As I look into the future, I find myself grieving the death of the Mennonite church. My sense is that the Mennonite church as we have known it is dying and that there is nothing that we can do to stop its eventual demise. As Mennonites integrate into the broader society, the close-knit communities that have shared a common Dutch-German or Swiss-German ancestry and cultural experience are beginning to slip away and die. I find a part of me grieving this loss.
What I also grieve is the way that we have sometimes allowed history and culture to become synonymous with the Mennonite faith. I am disturbed when being Mennonite appears to have more to do with a particular lineage, or is associated with a furniture brand or with ethnic foods like shoofly pie or zwieback. There is nothing “Mennonite” about the foods we eat.
What I find myself celebrating these days is the way that new adherents to the Mennonite faith are compelling us to re-examine what it truly means to be “Mennonite.” Mennonite Church Eastern Canada is now worshipping in 13 different languages on Sunday mornings, so if you are going to talk about “Mennonite food,” you had better start including some of my favourites, like Korean bulgogi, Laotian spring rolls, spicy Amharic dishes, or Hmong na vah.
In terms of Mennonite history, our stories of persecution also need to include the flight from oppression in Colombia, Laos or Sri Lanka, and not just from Russia or Switzerland. When non-westerners make up the majority of Mennonite World Conference, we here in Canada need to come to grips with the changing times and understand that being Mennonite is about embracing a theological and biblical identity, and not a cultural one.
I am encouraged by the popularity of Stuart Murray’s book The Naked Anabaptist. It represents the hunger within our congregations for setting aside the family histories and the ethnic associations, and embracing a renewed identity for the Mennonite church that is rooted in Scripture and theology. For the church to thrive and be relevant for a new generation of believers, we need to offer them more than a shared history and cultural experience. Culture and history are wonderfully enriching, but they must never displace the heart of what it means to be an Anabaptist-Mennonite. So please watch your language: Let’s keep the food Chinese, Hispanic, Ukrainian-German or Pennsylvania Dutch, but not “Mennonite.”
Perhaps we even need to downplay the culture of our founders in order to make space for the new cultures that are beginning to embrace the Mennonite faith. To use Jesus’ words, “. . . unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). What is it that needs to die in the Mennonite church today so that it can be reborn and revitalized as a multi-ethnic church embracing one faith and one Lord?
David Martin is executive minister of Mennonite Church Eastern Canada.