Who’s Afraid of Denominational Collapse?

This post first appeared in Mennonite World Review.

Early in my teen years, I asked myself if I really wanted to belong to the Mennonite church or if I was doing it out of family habit.

But during my freshman year of high school, as the U.S. charged toward an open-ended war in Iraq, my 14-year-old self arrived at a war protest with my family, weaving through the crowd until we saw the quilted, colorful banner that read “Mennonites for Peace.”

That spring, I walked miles across Seattle’s protest-riddled streets, running between the church’s delegation and my friends from public school, who had no church to march with. Somewhere in that year, in the chaotic, warmongering Christianity of the Bush presidency, I decided that not only could I commit to the Mennonite church but, later, when I finally digested my call to ministry, that there was nowhere else I would rather pastor.

When I was installed as a pastor at Lombard Mennonite Church, I felt the presence of every Mennonite church I had attended and a deep, abiding love for the denomination that raised me.

I still love Mennonite Church USA. At times I am tempted to fear for it, tempted to think the only way we can achieve unity is for each of us to pretend to be someone we are not, tempted to think that the health of the denomination will determine the health of the congregations.

Instead, I’ve committed myself to two Christian values: hope and trust. I hold to a certain Christian hope that no death has ever silenced God’s voice. I trust that every crack in our infrastructure is only God’s way of putting in windows where we have built walls. Every time a congregation or a conference leaves MC USA, I hear that pain, but I also hear the relief of the end of a dysfunctional relationship.

Sometimes, when a non-Christian friend asks how work is going, I say, “Oh, you know, another long day dealing with the validity of gay identity.” My non-Christian friends, who are mostly single and in their 20s and living in cities, respond with a blank stare. They don’t know. They are stumped by why it is necessary for me to spend so much time in conversations about LGBTQ participation in church. So am I, at times. So is my congregation.

What amazes me about MC USA is that I see congregations — my own, others in our region — that are thriving, healthy and vibrant, in spite of the denomination. Those congregations are stronger with the denomination. But they are more than the denomination, and they will transcend budget cuts and exits.

I don’t believe God is calling the Mennonite church to be defined by our stance toward LGBTQ inclusion. I believe God is and has always been calling us to be a peace witness, to critique militarism and to offer models of Jesus-shaped communities where our simple living yields rich community, rich food, rich music, rich life. And if God must break apart our denomination in order to remind us of that vision, I shiver with the excitement of remembering our original call.

I don’t remember if I was born into an MC or a GC congregation. It didn’t matter. There were only two Mennonite congregations in Western Washington, so there wasn’t any other group for us to distinguish ourselves over and against — only a city full of people who hadn’t thought much about God. Today, I am not afraid of where the denomination is going, because I know where my congregation is going: toward God’s call.

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One thought on “Who’s Afraid of Denominational Collapse?

  1. Sorry, but I don’t think mere reference to a vision of peace witness against the military nature of nation-states, and self-validation in community experience is especially either Mennonite or Anabaptist, historically speaking. Being a peace and justice community is mostly the trendy social rather than spiritual focus of many Mennonite congregations. The original Anabaptist vision was focused on the biblical call to holistic discipleship in a community of believers, but it was believers in the Jesus of history as witnessed to in the scriptures, not just a reductionistic rendering of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. One’s being self-sacrificially devoted to following Jesus undoubtedly includes abandoning every form of self-identity that might take precedence over identity in Christ, every self-perception about who “I am” that isn’t rooted in the biblical vision of being made in the image of God (cf., Gen. 1-2-3; Matt. 19, etc.).

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