Am I Mennonite?

Life in the Postmodern Shift

April 23, 2024 | Opinion | Volume 28 Issue 7
Troy Watson |
Photo by Pixabay/Pexels

Although I’ve been a Mennonite pastor for over 25 years, I’m reluctant to call myself Mennonite. For several reasons.

First, there’s an ethno-cultural component to the Mennonite identity that I lack. One does not simply become Mennonite, one is born Mennonite. Plenty of Mennonites would disagree with my assessment, and there seems to be a movement to change this perception, but I don’t think this is a negative thing that needs to be resolved. Distinguishing the terms Mennonite and Anabaptist would solve the issue. However, I don’t really think there’s an issue to begin with.

Which brings me to the second reason I’m reluctant to call myself Mennonite. I don’t like labels. Labels can be useful, but when we find our identity in them, they accentuate our sense of separateness from others and intensify comparative thinking. Labels by nature create an “us” and “them” dynamic. This is why Jesus challenges us to examine what we identify with, and why Paul says finding our identity and unity in Christ is the central mystery of the Gospel.

Although I’m reluctant to call myself Mennonite, I’m enthusiastic to share how Anabaptist spirituality and Mennonite people have helped me grow and become a better human being. I have been profoundly transformed by Mennonites. Their spirituality, lifestyle, sense of community and pragmatic faith have shaped and influenced my life more than anything else, besides God, over the past 27 years. I’m quite taken with Mennonites. I even married one, and she has opened my eyes to a way of following Christ that is as close to the real deal as I’ve encountered.

Mennonites have a remarkable history of loving their enemies, serving people in need, forgiving those who’ve wronged them and extending grace and compassion without discrimination. Most Mennonites I know are gentle, kind, self-controlled, peaceful and generous to a fault. They are like trees bearing plentiful yields of all the fruit of the Spirit, and most of them are quiet and humble about it.

When I first read about Mennonites being the “quiet in the land,” I thought this was a fitting description. I also thought this was exactly the kind of Christians the world needs today. I grew up in a faith tradition that never shut up. They didn’t just talk the talk, they shouted it. At everybody. When I found this faith tradition that focused on walking the walk more than talking the talk, I was instantly drawn to it. It grieves me when Mennonites are apologetic for their history of being the “quiet in the land.” Yes, sometimes silence is complicity, and sometimes we need to speak up for truth, justice and givea voice to the “voiceless.” Yet I can’t help but wonder if part of the sacred beauty and power of the Anabaptist tradition has been their quiet example. The Gospel was given to us in the form of a story for a reason. The Mennonite story is good and powerful because it has embodied the most essential narrative technique, “show, don’t tell.”

This brings me to the third and most important reason I’m reluctant to call myself Mennonite. I respect Mennonite people and their lifestyle, tradition and culture so much, I don’t want to contaminate or dilute it. I want the world to see people like my wife, Tammy, her parents and the Mennonites like them, and be inspired by their faith and example. In my opinion, the more that people like me come to represent Mennonites, the less inspirational “we” become. Not becausepeople like me are bad or inferior. I think we newbies bring much-needed gifts, qualities and perspectives to the Mennonite tribe. However, we newbies don’t embody the unique strengths and qualities Mennonites have cultivated over centuries, that are sorely needed in this world, simply because we are newbies.

I appreciate the hospitality and openness Mennonites have extended to me. I feel accepted, empowered and valued in the Mennonite church. I’m profoundly grateful for the Anabaptist tradition and Mennonite people who have welcomed me, walk with me, inspire me and show me how to follow Christ more consistently. Yet I’m still not sure I’m Mennonite. This isn’t a bad thing, because I don’t think being Mennonite is the point. Being an authentic, loving human being, who is growing in Christ, is the point. This is what Mennonites have taught me.

Photo by Pixabay/Pexels

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Hi Troy. Over the past five years, I have gotten to know the folks in Evangelical Mennonite Church Vietnam (EMCV). I have visited them twice and plan to go again this fall. Folks from EMCV have also visited Canada to connect with the Mennonite Church and to connect with their Vietnamese Mennonite sisters and brothers.

Some of them have been Mennonite since the 1970s. They are proud to be Mennonite in Vietnam, especially as they have taken stands for justice that have brought on persecution and imprisonment—until quite recently. I have learned that being Anabaptist is a foreign concept to them and even the meaning behind the word does not represent their story, as many are from Buddhist background.

As we respond to their requests for leadership development and we provide them with Anabaptist resources, we have to explain that Anabaptist is another word for what Mennonites believe and practice. Then they understand.


I appreciate your response. You raise important questions/points. Thank you.

I should have been more clear; I wrote this from my perspective and lived experience in the Kitchener-Waterloo area. Perceptions on Mennonite identity around here are complicated. (Paradoxically, they are often not as complicated as they ought to be. Stereotypes abound.) I wholeheartedly acknowledge that my limited perspective on the subject of Mennonite identity is incomplete, flawed and likely unhelpful for many.

I don't think using the term Anabaptist instead of Mennonite is a solution (as I wrote, I don't think there is clear problem to be solved). In fact, "Anabaptist" might be more confusing than the term Mennonite. In addition to your example, 25 years ago I told my ex-Christian friend I was joining the Anabaptist tribe. He responded, "Hmmm. Tell me more about these anti-Baptists. I might be interested."

I don't think the label Mennonite is any more problematic than other labels in our 21st century Canadian context, however, I don't find it any less problematic either.

The quest for identity in 21st century Canada has become increasingly complex. For me, my Mennonite identity is complicated. I realize many first, second, third, fourth generation Mennonites from various cultures and ethnicities do not feel the same hesitation/conflict/complexity about their Mennonite identity as I do. I appreciate and celebrate this as good news. They are a profound blessing to the Mennonite church.

I'm very grateful for the diversity of the Mennonite community and I'm thankful for all who are part of the Mennonite tribe I'm journeying through life with. The real issue for me is the concept of identity in general. I hope this brings a bit more clarity to my perspective.

Will it not be a blessed time, when missionaries from African and Asian Mennonite churches, representing a people who have been persecuted for righteousness sake, arrive in North American churches to lead North American Mennonites back to Jesus? The North American Mennonite church planting of yesteryear will indeed bear fruit, as foreign Mennonite missions are established in North America to lead US and Canadian Mennonites back to the Bible.

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