Mennonites are in a unique position in this era of mission. Arthur Boers, author and seminary professor, notes that we sit in that uncomfortable place between the mainline and the evangelical church traditions.
I work with a number of new churches and church planters. Some are “newcomer” congregations; others are steeped in the culture of the post-Christendom, post-millennium mindset; while several are simply striving to join God in doing ministry in their neighbourhood. It can be a significant task to help these churches and their leaders be in that “uncomfortable place.” I suspect it is just as challenging for many traditional Mennonite congregations to be in that “uncomfortable place.”
It can be argued that the definition of mission within the North American church has experienced an unfortunate schism:
- In the 1800s, the mainline churches went in one direction and were labelled “social gospellers” as they focused on the welfare of the community. Most important was the civilization of the society so that its people could understand and accept the gospel.
- In the other direction went the evangelical churches, the “soul savers,” which gave their best energy to individuals, believing that once they accepted the gospel they would be better citizens, which would make for a better society.
The end desire for both these defi-nitions was the same, but they differed in the means to that end.
A casual observation across the church planters with whom I work and the established Mennonite congregations would suggest that this schism of mission definition is alive and well within the Mennonite church. On the one hand, I hear great fervour for service ministry with and to economically marginalized communities because that is the mission of the church. On the other hand, I also hear great passion for evangelism—which focuses on individuals making decisions to follow Jesus Christ, including making disciples, baptizing and teaching them—because that, too, is the mission of the church.
It is critical for us as a body to find our way back to that uncomfortable place between our mainline and evangelical sisters. We are in a unique position, historically and theologically, to reconnect this divided definition of mission. God intends for the mission of the church to be about the agendas of both the social gospellers and soul savers. To suggest that we should do one over and above the other only plays into the ongoing dichotomy that found its way into Mennonite understandings of mission in the 20th century.
If your church likes to “minister to the less fortunate” but is uncomfortable talking about your experience of Jesus Christ, or your church loves to reach out to “the lost” but is reluctant to love them unless they follow Jesus, then it is mistakenly living with a partitioned definition of mission. Together, let’s find a way to reconnect our varying understandings and practices of mission, standing in concert in a godly but uncomfortable place of mission.
Brian Bauman is mission minister for Mennonite Church Eastern Canada.