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. Continue reading

On Grieving in Public on the Internet

I’ve been thinking about dancing. How much I love it. The places I’ve danced–literally thrown up my arms and been absorbed by the beat–in the middle of something terrible. How dancing is always a desperation, a need to move every limb and moment and be as present in every nerve of my body, as embodied, how the extreme of embodiment is the beginning of the mystical. About dancing as a sacrament, the way I nod–head bob, even–when I read my friends’ posts about dancing as a form of worship, how queer clubs are the closest thing queers have to church.

How I once said to a friend,  “I love dancing.” And he said, “No you don’t, I’ve seen you not dance. You don’t like going out to dance.” And I said, “No, I mean dancing when it’s safe. Like at liberal arts college parties when you know everyone in the room and you know no one is going to hurt you, they just came to dance.” That may be the least Anabaptist thing I’ve ever said. Somehow, in a religious tradition that spent 400 years eschewing dancing, the act of having a body with music still feels sacred to me. Continue reading

What the Church can Learn from Bernie Sanders

This article first appeared in Mennonite World Review.

Two months ago at Sent, the Anabaptist church-planting conference, I spoke with some young church plant­ers about what brings millennials to church. “May­be we should be more like Bernie Sanders,” I joked.

“Why not?” one planter responded. “If the church offered free education, millennials would be all over that.”As the Sanders campaign meanders onward, many speculate how the 74-year-old attracted such a rabid millennial following. But the church should ask another question: Has Sanders said something to our young people that the church has failed to say?

As I scroll through my Facebook feed, as I listen to a Goshen College alum explain his tithing to Sanders’ campaign, as I talk with a recent Wheaton College graduate celebrating Sanders’ win in Indiana — the answer is a resounding yes. Continue reading

Against all Rationality

I don’t like most sermons. (Note: this post is adapted from a sermon I gave this week. Not at my church, though.) As a preacher, I’m skeptical of the sacred regard we give to the sermon. Most Sundays I can’t justify a lecture-based all-ages banking-model of religious education, but it’s expected of me—so I do it, and I try to make it enjoyable (for me, if not everyone else).

I couldn’t locate the source of my distaste until recently, over at the Restoring Pangea blog, when Nathaniel Grimes offered an explanation. Grimes (who happens to attend my church), describes a church where “sermons present principles which everyone is expected to be familiar with, but which the congregation inexplicably does not exemplify. The underlying assumption is that, in order to become more [insert noble ethic here], people mostly need a combination of information and motivation.” The sermon is a persuasive essay designed to change your behavior or bore you out of the pews.

The underlying assumption of this preaching style, though, is that it begins with “the expectation… that all people are rational, moral, individual actors who only need to summon the will or learn the proper techniques to do what is right.”

This was a lightbulb for me. I don’t really believe humans are rational, moral, individual actors.

If I am being completely honest, I will say three years of pastoring has not strengthened my faith in humanity—it has made me more misanthropic, more skeptical, and more irritated by the very nature of humanity. Continue reading

An Odd Bunch of Believers: The Sent Conference and Courage Beyond Institution

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. Continue reading

An Anabaptist Survival Guide to the 2016 Elections

(This post is an excerpt from a sermon I preached on March 13. The traditional Anabaptist view is that Christians should not vote and thereby support a fallen system, but I–and many other contemporary Anabaptists–am of the school that voting is an extension of our creative nonviolence. This post is designed to speak to both those who vote and those who are conscientious objectors to voting. All of us must survive the election season.)

The 2016 election is brutal. Not just because it started in 2015. The whole narrative of the election hinges on an existential proposition–that we’re not voting for a person, we’re voting on the very nature of our lifestyles. It’s a terrifying proposition to put to a democracy, but it’s probably not too far off base.

So how do we deal with fourteen months of news reels asking us if the world as we know it is about to end? I tried to design a few practices for my own congregation.

DO Less. Be more. Ask yourself, “Am I seeking the things that love me back? What matters? Where matters?” Seek the places and people who matter.

DO Rest. You by yourself won’t change the election; you will not with a Five Hour Energy or a longer Facebook comment sway the outcome of the state. Be kind to yourself. Rest. Do the things that strengthen you. Live outside of the news cycle. Continue reading

Executive Board Renders Itself Irrelevant, Again

As usual, the report of Executive Board’s meeting brings up the question: What the — did you actually do? After this weekend’s meeting, today brought another convoluted and dysfunctional report from our most centralized leadership body.

Most Mennonites aren’t terribly interested in Executive Board, and for good reason. In a healthy organization, EB has little to do: their primary job is to manage the finances and administration of MC USA, the organization. CLC (the Constituency Leaders Council) is responsible for keeping a high-concentration of theology in that cocktail of worldly tasks. When we get mired in conflict–like our present debate over GLBTQ inclusion–EB is, in a way, called upon to overextend their original mandate. That’s important–a crisis requires additional leadership, management, and discernment. EB isn’t violating their original mandate; they’re stretching their responsibilities because questions about theological vision necessarily impact administration, finance, and structure of the organization. Continue reading

Militants and the Definition of Martyrdom

Until this morning, I found the standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge baffling and mildly disruptive, like a pot of poorly brewed green tea. But this morning,  when I heard the one of the young militants responding to LaVoy Finicum’s death, something clicked for me. The man said, in an eerily even voice, “They straight up–they straight up killed him. You think I’m gonna leave? No. They can kill me, too.” The reporter’s voice tried to explain his stance, describing the sense of martyrdom surrounding Finicum’s death. Martyrdom?

Once in college, a student asked a professor to explain the logic of Westboro Baptist Church. The professor, a theologian and devout Christian, said “I can’t do that. There is no logic. There’s no way to understand it,” unless you buy into the whole extremist worldview all at once. The same is true of the Wildlife Refuge’s occupiers, leaving the media in the unfortunate position of explaining crazy to the mainstream. No wonder we’re all still confused. Continue reading

Injustice Requires Interruption–why Protestors needed to be on Michigan Ave

“Some of the most important moments in your ministry will happen in the interruptions,” a professor told me while I was in my first week of seminary. As I walked down Michigan Ave, speeding to keep up with the 15-year-old from my church, I wished I could say this to the shoppers around me.

Today, let yourself be interrupted. By God, let yourself be interrupted. I understand white Christians who are reluctant to take to the streets in protest–but I do not understand white Christians who justify the police’s murder of Laquan McDonald and find black anger “disruptive.” Injustice should be disruptive. Continue reading