If I were to describe in one word my New Orleans weekend at Sent: A Mennonite Church Planting Conference, my word would be Rihanna. More specifically, Anti, Rihanna’s newest, experimental, and critically confusing album. Being at Sent was like four consecutive listens through Anti (I’m not sayin, I’m just sayin, maybe I listened to Anti four consecutive times, maybe I didn’t).
From the raspy, just-smoked-a-pack vocals on “Higher,” a bite-size track that clocks in under two minutes, to the lyrical, repetitious to the point of Taize, 6-plus minute “Same Ol’ Mistakes,” that’s the landscape of Mennonite church planting, not to mention the off-album trap-as-hell “B***h Better Have my Money” and whimsically rebellious “FourFive Seconds” with Paul McCartney–that, too, is the landscape of Mennonite church planting. For every church that pushes the boundaries of our definition of “Mennonite,” that same church is shouting canonically Anabaptist truths.
There’s been little effort or resource, save the 2009 Barnabas report, to catalogue Mennonite church plants in recent decades. But what a map they make! By far, sent was the most racially diverse Mennonite conference I’ve attended. And the church planters varied widely (disappointingly, there were no coffeeshop ministers to suade me to their value):
- In West Palm Beach, a Spanish-speaking congregation with Garifuna roots that began as a support group for women experiencing domestic violence.
- The small-town collective Circle of Hope two hours from Lancaster, PA, a church-ish devotional group for those who have been wounded by church but crave faithful company.
- C3, Calvary Community Church, a multi-thousand-person congregation that begin as a household fellowship hosted by Bishop L.W. (who remains one of the few Bishop-titled leaders in the Mennonite Church) and Natalie Francisco.
- Early Church, a Harrisonburg startup that never starts on time.
- Roots Fellowship, an earnest group of Christological hippies trying to lead the neo-pagans of Ashville back to an earthier, more just, less institutional Christ.
- A Nepalese Christian gathering on the far outreaches of Chicagoland, a mission of the Nepalese community at Living Water Church deep in Chicago’s northside.
- Casa de Paz, a ministry of a Protestant Texan (adopted into the Mennonite world) to support the families of men and women who are in immigration detention.
- The congregation that hosted us all, Amor Viviente of Metairie, a church plant of an American who converted a Honduran, who came to the U.S. in order to return the favor.
The only extreme not being held down was Kansas Bible Company who are, if not a church plant, certainly an intentional Anabaptist community.
The MC USA website offers a dry, coherent summary of the weekend with the inspiring headline, “Now is the time to plant peace churches!” The truth of the weekend was sloppier, more earnest, and and energetic than that headline. The institutional catchphrase “planting peace churches” hardly appeared, though it was implicit in much of the sharing.
Instead, it was a roiling, unpredictable weekend. We held bilingual worship with no less than two guitars and three back up vocalists, as everyone from Haitian to Nepalese pastors sang in Spanish together.
We prayed over strangers with theologies that didn’t fit ours. Occasionally, there was a little bit of smack talk for the institutional church, balanced by a struggle to articulate what we wanted from institutional and established churches, because they, too, are our friends (or employers, cough cough). There were only a handful of us from established congregations–and oh, I wish there had been more. I’ve found myself saying repeatedly, “there’s nothing church plants are talking about that isn’t relevant for established churches.”
We talked logistics and the frustrations of church planting. Then we all put on party hats and talked about how much we love our little flawed faith communities. Let me tell you, there is nothing more inspirational than watching Ervin Stutzman listen to often-unheard pastors while wearing a party hat.
Theologically, we were all over the map. But we weren’t interested in parsing the nuances of speaking in tongues, embracing gay Christianity, atonement theory, Drake choosing you over your twin, or Chris Brown’s redeem-ability. Like Rihanna, sometimes we were kicking Chris Brown to the curb, sometimes we let him slide a little bit. And yes, that’s a theologically tenuous place to be, but we were working out our trauma with fear and trembling. That was a consistent theme of the weekend–we’re all working out our trauma from sin, and so our faithful living looks a little different from each other. The persistent question was, “What good thing did Christ do for you? And what good thing happened to your friend when your friend met Christ? And what good thing happened to your friend’s friend, and isn’t this a thing that can change us for the better?”
Sent was confusing, and faithful, and energetic–and probably the most exciting thing happening in the Mennonite Church right now. People who are getting together to ask the question “What’s good?” instead of asking “Who messed up our party and how can we get it back on track?”
Maybe you think this Rihanna metaphor is a gimmick that can extend no farther. I was using it that way, until I read The New York Times’ review of Anti:
“This is one way to look at “Anti” — as the product of an imploding music industry, where the content of an album might have little bearing on an artist’s ability to make money, sell out stadiums or maintain relevance. It reflects a world in which Rihanna’s Instagram following and intimate online relationship with fans are more valuable than the architectural construction of a hit single or a radio banger.”
With a few substitutions, let me describe Sent the same way:
“This is one way to look at “Sent”– as the product of an imploding institutional church, where the systems of a denomination might have little bearing on a pastor’s ability to reach people, communicate Christ or maintain relevance. It reflects a world in which Christ’s ad hoc following and intimate personal relationship with religious skeptics are more valuable than the architectural construction of a single program or denominational resolution.”
The title of the review was “Rihanna’s ‘Anti’ Is the Record You Make When You Don’t Need to Sell Records.” Sent’s churches are the churches you make when you don’t need to sell the institution. The future belongs to those who love it. Institutional church is afraid of the future; so is the record industry. And yet those who are passionate about the music keep making it. The people who are planting churches are those who hear a call beyond institutional stability–those who believe in their call, regardless of what the rest of the world does. Those who have found a corner shrouded in darkness and carry a pocketful of matches.
The reason Sent felt so strange is because church planters are not deeply rooted in the institution, yet somehow deeply rooted in the theology. To be clear: church planters don’t despise the institutional church; they’re simply skeptical of its ability to evangelize and unsure how to communicate the overhaul the system needs.
Church planters are not concerned with institutional clarity or resolving the LGBTQ issue. They have a more joyful and urgent song that cannot wait for institutional stability. Like the music industry, there were representatives of the denomination and its agencies there to try to catch and bottle the attraction of this alternative approach to church. Will they be able to? That’s a question for another day.
Yes, Anabaptist church planting is dispersed, odd, and yet unified: in every track, in every fledgling congregation, the voice of Anabaptism, like the voice of Rihanna, shines through with its gritty, elegant, quiet-in-the-land, quick-to-lend-a-hand hymn.
And that, truly, is as far as I can extend that metaphor.