orthodoxy where he speaks very highly of the Anabaptists.  I've heard him praise their orthodoxy and orthopraxy several times since.

I'm a Nazarene by blood. So is my wife, although she spent four years enjoying a community of four-part harmony. My friend Eric came to our Nazarene church with his parents when their Mennonite church closed. Brian McLaren says Mennonites emphasize personal commitment and the centrality of Jesus Christ.  These are two reasons Nazarenes and Mennonites get along. When you spend time with both groups you begin to sense other comfortable reasons as well.  McLaren groups the Anglican and Anabaptist theology together in his book.  Nazarenes claim a Wesleyan heritage. Wesley was Anglican.   I took one of those surveys on the internet that tells you which theologian you are most like.  I turned out to be most like Menno Simmons.  My Mennonite friend Holly turned out to be most like John Wesley.

In the last few years I have been intentionally identifying more with the emergent conversation.  Finding a community of faith, centered in Christ that affirms a generative dialogue is not easy.  I've done my best to read books, blogs, listen to podcasts, go to conferences.  Being part of this emergent cohort has been an effort to nurture my own soul.  Recently, through some decisions to move to a smaller community and have our children go to the Mennonite high school my wife did we have started attending a rural Mennonite church.  I don't know why we didn't do this sooner.  It has been a wonderful experience.  The community has been so welcoming.  It really feels like we have come home.

Last Sunday, I was amazed to see this young man walk to the pulpit in cargo shorts, untucked shirt, horn rimmed glasses, and goatee.  He told how he was part of a small community of 35-40 in St. Paul that had intentionally moved to a particular neighborhood to be part of a hurting world, together in worship and service.  He said they were in conversation with the Mennonite church and had joined the Central Plains Mennonite conference after learning about Mennonite theology from books like The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder.  I later learned this group had been birthed from an emergent church in the Twin Cities whose pastor I admire and have listened to via podcast.  This church is also in conversation with the Mennonites to see how they can support and encourage each other.

This just blew me away.  Here I was sitting in a rural church, in an established denomination, with people of all ages, backgrounds, shapes and sizes - and the emergent church was coming to us?  All I've been hearing is that denominations are dying.  I even heard Brian McLaren compare denominations to the music industry's insistence on an old model of music distribution in an age of digital devices and downloads.  Who are these people of Peace and what is so attractive about them that a self described recovering evangelical would be drawn to become one of them?

I like the Mennonites because their theological tradition is built on what I would call classical Christian theology.  All the important stuff is there, the resurrection, Trinity, creation, Jesus.  They also practice moderation in life and belief.  They don't get too weird.  Phyllis Tickle, in her book The Great Emergence talks about some people wanting to remain within a denomination seeking to reform the Church from within.  I've heard terms like Presbymergents, Episcomergents, Methemergents (can i say that?), the Nazarene equivalent call themselves emergent Nazarenes (Nazimergents just doesn't work).  Fellow cohorters: Jim, Chris and Katie share this desire with me. The thing that strikes me about the Mennonites is the startling development of an emergent church seeking out a denomination, a tradition to join.

Something else I like about the Mennonites is their welcoming, hospitable attitude.  Yes, they have solid beliefs and know who they are and are not.  But, they do a really nice job of listening.  I once asked my friend John what they would do if someone in direct contrast to their confession of faith wanted to join their church.  He said, "we would have a discussion." This idea is refreshing. In a world where competition and control of power is supreme, a position of humility and curiosity is very attractive. This hospitality extends to everyone within and without.

Christ came and preached peace to you outsiders and peace to us insiders. He treated us as equals, and so made us equals. Through him we both share the same Spirit and have equal access to the Father. That’s plain enough, isn’t it? You’re no longer wandering exiles. This kingdom of faith is now your home country. You’re no longer strangers or outsiders. You belong here, with as much right to the name Christian as anyone. God is building a home. He’s using us all—irrespective of how we got here—in what he is building. He used the apostles and prophets for the foundation. Now he’s using you, fitting you in brick by brick, stone by stone, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone that holds all the parts together. We see it taking shape day after day—a holy temple built by God, all of us built into it, a temple in which God is quite at home. Ephesians 2: 17-22 MSG

Also, the Mennonite's position on pacifism and Peace being vital to entering the Kingdom of God is compelling.  I must admit, I need to learn more about this.  I will tell you that their commitment to Peace is not just political rhetoric.  It is woven into their very fiber.  They exude Peace.  My experience has been that Mennonites are Peacemakers in every action, every relationship, every thought.  I recently watched the remake of "The Karate Kid" (which is really about Kung Fu).  Mr. Han says to young Dre Parker. “It lives in how we put on the jacket, how we take off the jacket.  It lives in how we treat people. Everything is kung fu.”

I like how the Mennonites view leadership and ministry.  They talk about a "shared responsibility", and making decisions in "the community".  They see everyone as a minister with gifts and abilities.  They view the "Pastor" as a resource, a "resident theologian" as such.  It is not his or her role to do ministry for the church.  It is the church's job. We actually chose to attend a church that is between pastors.  We never heard the previous "lead pastor" preach or even met him.  I was struck by this vibrant congregation in an historic building of both new and old components; the full range of ages and backgrounds worshiping together, serving together out in the middle of nowhere on a dirt road (I'm a city boy, so please forgive me). We were drawn by the community, the warm welcome, the openness to whatever God will do and the willingness to see it if it shows up.

One last thing I'd like to comment on about the Mennonites is their attention to God's creation.  I haven't delved too deep into this with them directly, but I observe a reverance for all. There seems to be a notion that this world matters.  Mennonites serve in the world versus pulling out of it.  This is very refreshing in light of the tendencies of some groups that are focused on getting out of here as fast as possible and on to a bodiless heaven somewhere else.  I enjoyed N.T Wright's books Surprised by Hope and After you Believe.  He does a wonderful job of explaining a biblical and common sense view of a Christian eschatology.  Jürgen Moltmann is the master theologian of this with his epic work, Theology of Hope.  I was taken by the words to a hymn we sung from the Mennonite hymnal recently:  "Here in this place, new light is streaming... Not in some heaven, light years away, but here in this place, the new light is shining; now is the Kingdom, now is the day."


Katie Z. said...

wow! sounds like a vibrant, fulfilling, empowering church community =)

I have known a few mennonite folks and do find much in common with them. I loved what you said about the emergent church finding you within the structures of an another denomination. I can't wait to hear more!

Travis Marshall said...

Great post! I have a lot to learn from the Mennonite tradition-- the NKJV version of 2 Cor. 8 speaks to what Mennonites are about when it says that 'the sincerity of love is measured by what one is willing to become." In my experience, the Mennonite core is to hold loosely to all but Christ. Who knows, since I have been "blacklisted" from two denominations (as pastor) for standing up for truth and pleading the case of the poor maybe I might just have to check out those Mennonites, it sounds like they have a place for me.

Chris Epting said...

Lon: So wonderful that you and your family have found a church home with the Mennonite worshiping community. Many of us, in all communions, have enormous respect for the "historic peace churches" and can only home our churches can learn something of their integrity and courage.