One thing became very clear during the Future Directions Task Force conversation: In the imagination of most of us, Mennonite Church Canada is an “it” or a “they.” Currently, we experience the larger denomination—including the area churches—as an entity apart or distinct from the local congregation. We may affirm the services the denomination provides, or the programs it delivers, but these are “it” doing things for “us.”
MC Canada competes with congregations for resources and attention, and pastors easily treat assemblies as a responsibility or obligation. Staff conveying greetings from MC Canada at congregations or regional assemblies only supports that impression.
Whatever the cause—the adoption of budgets and growth of programs, the shift to lay leadership and the professionalization of assemblies, the merger of 2000—reversing this trend will require hard work. After all, localism is prominent, with larger identities under siege all around us. But the Christian church is called to be counter-cultural. As kingdom cells, we must nurture an identity not simply shaped by the world around us.
To get at the larger picture, I begin with three convictions:
• The Christian church is first and foremost the worldwide body of Christ. Indeed, this is the most important reference of the word “church.” As such, the church is a seamless garment transcending geographic and denominational divisions. Our tendency to speak of Anabaptist distinctives works against appreciating this conviction.
• The local gathering of Christians is the foundational unit within the larger church. This is where real people worship and fellowship together, and witness to others. The congregation, however it may be formed, is the flesh and blood of the organic whole, out of which the worldwide church and denomination are formed.
• MC Canada—its programs, congregations and members—is a critical middle level between congregation and the worldwide church. Although an imperfect body, it remains the primary vehicle by which congregations participate in, dialogue with, benefit from and contribute to the larger church. It serves as the passageway between the congregation and the larger church with resources, wisdom and identity flowing both ways.
Local gatherings of Christians, as well as church as the worldwide body of Christ, are enduring “givens” already present in New Testament times. Even taking into consideration MC Canada’s predecessor bodies, it is less than two centuries old. Despite this contingent nature, I believe it remains the best way for congregations to participate in the larger body of Christ and to nurture biblical convictions important within Anabaptism. In the face of contemporary pressures towards localism, building up that middle level must be a priority.
This is not a defence of the status quo, nor an argument for greater centralized programming. In fact, it requires that we change the way we work together so that the middle level becomes more critical in shaping our identity and mission, so that it truly inspires and holds congregations accountable as part of the larger body of Christ. But this will only happen once we experience the national body not as an “it” but a “we.” It will require greater congregational participation in that larger church, not less.
Critical in this reimagined model are local pastors. The conferences preceding MC Canada began as gatherings of congregational leaders and lay ministers, for whom these gatherings were life-giving. At such events they reflected on their theology, challenged each other’s understandings fellowshipped together and held each other accountable. Over time, they became persuaded that the mission of God would be furthered by programs undertaken by the congregations working together. They began as “we” working together, and evolved into “it” doing it for us. The programs did not drive the identity but developed out of it.
The proposal to develop a Congregation of Ministerial Leadership is one suggestion for fostering that congregational ownership of the larger body. Retired pastors, theologians and others might well be included, but its core would be congregational leaders. This body is not tied tightly to the larger structure, but that may also be one of its strengths. Its focus then can be on larger questions, and not on administering major programs, with potentially a renewed Faith and Life Committee developing out of it. The suggestion that congregations broaden their leadership beyond paid pastors to include lay or non-paid ministers is also important.
Obviously one proposal alone cannot carry the weight of fostering a greater “we.” Other recommendations of the report also contribute. A national program in pastoral leadership development, and a national vision and strategy for higher education, fit an understanding of congregations as the building blocks of the whole. Integrated communication with congregations, with a common look and branding will help. A significant program, such as International Witness, in which congregations participate and rally, is also important. Regular gatherings for study, worship and fellowship are critical.
Moving from the denomination as an “it” to a “we” will not happen overnight. But it is a crucial step in nurturing a greater sense of identity in and with the larger church, the body of Christ, with a significant presence and witness in our society.
Gerald Gerbrandt was a member of the Future Directions Task Force.
Other recent viewpoints on the Future Directions proposal:
An open letter on Future Directions (feature)
Future Directions (blog post)
More thoughts on Future Directions (blog post)
Stronger regionalism weakens national church (Viewpoint)