Are congregations up to it?

Second in a series on the FDTF

January 27, 2016 | Editorial | Volume 20 Issue 3

With the Being a Faithful Church (BFC) process, congregations across Canada were wisely and prudently given seven years to discern the important issues confronting them in an increasingly post-Christendom era of the 21st century: multiculturalism, the state of our peace and justice beliefs and practices, and sexuality, to name the high-profile ones.

By contrast, congregations are given a mere six months to consider the recommendations of the Future Directions Task Force at work for the past two years. This nine-member group was given the formidable task of “discerning how the national and area churches in their current form can be sustainable in the future, exploring whether current programs, structures may need to change to best serve the church moving forward.”

The Task Force sent its final report to congregations late last year to study its findings—its recommendations to be approved at Assembly 2016 in Saskatoon in July. For such a major shift in church structures as is proposed, this is a short window to contemplate its impact on our denominational church life.

Already there is strong resistance from one segment—our Witness workers around the globe, who are objecting in an open letter to the Task Force. They think the move from long-term assignments to short-term ones would “lead to either more insular thinking, or, ironically to falling victim to perpetrators of colonialism.” This is especially incisive because we only recently became aware of the injustices of colonialism that have hindered our mission efforts.

Present Witness workers are keenly aware of this history and have carefully looked at where God is already at work in cultures that were once considered “pagan.” There is always a lag between what practitioners comprehend and practise, and what the constituency “back home” realizes.

Which raises the question: Is this one of the underlying dynamics of the Task Force that thinks it is easy and in line with “cultural change” to make this switch? Are financial considerations the primary driver of this recommendation? Hilda Hildebrand, Mennonite Church Canada’s moderator and a member of the Task Force, says the current programs and systems are not sustainable.

But shouldn’t the quality of our international witness be the primary consideration? Is this recommendation short-sighted, more impulsive than deliberate, cutting into the DNA of our faith culture? “Mission” is deeply rooted in us. Tweaking such a core belief should be done with care.

Similar questions apply to the Future Directions recommendations in shifting responsibility for developing worship resources to congregations, something we raised in our last editorial. While some of this looks plausible on paper, it seems to us somewhat unrealistic to expect congregations, overwhelmed in many cases with their own programs, to take on additional responsibilities.

And who will tend to faith formation and encourage pastors to foster Anabaptist beliefs and practices in their congregations? Already there is evidence our peace position is fraying. In a recent conversation between a western congregation and its area church MCC representative, he was told he could come speak “only if he did not talk about peace work.” The church only wanted to discuss “blankets and band aids.” Our shared identity is something that needs constant nurturing. Leaving this to local congregations is a risk.

And speaking, finally, of underlying dynamics, is it instructive to note the make-up of the Task Force?

Former General Conference churches, largely Dutch North-German Mennonites, have a history in Canada of strong congregational autonomy.

By contrast, the Mennonite Church, comprised mostly of German-Swiss heritage, had a cultural history and infrastructure of bishops and overseers, and looked more to a central authority. In the 21st century we thought these two cultures, now facing common issues together, could easily override their distinctive heritages and work together at common goals.

But have we? Old habits and ways of thinking are not easily diminished. Consider the composition of the nine members of the Task Force: Only three of the nine are from Swiss-German heritage. And only one comes with a non-European heritage, the fastest growing segment of our denomination: April Yamasaki, pastor of Emmanuel Mennonite Church, Abbotsford, B.C.

Does that tell us something of why the congregation is asked to pick up the important roles of witness, faith formation and developing worship resources?

See also:

FDTF: more discernment needed
Ten years later

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Benner asks whether the task force's makeup has something to do with why the congregation is asked to pick up the important roles of witness, faith formation and developing worship resources. Perhaps. But it is instructive to note that MC-USA, whose majority is of Swiss- Mennonite extraction, went through a similar shift some years ago. As far as I could tell, this was in response to what was already happening. I'm not saying it's a good thing, just we need to look elsewhere for what's driving it.

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