A call to strengthen our core

. . . because the ‘Popeye church’ lives in constant risk of debilitating injury

February 12, 2020 | Feature | Volume 24 Issue 2
Doug Klassen | Mennonite Church Canada
photo © istock.com/alphaspirit

A year ago I asked my oldest daughter, who was in the middle of a master of physiotherapy program at the University of Manitoba, to help me figure out what was wrong with my left foot. Her assessment was, “Dad, you are messed up. Make an appointment to see a physiotherapist.”

I dutifully went. It turned out that, while I re-shingled my roof the previous summer, I put one of my lower vertebrae out, so that it was pinching a nerve that ran down to my foot. Something in my lower back was messing up the function of one of my limbs. The remedy? Core exercises to stretch, twist and strengthen my abdominal muscles. 

I let out a sigh, remembering the days not too many years ago when I went to our local gym in our Calgary neighbourhood at 5:30 each weekday morning. Back then, I trained my core, but, admittedly, I focussed more on my arms and chest. As the kids got older and needed to be driven to early morning volleyball practices, I got out of the routine and eventually quit.

My body functioned pretty well in the meantime—until I started carrying those heavy bundles of shingles and my vertebrae slipped on that roofing project.

Physiotherapy for the church body

There are a number of metaphors used in the New Testament to describe the nature of the church. Probably the most well-known is Paul’s illustration of the body (I Corinthians 12). 

While some other denominations struggle with this passage because of their hierarchical structures, for the Mennonite church this often reads like motherhood and apple pie. We accept this. We are a priesthood of all believers after all; everyone has a role to play and no role is too small or unimportant.

Yet, for the past number of years, I have been wondering if our church body needs some physiotherapy.

I consider the local congregation, our five regional churches, Mennonite Church Canada and congregations belonging to Mennonite World Conference as the torso of the Mennonite church body. I see Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and its Thrift Shops, Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) and other organizations as one of our arms, and I see our Mennonite schools and camp ministries as the other arm.

When I look at the proportions of the Mennonite body, I’m not convinced we’re in the shape we should be.

Over the past decade or two, I’ve seen significant growth in the areas of donor relations, fundraising and program expansions in the arms of our body. As a benefit, all three of our children have attended both elementary and post-secondary Mennonite schools and have spent years at camp as campers and leaders-in-training. They have all been on MCC learning tours that deeply affected their worldviews by demonstrating the ministry of reconciliation (I Corinthians 5:16-20). My spouse has also experienced this in her work with Ten Thousand Villages and MCC.

So what I write, I write carefully, because I have a strong love for and am deeply invested in each and every organization that is a part of the Mennonite body.

A ‘Popeye church’?

Lately, I feel that local congregations are becoming more disadvantaged because they don’t have the time, energy or the capacity to increase donor engagement or build programs like our “arm” organizations. I wonder if our church body is growing into a “Popeye church.” 

Popeye, a cartoon character from the 1930s, had huge arms but a spindly torso. Any physical trainer, physiotherapist or kinesiology student will tell you that this body type is a recipe for injury. The stronger the torso, the greater the capacity to do the heavy lifting. 

One winter morning, I went with a friend to an old school “strongman” gym. It was all free weights, atlas balls, I-beams for farmers’ walks, and a steel cylinder for the log press. The other three guys there were enormous; one was lifting 325 kilos. Without exception, they were doing heavy combination exercises that strengthened arms and legs, but predominantly they were strengthening their torso, their core. 

The focus on core strength allowed them to lift huge amounts of weight, and, as a result, their arms, shoulders and legs naturally grew larger and stronger. Certainly not everyone should be—or wants to look like—a strongman or woman. But the metaphor is instructive. 

In Colossians, Paul talks about Christ being the head of the body. Thinking physiologically, all movement of the body originates in the head. The head sends a message to the arms and hands through the torso. Consequently, all movement of the arms and hands are anchored in the torso. If you’re going to lift with your arms, your torso has to activate every muscle to hold your body stable so that the lift can be performed safely.

The body of Christ called Mennonite has huge arms. MCC is known for working in the non-glitzy areas of the world, being the hands of Jesus. While many disaster-relief organizations rush in to help for a bit and then are gone, MDS is often the last to leave, caring for the forgotten people. We have elementary schools, high schools, Bible colleges, universities and seminaries that train Mennonite students, and many from other denominations, to be the church in the world. The number of leaders for the church that our schools and camps have produced is overwhelming. 

I worry about the strength of our core

But it is in our torso—the local Mennonite churches—where this missional energy is generated week after week through worship, group activities and learning the ways of Christian hospitality. Missional energy comes from the local congregations that gather to share stories of God’s activity in the world and to encourage each member to be part of it.

The arms reach out to provide relief, development and education that bless, distribute, heal and redeem, and the arms then bring back to the torso testimonies of lives redeemed, justice done, mercy extended, the hungry fed and leaders trained. 

I love it that the Mennonite church has huge arms, but I worry about the strength of our core. Every day, Popeyes fill physiotherapy offices because they are not equipped for the heavy lifting that they are trying to do with their arms. I worry about the number of people volunteering, engaging and financially supporting the arms of the church, while they neglect to pour their time, energy, donations and even estate funds into our local, regional and nationwide church structure. 

I believe that it’s in the best interest of both our relief, development and peace arm, and our education/camping arm, to a have strong, vibrant, healthy core—meaning thriving local congregations. The muscle fibres in the body’s core work together in unity to provide strength and support for these organizations, and they are also birthing new fellowships that can uphold our arms in the future. 

The practices or routines in the local congregation are critical for the strength of the whole body, and that strength keeps the church out of the physiotherapist’s office. When we join in membership, our covenants state that we will “give and receive counsel” to each other. Through accountability, we commit to not only being present but making whole-life contributions.

Strong congregations have a practice or routine whereby a culture of call is created. There needs to be places where calls to ministry can be explored. During my 27 years of pastoral ministry, I was continually amazed at the gifts, talents and abilities that God gave the people in those congregations. But those gifts need to be exercised. Like core muscle, the greater the efforts, the greater the church’s stability. 

Of course, not every congregation can do this on its own. Regional church groups and the nationwide church exist to strengthen local congregations by providing resources, programs and support. Then, like the torso of the human body, when the individual core muscles work together as one, the core can support the efforts of the arms and even help them to increase their size. 

Given what we are facing in the world today, our arms need to grow even more to meet the needs. Budgets for our schools, camps, and relief, development and peace organizations need to increase. If they aren’t increasing, the root of the problem is likely in the congregations, meaning that we have poor core strength, and, as Paul says, the whole body will suffer (I Corinthians 12:26). Our congregational health is primary to our ability to function as a body and for our future. The Popeye church lives in constant risk of debilitating injury.

Since my family moved to Winnipeg, most of our boxes have been unpacked. One of the few things left to do is to set up a weight room. Before winter arrived, I went up on the roof of our house to evaluate its condition. I need new shingles. Before I start carrying around those 30-kilo bundles next summer, I have to strengthen my core or my whole body will suffer.  

Doug Klassen serves as executive minister of Mennonite Church Canada. He attends Sterling Mennonite Fellowship in Winnipeg.


School response
Doug Klassen’s vision for the future of the church and its partnering agencies is compelling. Like many other communities and institutions, the church is in the throes of profound transition, and imagining its future is challenging.

That said, the opportunity to envision new forms of partnership lies before us. I think his call for renewed congregational and denominational witness is critical. Alongside, it is vital that our schools be anchored in the church in its local, denominational, ecumenical and global expressions.

In my present context at Canadian Mennonite University (CMU), we welcome the widest diversity of students. Some are pursuing lives of ministry in the church or as its lay members. Others do not connect with a congregational body, yet they express yearnings and affinities for the faith, hope, justice and mercy to which the church is called.

Alongside our students, we long for clarity of call and hope from the church. Given what we are facing in our world today, our schools and the students they serve play a critical role in how the witness and future of the church are imagined.

Schools have the capacity to nurture and extend the church’s imagination. This will continue only as schools are nourished through a core torso called church.  

—Terry Schellenberg
CMU external vice-president

MCC response
Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is a ministry of the Anabaptist church. At its best, MCC is strengthening the church torso, not building its own outsized biceps, by:

  • Gathering as a community to tie comforters for families we have never met.
  • Driving the mother of a Syrian family to English class as part of our congregation’s refugee sponsorship

When congregations engage with MCC, it is not a bench-press lift to make the MCC arm stronger. It is an all-body sharing of God’s love that builds a whole and healthy church community ready for more Jesus-following ministry. An MCC that acts otherwise is feeding spinach to the Popeye Doug Klassen describes.

However, that torso of the church body is changing dramatically. We do not know what will emerge as Jesus-followers find new and unusual ways to be the church. This change can make us anxious and fearful. My prayer is that we remember the Jesus Spirit is moving in the world and will find life-giving expressions that we cannot yet see.

I believe that MCC, now celebrating 100 years of relief, development and peace in the name of Christ, will continue to strengthen that changing and emerging church expression. I hope Anabaptist church leaders embrace MCC as part of their workout regime!

—Rick Cober Bauman
MCC executive director

MDS response
While Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) is a service arm of the Mennonite churches in Canada and the United States, we also see ourselves as having a role to strengthen the core of the church in various ways.

We do it by helping local churches live out their belief that Christians should be the hands and feet of Jesus for those who have been affected by natural disasters—both for others across North America and in their own communities—if natural disasters should strike.

We build up and strengthen the body of Christ by bringing together volunteers from different Mennonite denominations and churches across North America, building common bonds of fellowship and friendship between people from different nationalities, ages, walks of life and theological views—all united by a common goal to serve others.

And we do it by giving youth a chance to serve through summer and year-round programs for youth groups and individuals, giving them an opportunity to put their beliefs into action and to grow closer to God and to others. 

Our mission is to restore hope for those who have lost their homes due to natural disasters, and through that to strengthen the church’s witness in the world.

—Ross Penner
MDS director of Canadian operations

Camp response
I see strong ties between the body and the arms. There is reciprocal support going back and forth between them, and a recognition that we grow stronger when we work together.

One of the challenges that I and other folks in the camping world wrestle with is how do we encourage the individuals—the youth and adults—to take the passion and excitement they have for camp and carry it back into their local churches? 

It is hard to take the “high” that is experienced at camp and translate it into a different community. And, because the onus is not just on individuals to carry the passion back into their faith communities, how are churches creating space particularly for the youth to serve and to have a voice? I think it is critical that we figure it out.

Do I have the “magic pill” that will help us balance the strength between the arms and the torso? No. If anything, I’m adding more questions. But, if we continue to put in the hard work required to grow our muscles, I believe the whole body will benefit. 

—Chris Pot
Hidden Acres Mennonite Camp program director and Canadian representative of the Mennonite Camping Association


For discussion

1. Have you ever been told by a physiotherapist that you need to strengthen your core muscles? Why is it so tempting to build muscles in the arms rather than strengthening the core? What happens to a body with weak core muscles?

2. What Mennonite institutions (thrift shops, schools, camps, relief organizations) are close to your heart? Do Mennonites tend to have more passion for these organizations than for their congregations? Does more energy and money go into Mennonite institutions than to the church?

3. Doug Klassen writes that he worries about the strength of local congregations. Do you share his concern? Do you think congregations and institutions are in competition with each other? Do you agree that the church is at risk of a debilitating injury?

4. The responses from leaders of Mennonite organizations indicate that they believe they are partners and that they help to strengthen the church. Do you agree? Is the long-term health of Mennonite institutions threatened if the church becomes too weak? 

5. What suggestions do you have for strengthening the core muscles of the church?

—By Barb Draper 

photo © istock.com/alphaspirit

photo © istock.com/anrproduction

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In the article “A call to strengthen our core,” Doug Klassen uses the metaphor of human physiology to symbolically represent Mennonite Church Canada, and he laments the perceived loss of core strength (torso) of the body of the Mennonite church at the expense of the accompanying arms, saying, “ Lately, I feel that local congregations are becoming more disadvantaged because they don’t have the time, energy or the capacity to increase donor engagement or build programs like our “arm” organizations. I wonder if our church body is growing into a “Popeye church.”

If Mr. Klassen’s observations are accurate, there are quite likely a variety of reasons for the worrying state of affairs within Mennonite Church Canada. The article emphatically illumines one of the reasons visually. The accompanying illustration of a strong muscle man (Mennonite Church Canada) holding up planet earth, seems to be an accurate although archaic, representation of the role of white male strength in Mennonite Church Canada.

At the very least, the perception of white male strength in Mennonite Church Canada is supported by the authors of the accompanying responses from various departments (arms) of Mennonite Church Canada, all of the respondents are white males. I suspect that this does not happen coincidentally, but rather that we are governed internally/systemically by white males because of deeply rooted bias in Mennonite Church congregations and their theological understandings.

Symbolically, the picture the torso of a white male holding up planet earth in space, causes one to wonder how this can actually happen. Where are the feet (foundation) and what is he actually standing on? Is Mennonite Church Canada standing on a solid rock foundation, or is the house built on sand?

Perhaps a more useful analogy for Mennonite Church Canada and its offspring would be that of the family. It seems like the parent organization is aging and the offspring are readying to leave the nest.

Rick Cober Bauman, head of Mennonite Central Committee (Canada) indicates that MCC is a “ministry of the Anabaptist church,” which would seem to imply a larger mandate than exclusively Mennonite Church Canada. Mr. Cober Bauman goes on to say that the “torso of the church body is changing dramatically. We do not know what will emerge as Jesus-followers find new and unusual ways to be the church.” This would seem to indicate that MCC Canada sees itself having aspirations of being a player in the larger world of Anabaptist Christianity (which includes Mennonite Church Canada), as opposed to the perhaps confining accountability found in Mennonite Church Canada.

Ross Penner, MDS director of Canadian operations, also expounds on the theme that MDS is accountable to a broader constituency than Mennonite Church Canada. He asserts that MDS is a “service arm of the Mennonite churches in Canada and the United States,” implying a broader geographical and constituent jurisdiction than that encompassed by Mennonite Church Canada.

Chris Pot, Canadian representative of the Mennonite Camping Association, indicates that he would like the Camping organization to continue to be supportive of Mennonite Church Canada, however he questions how “churches (are) creating space particularly for the youth to serve and to have a voice?” Mennonite Church Canada states that there are “a growing number of congregations with declining and aging membership” (http://home.mennonitechurch.ca/), indicating that Mennonite youth do not see Mennonite Church Canada as an inclusive and viable body which might nurture their spiritual needs.

Canadian Mennonite University external vice-president Terry Schellenberg, indicates that despite long-standing affiliations with Mennonite Church Canada, schools/universities recognize that “the opportunity to envision new forms of partnership lies before us,” and that “it is vital that our schools be anchored in the church in its local, denominational, ecumenical and global expressions.” Mr. Schellenberg frames his opinion in terms of welcoming “the widest diversity of students,” doubling down on the direction for the church as youth and diversity.

It would appear that Mennonite Church Canada is searching for relevancy for an archaic model, in a rapidly changing world. The arms of the institution, the former cornerstones of Mennonite Church Canada are re-envisioning their mandate on how to be church, understanding that the solid rock of inclusion and diversity is necessary as they follow the call. It seems the arms welcome the support of Mennonite Church Canada as they receive it, however if the support is not readily forth-coming, they must move on as they hear the call.

I have been reading, and re-reading the article, "A Call to Strengthen the Core" online and want to respond to it. I appreciate your writing style - engaging, relevant to your life, our lives, and your self-disclosing.

I have some things to affirm (your concerns, your overall vision) but I also want to mention that I notice some gaps and some omissions.

You share what you worry about - the lack of strength in the core. You express your hope that we will have a "strong, vibrant, healthy core"; you mention that thriving congregations will have "good practices and routines" and you name the root of our problem in our congregations as "poor core strength."

Part of what I'm missing in the article is what some call"actionable steps". After diagnosis physiotherapists have specific things in mind and they begin to implement, they take very specific steps and suggest continuing exercises on one's own. There is nothing vague or abstract about what they are doing. They do certain things because they have learned to do them; it is part of their professional practice.

Part of what I'm missing in the article is specificity of analysis of what you call "core strength." What are the indicators that the church's core strength is inadequate?

Part of what I'm missing is specificity on how we might seek to remedy the situation in our congregations. How will any congregation know when and if they are "on the mend", taking the necessary steps to strengthen the core? Is it not fair to say that if we do not know what steps we will take, then we probably won't take any significant steps and we certainly wouldn't know whether any steps have positive outcomes or not.

Another thing I'm missing is a major issue for me. I do not notice any attention being given to leaders in our congregations. What's going on here? Are you assuming that if congregations hear what you are saying, changes will be undertaken? Are leaders — pastors, area church ministers — beyond attention and above reproach?

When I read what the prophet Ezekiel had to say about the situation of his time, he was quite specific about the shortcomings of the leaders! (Ezek 34) For Ezekiel the core issue was leadership failure and ineptitude.

Using Brene' Brown's expression, Ezekiel was willing "to rumble" with the leaders, challenging them specifically about their high calling and their performance! I failed to see any evidence in your article that you were willing "to rumble" with leaders or about leaders.

When Paul wrote to the Ephesians he also "rumbled" with leaders and their specific responsibilities, with matters integral to their high calling. He called leaders "gift-persons" who have responsibility to "equip all believers" (Eph 4:11-16) for their calling to serve. Paul did not allow leaders in the church to go on as they pleased and were habitually doing. Leaders were challenged not only to have a vision of the big picture but also to be actionably involved in "equipping" fellow believers for ministry!

In our time we need some creative, daring expressions of what "equipping for ministry" might be, broken down into do-able steps, practices and routines, that will have some identifiable and measurable outcomes as well as surprising results.

I would like to mention five specifics that could belong under the heading of "what are the markers of equipping for service?" If pastors were to work at equipping specifically they would be able to name the indicators of "core strength" that is part of your vision. Core strength could include:

Growth in Christian identity
Growth in sense of calling
Growth in the ability to cope with crises and stresses
Growth in identifying issues needing attention
Growth in understanding of Scripture and reading responsibly.

With these suggestions (and possibly others ) we have a clearer grasp of what is involved in a healthy, vibrant core; we can develop practices and routines that contribute to teaching, learning and living. And the responsibility for this does not rest generally on the congregation but specifically on leaders, pastors and area church ministers.

In closing I want to ask whether you have come across Brene' Brown's Dare to Lead - what a great resource for leaders in church or in any segment of society!

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