Are Mennonites the Conservative Ones?: A Pastor’s Response to The Atlantic

Buy a coffin and prepare the funeral. If the Mennonite church was waiting for a death knell, it’s today’s article in The fucking Atlantic. That was my first thought when I finished Emma Green’s article. Do we have to start a #NotAllMennos? You know we’re on dire straits when we start #NotAllMenno-ing.

The article is filled will all the passion you can wring out of a regional conference meeting (even one fraught with the tension of impending self-destruction). She even included audio clips of the music sung at the gathering. (I pulled out my hymnal to hum along to “Calm Me, Lord” while I read.)

The article, though it admits most Mennonites are zippered and motorized, still runs on the narrative: “Look at this backward group of faithful people stumbling into the 21st century.” Which is, sometimes, how I feel about our denomination. What’s worse is that the article was published the day after Presbyterian Church USA voted to accept marriages of same-sex couples.

If you’ve been following along with Allegheny Conference and Mennonite Church USA, there’s nothing in this article that will surprise you. We’re still mired in conflict, it’s just that now Time and The Atlantic are putting us in the headlines. If you want to be an optimist about it, you could say “any publicity is good publicity.” At least mainstream news outlets are reporting on religious events–maybe we still have some hope of relevance to individuals’ lived experiences.

I’m not much of an optimist on this issue. Part of me wants to throw my hands in the air and start posting screencaps of Hozier’s music video every time there’s a news report on LGBTQ debates in the Mennonite Church. I’ll caption it “Missing the Point.” Every time.

EVERYBODY IS MISSING THE POINT and I won't stop posting this picture until we find something better to argue about than who

EVERYBODY IS MISSING THE POINT and I am going to make you listen to “Take Me to Church” on repeat until we find something better to argue about than who “gets to” come to church.

There is one place where Green has missed a small point–at least, a nuance in the road. It’s intriguing that the article is focused on Allegheny conference, instead of Mountain States or some of the regional conferences that lean more inclusive. But that’s part of the narrative: those old Mennonites in rural Pennsylvania, how are they the gold standard for all Mennonites? The old Mennonites in rural Pennsylvania aren’t the center of the church anymore. Like the rest of the denomination, they’re hemorrhaging members as fast as their hair grays and their teenagers go to college.

Look at the congregations pulling for inclusion: Hyattsville and Pittsburgh. There’s a geographical element at play. This is as much about urban change and rural identity as it is about the substance of belief. The rural church has been the anchor of Mennonite values for as long as we can remember–basically, ever, in the United States. Urbanization has been causing a rift in the church for decades, and some of our membership decline is a by-product of our inability to adapt to where our children now live–the cities.  This is a tension in almost all of the regional conferences: the rural churches feel disenfranchised and want to be assured they’re still powerful while the urban churches want their piece of the pie. Green hasn’t addressed that part of our dynamics.

There’s another piece, too–Green (and many Mennonite reporters) paint our Mennonite struggle as rooted in the factionalism of Anabaptist history and our perpetual desire to shun somebody. But the anti-gay congregations is borrowing from both sides of religious history. In 1986, Allegheny Conference leadership wasn’t concerned about Hyattsville’s decision to welcome gay members. Maybe they were just more dedicated to congregational polity?No. In the last 30 years, the Mennonite Church–like many mainline Protestant and Catholic groups–have been pushed to the right by the growth of the “family values” Christians. This movement was just getting off the ground in the mid-1980s, when Hyattsville took a radically welcoming stance.

In the George W. Bush era, Evangelical America got a foothold into virtually every aspect of culture–including other groups. Many of the churches that are leaving MC USA are ones that already feel more at home in the non-denom, electric guitars and altar calls life anyhow. But Evangelical voices have grown more hard line, so that it’s not just about fighting the good fight, it’s about fighting any and every fight. This, in itself, is problematic. Disagreement is no longer acceptable, because all believers have to be a homogenous orthodox group. Since when has Christianity ever been that? (See: Acts 15.)Did you see the Southern Baptist call for more young people to get married? Talk about death knells.

At the same time, Mennonite congregations were having a bit of a pastoral crisis. They couldn’t find leaders for all their congregations, especially the rural ones. We have many more rural churches than pastors willing to work in those areas. So many congregations–like Cornerstone Fellowship at Mill Run (notice how they’ve dropped Mennonite from their name, but still have the MC USA icon in their tab)–turned to pastors who didn’t have the Anabaptist legacy–like Jeff Jones. And while Jones finds our quilts quaint and our food delicious (I don’t fault him for that, those are both objective statements), he’s wedded to the “my way or the highway” ideology of the American Evangelical tradition. He doesn’t have a dog in the MC USA fight, he has a dogsled in the delusional ideology of Keeping America a Christian Nation.

Congregations are, in most cases, only as crazy as their pastors. My congregation is not crazy–they’re just affable enough to like having me around, doing Kingdom crazy things and being a bull-hearted idealist. In the many congregations, the opposite is the case. Pastors are pushing moderate congregations toward the tempting us-or-them mentality of American Evangelicalism. As more Mennonite churches give in to this temptation, of being always and forever right so help the rest of us God, our conflict has reached breaking point. Disagreement–hot-headed, get-out-of-my-face polarity–is in fashion. For example, Congress. (Congress, too, is caught in the misguided Evangelical mentality of “no compromise in the kingdom.”)

I’m not as pessimistic as my gut-reaction to The Atlantic’s article. There’s a lot of hope. There’s many small, daily gestures of inclusion, not only to LGBTQ people, but to young people, to the emergent church. to new immigrants, to people of color–and to disillusioned postmodern theologians, like myself.

I’m not a pessimist. I’m just tired of being in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. My second thought, after “we’re dead,” was “my dear Mennonite friends, I need you all to immediately audition for American Idol.” Can we make it our commitment, this year, to be in the headlines for important things, like singing and getting slapped by J. Lo, instead of silly things, like arguing about how much sin is too much sin? What the church needs is more young Latino artists expressing joy, and less old white men stewing in their own commitment to hate everybody who’s different. Can we do more of that, please?

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2 thoughts on “Are Mennonites the Conservative Ones?: A Pastor’s Response to The Atlantic

  1. Hillary, I think you make some good points, but I don’t think that it’s merely about outside pastors bringing the culture wars home to roost in the Mennonite Church, or only a divide between rural churches and urban churches (although there is a trend). Not all rural Mennonite churches got handed second-rate non-Mennonite pastors. In fact, some of the churches turned down some Mennonite pastors because they weren’t very well suited to the ministry. Pick on Jones all you want, but plenty of born and bred Mennonite pastors (even some who went to Mennonite colleges and seminaries) would line up with him in leaving Mennonite Church USA. There may not be a Mennonite church every block in Lombard like there is at my first pastorate in Berlin, Ohio, but the schism narrative, though worn-out and tired, is still alive and well in this corner of rural Ohio. I also don’t think churches choose between their present cultural landscape and their tradition. Tradition provides the tools for processing a church’s current environment. What if 1980s-1990s “my way or the highway” Evangelicalism was the spark that lit the fuel of Mennonite schism within churches? Drawing on a different heritage, urban churches have learned to emphasize diversity, as Mennonites from different rural communities showed up for CPS or 1W service as congregations took root in the mid-20th century.

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    • You’re right–my hope was to nuance the schism narrative. It’s like a break up, in a way. Break ups don’t happen for one reason, they happen because a lot of things added up to no longer being able to be together. But part of that confluence includes the broader Protestant narrative. There is some validity to the Anabaptist schism; some rural churches have awesome non-Mennonite pastors, some Mennonite pastors want to leave MC USA badly. And, some of the voices against LGBTQ leadership are coming from the ethnic minority churches. I don’t know enough about those congregations to say how American Evangelicalism has influenced them. The reason I keep blogging about church split and LGBTQ issues is that there’s always something else to nuance–The Atlantic article reminded me of these complicating factors.

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