I don’t think I am delusional, but as the leader of a national church, I sometimes feel as though I am romanticizing a lost cause. I serve a collective within the context of individuals. I depend on the communal while appealing to the private.
Rather than dismiss the disengagement I encounter, I seek to understand it. There is often great wisdom within the expression of disillusion. Disappointment reflects a loss, discontentment a cherished hope. And so I welcome these gifts. I ponder the future, as mysterious as it is. I consider the past as selectively as it is recounted.
Such a gift was given to me recently. The following statement was included in a supportive and encouraging email: “I would be like most people in our church and have a love/hate relationship with conference. We love the idea of belonging to something bigger than ourselves and speaking with one voice and sharing common theological and ecclesiological ground. But we find quite a large disconnect between what goes on in the offices and what goes on in our daily congregational life. And because of that disconnect, I end up not trusting what comes out of the office.”
Another email conversation offered the following: “I think distrust and disconnect might come from just not knowing/not being in relationship with anybody from Mennonite Church Canada. I don’t think we otherwise have ongoing trust issues with Mennonite Church Canada. If anything, we might feel indifferent because Mennonite Church Canada has little-to-no impact on our lives as a church.”
I treasure these comments.
At a recent event, Stuart Murray, the author of The Naked Anabaptist, told of entire denominations in Europe planning for discontinuation. Leaders have even identified closure dates. I made a few notes about this in the company of many pastors and leaders. One of them saw me writing and asked; “What date did you write down?” I laughed at the witty comment but grimaced at the conjecture.
I understand the common dilemma of pastors in a context where few people are interested in denominational identity. I remember it well. But still something feels restless within me. Intuitively, individualism and isolation feels wrong, but practically, it seems preferable. We warn against it from our pulpits, but prefer it as congregations.
I am not interested in defending an institution, but I am interested in nurturing a historical movement. As some congregations distance themselves from Mennonite/Anabaptist identity, other emerging leaders are discovering Anabaptism and yearning to recover its expression.
At our recent national Assembly in Vancouver, B.C., 44 young adults attended, some for the first time. I’m grateful for the inspiration I received from them.
People of all generations long to belong to something beyond themselves, but the church cannot take for granted that it will be selected to meet that need unless we display a readiness to engage current concerns, embrace creative approaches to worship, and share leadership influence. That will make the church a place where people can find meaningful engagement and a cause worth sacrificing for.
Willard Metzger is executive director of Mennonite Church Canada