Where are our churches headed?

November 10, 2010 | Editorial | Number 22
Dick Benner | Editor/Publisher

What will the typical Mennonite Church Canada congregation look like in three years?

That’s the question on the minds of my fellow congregants at Waterloo North Mennonite Church, as we attempt to identify character and vision as a body of believers. Driven by the need to replace a youth pastor, and for preparations for a 25th anniversary in 2011, the 240-member congregation has been holding what are termed Values Identity and Priorities (VIP) sessions that began with a church retreat in early October.

It is a productive exercise, one I would recommend for any congregation at this particular crossroad. As a newcomer to the scene, I find the process and its outcomes both inspiring and intriguing.

On the plus side, the congregation seems to feel good about itself, not in a complacent, comfortable sort of way, but expressing contentment and appreciation for the spiritual energy and sense of unity as a church family. You might say the congregation has high self-esteem—a healthy dynamic for looking ahead.

On the other hand, as characteristic of driven German/Swiss/Russian Mennonites, there is always room for improvement, for ways to do it better, an inner motivation to advance, to polish and to refurbish. With a good demographic mix, this has its own built-in constraints.

Three areas seem to emerge as needing special attention in the days ahead: a call to be more welcoming to other cultures, to be more countercultural in faith and practice, and to meet a growing yearning for spiritual growth and formation.

On the welcoming front, one congregant observed that we are “still too mono-cultural,” still too populated with people of European descent. “People with different ethnicity come and stay for awhile and then leave,” he said with some guilt and frustration.

I suspect he is echoing a sentiment that could be heard across the 230 congregations of MC Canada. At a subconscious level, we are still too comfortable with our own kind, still too uneasy with those bringing a different language and cultural orientation. At the growing edge of our denomination, the new ethnic minority congregations are still too much a subculture, still having difficulty coming into our cultural mainstream.

It will take some serious intentionality to change the dynamic here. We will have to move from the talk to the walk, doing such things as teaming families together with similar demographics (age of children, similar professions, similar leisure-time activities). More of their leaders will have to be worked into our congregational and denominational infrastructure, just to name a couple of measures that can make this “integration” happen.

Becoming more countercultural will take a great deal of finessing. While there is the fear of returning to the closed sectarian religious culture of the recent past in many of our communities, we are also smitten with guilt that, in our escape from these rural enclaves with all of their cultural baggage, we have merely put on a new set of clothes that too comfortably adopts the fashions of the dominant culture—with all of its emphasis on individualism, nationalism and ethnocentrism.

Our kids need to excel in sports, in drama, in their studies, in the arts and sciences, in their quest to be good citizens—all of which are worthy goals. But many of them work against our core beliefs as Anabaptist Mennonites in our confession of Jesus as Lord of our lives, in our life as a Bible-centred community and in our commitment to peace and nonviolence in the workplace and in national issues.

Responding to the spiritual longings of our church members is already underway, with a recent emphasis on “spiritual formation,” and a systematic program to train spiritual directors. It is very “Anabaptist” in nature, where we have always voiced a “priesthood of believers” core belief. But with our adoption of a professional “clergy”—like our mainstream Protestant colleagues—we have not always practised it.

This will, of course, over time change the paradigm for many of our pastors, taking them from essentially being church administrators to what Eugene H. Peterson calls the “contemplative pastor.” It will reflect, he says, a kind of preaching that is “a creative act requiring quietness and solitude, concentration and intensity.”

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