‘Tunnel vision’

January 19, 2011 | Editorial | Number 2
Dick Benner | Editor/Publisher

Joe Neufeld puts his finger on an important artificial divide in our congregational care-giving (page 4) when he raises the spectre of perceiving some aspects “sacred”—and thus safe and legitimate—while others are considered “secular”—and thus suspect.

Although his well-articulated case might be overstated at times, it does point to a larger cultural context in which Mennonites are having some difficulty navigating the rapidly shifting values and worldviews of the wider society.

Perceiving ourselves far more sophisticated than our immigrant parents in many cases, with higher-education degrees and professional and business careers, we have developed the right religious language, but at a subconscious level our attitudes and practices have not quite caught up. Still harking back to the shared values of our mostly rural communities, we often still operate as though our neighbours, those we bump into at the grocery story, have familiar names like Yoder, Petkau, Wiebe, Martin and Redekop (as David Martin points out on page 13).

Even some of our new congregations form around the coming together of people of European descent, the disillusioned or alienated from one or another of our many historical Mennonite splinter groups, attempting a kind of insular cultural refuge where the vision centres around new, more progressive or evangelical stripes of the Anabaptist brand.

But our neighbours do not have a shared history, a similar religious ethos and culture. Canada absorbs more than 100,000 immigrants a year now from all over the globe. They are Muslims, Buddhists, Hindu, Sikhs, although, according to Lethbridge sociologist Reginald Bibby, fully one-third of these new immigrants “are Christians, many from Korea, the Philippines and Africa, where Pentecostalism is spreading on the winds of revival.” Some have no religion at all. While the mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic communions are losing numbers, Eastern religions are on the rise.

Our children go to school with their children. We labour side-by-side with their parents and grandparents in the workplace. We compete in sports, act in plays, sing in choirs and play in bands and orchestras with them. They appear on television and in our newspapers as media anchors, pundits and reporters.

And speaking of the media, the “world” as we historically defined it is much more with us, much more in our faces. We spend much less time in church, much more on the Internet, at sports and entertainment events, even at the local restaurant rather than around the dining room table at mealtime. Now our community is our group of Facebook friends, fostering a kind of superficial intimacy that shares more trivia than substantive feelings and values. We know more about them than our fellow congregants.

All of which can lead to a confused self-identity as a people of God. Some-times, we get a clearer answer from so-called outsiders, one of whom, author Marci McDonald, writing about the rise of Christian nationalism in Canada, links us with the Calvinists who once fled persecution in Europe. But by the end of her treatise, she describes us, through our association with Kairos, as “left-leaning Mennonites and Quakers.”

So, when we come together for worship on Sunday morning and at other church-sponsored events, we bring vessels filled with disparate elements of our culture, minds that are often distracted, emotions raw with anxiety, sometimes confusion. It is hard to focus on a very necessary “God moment,” where we need a kind of spiritual flush to bring us to a place where faith can fill the gaps, the void, the hunger for something whole, something healing, something nourishing and sustaining.

Every pastor in touch with these realities knows the challenge that this scenario presents.

Likewise, with our behavioural problems. Despite all of our technological advances, all of our applied sciences bringing advanced diagnoses and treatment, personal problems such as depression, marriage breakdown and drug abuse have actually increased. A narrow pietistic approach to these issues in our congregational caregiving will not suffice.

Neufeld calls this “theological tunnel vision” and appeals to congregational leaders to broaden their insights and treatment, and co-opt behavioural and social scientists in addressing the issues that increasingly confront church families. He is right, not because he is a practising psychologist, but because the root causes of these problems arise from a much more complex culture than our historical experience has given us.

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