Finding our way

June 18, 2013 | Editorial | Number 13
Dick Benner | Editor/Publisher

Ken Bechtel makes an astute observation in our lead feature when he says the church in postmodernity is more about “the experiential, spirituality, community, globalism, relativism and authenticity” than the “rationalism, dogmatism, nationalism and a veneered religiosity” of the past.

“In many senses, our post-Christendom, postmodern world is becoming more and more like that of the New Testament era,” states Bechtel, an intentional interim pastor. He is one of several pastors interviewed by our Manitoba correspondent, Evelyn Rempel Petkau, for a story on churches finding their way in a new context.

Bechtel’s perceptive comment points to larger, more complex developments in the wider Canadian society, those neighbourhoods whose demographics are shifting and changing as we speak.

Our white, mostly European “Christian” society is giving way to an immigrant population of many faiths, a growing and restless indigenous people, and an increasing number who aren’t interested in any church affiliation. While this is happening gradually, the impact of it all will affect how we both view ourselves as Anabaptist Christians in a new context and how we relate to our neighbours.

In their new book, The Big Shift, researcher/journalist Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson, tell us “the overwhelming majority of immigrant Canadians now come from countries that were once colonies (India, the Philippines, Caribbean nations), or were victims of imperial aggression (China). They bear none of the Europeans’ sense of responsibility for their colonial ancestors. The ancestors of today’s immigrants played no part in dispossessing the first nations of their land; their ancestors were themselves dispossessed.”

Because of this, the authors suggest there is little sympathy for Canada’s indigenous people, which are not only growing rapidly, but are making more demands on government and their white neighbours. “The [indigenous] population of this country, both on and off-reserve,” say the authors, “is expected to double, from one million to two million, between 2001 and 2031.”

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Moreover, they posit, “a new generation of [indigenous] leaders is increasingly impatient with their elders’ litany of grievances, preferring instead to concentrate on improving conditions on reserves.”

To our credit, many Canadian Mennonites are engaged pro-actively in the many Truth and Reconciliation hearings across the country and many congregations are forming Partnership Circles and making friends with our indigenous neighbours, with a view of them as part of our faith fellowships, rather than being focused on a tired, condescending “evangelism” paradigm.

In his work as director of Mennonite Church Canada’s Indigenous Relations (previously called Native Ministry), Steve Heinrichs emphasizes the need for respectful relationships and attempts to convey the interconnectedness of all peoples.

In MC Eastern Canada, leaders like Marianne Mellinger, coordinator of leadership formation, and Henry Paetkau, area church minister, are forming a new paradigm in pastoral training called “improv” (page 30), a model that pays attention to the spiritual dynamic evident in new immigrant churches.

All of these are good transitions that are defining the “new Canada” described in The Big Shift as a new generation recognizing the challenge and potential of a new demographic and seizing it, “almost overnight in geopolitical terms,” shifting the paradigms and bringing in a new order.

If we are too self-possessed during these changes, though, we will likely not make the adjustments necessary to keep our congregations vital and growing. New immigrant churches and our young people alike could soon find us irrelevant and form new models of church life and spirituality that look increasingly foreign to some of us stuck in modernity.

Externally, we may indeed be finding ourselves, as Bechtel suggests, in the environment of the New Testament church. Remember the Apostle Paul’s memorable Mars Hill speech to the “men of Athens” (Acts 17:22ff), when, using their own philosophical terms, he introduced them to the “unknown God” about whom they were curious.

“This God,” he said, “does not dwell in a temple made with hands and has made from one blood all who dwell on earth.” Strange, isn’t it, that even we who claim to know this God can lose sight of the basics in the midst of our changes.

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The editorial "Finding our way" amidst some rather momentuous changes in Canadian society is right on and I want to reiterate three key points. I am a sunday school teacher and congregant at First Mennonite in Edmonton, an active community volunteer with several social development groups, parent of two teens, and a sociology professor. The three points I want to emphasize are ones I see and hear in all those other contexts so am glad that one of the thought leaders in the Mennonite Church are also pointing them out. First, Benner points out that new immigrants do not feel the sense of responsibility for past Canadian wrongs against Aboriginal peoples. They feel they are coming to a country where the conditions in which they will live, work and raise families are already set and operate on a "go-forward" basis; they often consider Aboriginal peoples as just another "ethnic" group. This means that Canada absolutely must quickly fix the historical wrongs and treaty rights issues as they will only become more difficult.
Second, the editorial points out the danger that if we are "too self-possessed during these changes" we may not make changes in church practices to remain relevant, especially to youth and new immigrants. Better to be possessed by the Holy Spirit than our own presumptions that we have God and faithful living figured out - He will find new avenues for the gospel to be communicated in these times. We did a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis with the ten junior high youth. They identified the threats not to their faith, but to their continued participation in our church. Mennonite traditions are not the gospel.
Third, the editorial missed some important parts of changes that will challenge "our way". The slow-moving but increasing effects of climate change will make a wild new world. More extreme weather events, climate refugees, and loss of the buffering provided by ecosystems will probably add to expense and violence here in Canada and around the world. Our peace-making, disaster services, development expertise, community resilience, lifestyles of simplicity, and faith in a steadfast God will be increasingly demanded in a changing world.

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