The Oct. 24 Mennonite Church Canada study conference asked the question: “Does the church have legs?”
The consensus of conference presenters, based on mini-interviews posted prior to the event, was “yes.” I’m trying to tame my cynicism, but that answer seemed too easy. I know people who would say “no.”
I don’t usually participate in broader church events. Life’s full. I limit travel. My kids like to have me around. I can’t sit still inside for long. I justify my non-participation by saying I’m relating to others in our denomination—the majority—who do not attend such events.
But I am also deeply interested in the broader church. At least part of me is. I see phenomenal potential. Our world needs grace, compassion, upside-down living. That’s our bailiwick.
Another part of me has learned to dull my expectations, to expect ever-so-slightly new twists on that which I have heard since I was a kid numbly counting knots in the sanctuary’s roof boards. One of the first things I learned in church was to be bored.
I participated in the October study conference, at least much of it, because Zoom made it easy—I didn’t even need to change out of my work clothes—and I needed something to write about for my next magazine deadline. Of course, any journalist knows that conferences are not news per se, but I hoped for something reportable. I hoped for something truly invigorating.
At some point in life I lost the ability to conjure a sense of meaningfulness out of ordinary theological statements. It just doesn’t do anything for me to hear that “Jesus is God,” or “Church is a body.” Tell me what that looks like on a Tuesday afternoon.
Share your burning questions. Show some fire in the belly. Share your pain. Be personal. Be candid. Go off script (like that Mennonite Brethren guy).
I’m being too harsh. I mean this as more of a plea than a critique. I commend the organizers climbing the steep COVID-19 hill.
As for legs, the numbers are clear. All the folks who have left, or barely show up anymore, have rendered their verdict. Can we say that?
We gotta dig deeper. And we’re not going to exegete our way to renewal. We’re not going to think and theologize our way to a thriving church.
I have a few unsolicited suggestions, things that would get me to an event:
- Anabaptists in the Global South. I believe that’s where our salvation lies. What message do they have for us?
- Non-Euro-Canadian churches within MC Canada. They did not tune in to the conference. What gifts do they offer? Can we connect with them on their terms?
- More circles. Perhaps the essential wisdom is in the circle, not at the front of the room. (Admittedly, Zoom is ill-suited to the priesthood of all believers.)
- I feel church should be a place for people’s pains and passions. Let’s learn to create space for those.
- I’d love to hear us wrestle with what good news we have to share with Indigenous people. I speak regularly with Indigenous leaders who fight desperately, urgently, at the edge of despair to overcome immense injustice perpetrated for the benefit of the rest of society. Would they say we have legs?
- I’d love it if the church could offer my kids some support through their climate angst. While working in the garden a year ago, my son, who was 12 at the time, said something like: “If people care about climate change, why don’t they do anything about it?” His comment was directed, in part, at church folks.
I told him that people do lots of other good things, and then acknowledged that there was no answer to his question. Nothing I could say would change the reality that he sees precious few making significant sacrifices.
My kids are no Greta Thunbergs, but their climate angst is real. It’s a loneliness. What support can the faith community offer them? What legs do they see?
It made me mad and sad—mostly mad—to hear a presenter address the climate crisis by talking about “reinterpreting our theologies to be more sensitive and aware of creation.” Seriously?
- And I’d love a support forum for those of us struggling to maintain a grip on faith, having gone through the wringer of postmodernity. We need more than theological intricacies.
I shared this list with a pastor. He said it made him feel tired. He sounded exhausted. The demands on leaders are great. I had not thought of that. I can’t expect all of this from one event. I’d like to expect some of it, though.
Feast of Metaphors served at ‘Table talk’ conference
Will, I appreciate your challenge. Yours is a prophetic voice that we need to hear, and I welcome it. You aren't being too harsh and I don't think you are alone in your questions. The survey results of the study conference came back very positive, but like you say, large swaths of church didn't attend. Those of us on the "inside" (meaning middle-aged to older, Russian/Swiss, Euro-centric Anabaptists who have been educated at our schools) love to engage topics like this and can fall into the trap of thinking that we can 'exegete our way into renewal'. I would suggest though, that being grounded in the nature, identity, vocation, essence of the church, the intangibles, are critical to know how to respond to the five excellent topics that you suggest. Too often, our reflex has been to go to structure (ecclesiology, leadership, structure, form) to fix an identity problem. Or, we run toward issues of our day without knowing what gifts, talents and abilities (1 Corinthians 12) we bring, and once we arrive, we are coopted into a way of being that doesn't reflect our grounding in the grace and truth of Jesus. There is much more I could say, but this is a 'comment' section. Thanks again for this piece. And I admit...when I read your title, I did lift my pant leg to check. Sure enough.
We gotta dig deeper. And we’re not going to exegete our way to renewal.
Thanks for your comments and suggestions, Will. One of your statements that struck me was about the need of ‘going deeper’ and ‘not being able to exegete our way to renewal’. Perhaps if we dare to go deeper with imagination we will stumble upon some paradigms in the ancient texts that could be of help. I wonder about the event in Nehemiah 8 where new understandings that connect actual, difficult experiences and questions and uncertainty, emerged from the sacred texts, the same old text re-interpreted by the leaders. What strikes me is that the starting point was the experience of the people, rather than the text. This also reflects what Jonah 4 and Peter in Acts 10-11 are about. This takes me beyond boredom. Starting with your experiences and others' would have been a welcome change.
Of course, varicose veins do not stop people from being great and wonderful. Not that I would want to push the metaphor too far….
I think there was a time in when life when I would have been more enthused by a study conference such as the one in October. Maybe I come across as cynical—I have that in me—but I am also just longing for the church reality to intersect more with the passions and pains I see in myself and the world.
I agree that we should resist the impulse to seek answers in new structures. I’m fully sick of restructuring. And I agree that our response to the issues of our day should be distinctly Christian. I go back to the writings of Oscar Romero to remind me of this.
I would have loved to hear more discussion at the conference about your May 20 article (https://bit.ly/2TIDDC7) in which you suggest a refocussing from Sunday morning worship to creating and realizing community with the neighbours and strangers around us, even if that is uncomfortable. I keep thinking about that.
Thanks Will, On a weekly basis I get contacted about that article. Last night someone wrote me to say that the parish model (focused around building Christian community in our neighbourhoods) came up for the third time (since May) in the church's weekly Zoom conversation. I truly believe that the Holy Spirit is stirring something in churches across the country. For some, the conversation, understandably, causes a lot of anxiety. When we are together in our 'tribal' groups, we can cater the community to meet our needs. It reminds me of the disciples who said to Jesus, "Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your Name, so we tried to stop him because he is not in our group". (Luke 9:49) When we open up, "it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us" (Acts 15:28) there is almost a giddy excitement about what could happen. This is what some are experiencing. Again...this is a comment section. Enough for now. Blessings to you.
Will Braun’s Disempowered Plea: Reimagination of Christianity
Mr. Will Braun’s opinion piece “Does the church have varicose veins?” in response to the recent Mennonite Church Canada conference “Table Talk: Does the church still have legs?” portrays the conscience of a man in deep despair, desperately searching for comfort and hope from an institution which has to this point in his life, not lived up to expectations. In referring to his relationship with MC Canada, his piece is sprinkled with terms such as “dulled expectations,” “cynicism,” “boredom,” “meaninglessness,” “lack of interest,” and “struggling to maintain a grip on faith,” a vocabulary fraught with despair. Mr. Braun indicates that the “Table Talk” conference with its high-powered academia panel of presenters offered little to alleviate his despair, noting that “we are not going to exegete our way to renewal.”
Mr. Braun does identify avenues which if pursued by MC Canada, would give him a sense of hope and right purpose, namely such avenues as the example of the churches of the Global South, or churches of non-European ancestry, or more active pursuit of Indigenous relations, a stronger climate-change focus, support groups where the doubts, passions and pain of members are voiced and affirmed, and wisdom from the circle as opposed to the pulpit.
As he indicates (since I was a kid numbly counting knots …), Mr. Braun’s despair and discontent with MC Canada has been long-standing.
It seems to me that we need to be much more circumspect as to whom we empower to have power over us. It is painful to realize that we cannot safely empower an institution to have power over us, as much beloved an institution such as MC Canada might be. As Mr. Doug Klassen, Executive Minister of Mennonite Church Canada indicates (Reply to Will Braun CM Nov 07/20) the institution may even express that it recognizes and needs the “prophetic voice” of the “Will Brauns” of its membership, however it is clear that MC Canada in its role as “institution,” cannot provide the nurture needed by the “Will Brauns” of its membership.
The realization of misplaced faith in MC Canada for spiritual succour, can indeed be despairing in and of itself however I do not think that means that the average member needs to cut loose from MC Canada. The average member however does need to decide where MC Canada is relevant, and then relegate the institution to its appropriate status, which will at times be nominal “church” status. We do not as individuals lose our relevance or importance to God if we sever or dampen our ties to MC Canada, and we are quite capable of fashioning our own understandings of the nature of God.
As Mr. Braun indicates, the average member needs to know what God “looks like on a Tuesday afternoon” and not wait for Sunday morning or an MC Canada conference held by the priesthood of academia to tell her/him what God thinks. In order to not be consumed by the black hole of despair, going off script is necessary for spiritual integrity and growth and there are individuals under the umbrella of MC Canada to look to for guidance in this regard.
Mr. John H. Neufeld, in his “Reply to Will Braun” (CM Nov. 09/20) provides examples (Nehemiah 8) of instances where the people of God have found new insight and understanding from hearing the sacred texts read. Mr. Neufeld encourages us to “dare to go deeper with imagination” in order to reimagine what the ancient sacred texts might mean for our time. This reimagination does though require an exegesis of the text, however it is an exegesis viewed through the lens of the individual believer and not the institution at large.
As I have said elsewhere, humanity could benefit from a “reimagined Christianity.” The theology of our current mainstream Christianity with its sin/guilt/atonement/salvation complex just seems to be so confining of spirit and growth. In my opinion, a reimagined Christianity could simply include an unconditional loving God and the model of Christ’s life to guide us. Not too complicated, yet very freeing and hopeful for humanity at the same time. Reimagining Christianity will take courage, however the unity of Christianity and humanity, a “Christumanity” is desperately needed.
Thanks for now
last time i checked i guy named Nietzche tried the reimaging God and humanity, brought us the 'ubermensch' and was the philosophical root to unimagined suffering in the 20th century. Be careful what you wish for.
Add new comment
Canadian Mennonite invites comments and encourages constructive discussion about our content. Actual full names (first and last) are required. Comments are moderated and may be edited. They will not appear online until approved and will be posted during business hours. Some comments may be reproduced in print.