All indicators point to the old structures giving way to new ways of being the church, Willard Metzger told the nearly 400 delegates gathered for the 2011 annual church gathering of Mennonite Church Eastern Canada Friday, April 29. “This is the new reality and we really don’t know what it is.”
Metzger, the new general secretary for Mennonite Church Canada, was one of seven persons giving “letters” on the theme of “What is the Spirit Saying to the Churches?” This “new way” is bringing with it a high level of uncertainty and uneasiness,” he said, “but I hear the Spirit saying ‘I’ll take it from here.’”
This should not bring disengagement or being passive, he cautioned, but rather bring us to a fervent prayer for a new infusion of the Spirit, a new seeking of God’s presence in partnership, a different level of trust and confidence in the context of the unknown. He called for a “discipline of trust” that holds loosely our assumptions and for listening to voices from unexpected sources, from the “whales and donkeys” we read about in scripture.
David Martin, MCEC executive minister, sounded a kind of gathering theme when he asked the question: do we know how to make disciples? Our biblical scholars have schooled us well in knowing the particulars of our historical faith, he said, perhaps “now is the time for them to instruct us on how to share our faith with others.”
The “letters” presentations grew out of regional consultations last fall when clusters of congregations gathered at the initiative of MCEC on what God “is calling us to in our time.” “We came from congregations big and small, rural and urban,” said MCEC moderator Aldred Neufeldt, “comprised of believers who trace their Mennonite identity from a few years to nearly 500.”
At the core of the themes that emerged from these consultations “is a deep yearning to understand better who we are in today’s world and to build on our identity,” he wrote in his gathering message.
Ervin Stutzman, visiting as the new executive director for Mennonite Church USA, said the “spirit” is saying many different things in his context, with congregations in all sincerity seeing and having convictions in quite opposite directions.
In order to bring some order to this sometimes chaotic and frustrating process, his councils will bring to the upcoming Pittsburgh Assembly, seven different “first things first” core values, namely (1) Christian formation—is the image of the church shaped by Christ-centred beliefs? (2) discerning in love—seeing congregations as interdependent, (3) developing a holistic witness, avoiding fragmenting into different emphases (4) stewardship of “all we are,” (5) leadership development from outside the congregation, (6) an inter-cultural ministry focused on racial healing rather than on racial bias and (7) cultivating church-to-church relationships, such as more cooperation between MC USA and MC Canada.
Brian Bauman, MCEC mission minister, in his Saturday morning “letter,” said that established churches and the new church plants are all a “part of the same mould,” citing the pastor of his youth, Gerald Good, now retired, as giving him a chance to be angry without thwarting his formation. Quoting Jesus’ words to John, he said we should likewise “look to God to break into our lives, to not try and tame the Spirit.”
He did question, however, the prioritizing of area church dollars when the mission budget has been reduced 40 percent in the eight years he has been mission minister.
Through an interpreter, Lucy Roca, church planter in Sherbrooke, Quebec, told of a vision when the spirit said the churches are lukewarm and found wanting with the “fire of the spirit,” and called MCEC churches to reaffirm their “first love” of Jesus and his Word.
In a video-taped interview, Ralph Lebold, retired minister and conference leader, said he was encouraged with how the young people “are extending the peace of Christ” in so many ways. He said pastors should work hard at spiritual formation to discover their “spiritual centre,” that congregations should focus more on developing community and for parents not only to revive what he said was the lost art of “tithing,” but to talk about it with their children.
He called, too, for a renewed interest in scripture, including memorization, and for ongoing spiritual renewal where we intentionally look for “where God has been at work.”
Finishing up the “letters” was Rebecca Steiner, a liberal arts student at Conrad Grebel University College, who credited her church with her faith formation, indeed instilling within her a more radical expression of that faith. She called for a new openness to “be all that God wants us to be,” to be salt and light, Christ-filled vessels who are transparent and open, free and filled with joy, listening and observing “with hands wide open” as to where God is moving in our community and with “broken humanity.”