Feast of metaphors served at ‘Table talk’ conference 

MC Canada online event addresses nature of nationwide church in the midst of pandemic

November 4, 2020 | News | Volume 24 Issue 23
Janet Bauman | Eastern Canada Correspondent
Wenger Shenk, plenary speaker for MC Canada’s virtual ‘Table talk’ study conference, on Oct. 25, addresses the question ‘Why church?’ in one of two talks she gave. (Screenshots by Janet Bauman)

A feast of metaphors was on the menu for Mennonite Church Canada’s inaugural study conference on the character and mission of the church and the role of worship. “Table talk: Does the church still have legs?” was originally planned as an in-person gathering, but the Oct. 25 event was moved online because of pandemic gathering restrictions.

Sara Wenger Shenk, president emeritus of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Ind., and plenary speaker for “Table talk,” served up a main course of extended metaphors for some 200 participants to chew on. Other academics brought more images and stories to the table. To whet appetites, organizers provided participants with access to two of the main addresses several days before the start of the online event. 

Kim Penner, adjunct professor at Conrad Grebel University College, hosted the four-and-a-half-hour video conference that included more presentations, original music from singer-songwriter Bryan Moyer Suderman, opportunities to ask questions, and time for conversations in small groups.

Using I Peter 2:9-10, Wenger Shenk explored three metaphors in answer to the question, “Why church?”

North Star

Like migrants, Mennonites are disoriented by competing voices, culture wars and alternative universes (fake news). Fatigued, hopeful, at risk and vulnerable, the church is needed to “keep us oriented Godward,” she said, adding that, as “custodians of God’s story,” the church needs to keep listening for how to interpret that story for today.

A body

The church is about relationships. People are hungry for hope, love, sanctuary, rest and friendship. In the church, every part serves, cares for and connects to the whole, especially in hard times. This takes practice in prayer, listening, discernment, confession, worship, forgiveness and truth telling. “Practising how to be like Jesus is why we need the church,” she said.

A river

The church can be a “river of healing” flowing from the centre of its worship, “contributing to the flourishing” of communities by focusing on neighbourhood ministry, as well as global awareness, care for the earth and racial justice, she said, adding that, by trying to “preserve the purity of the church” through an emphasis on boundaries, certainty and dogmatism, creates an “us versus them” posture that is dismissive of others, and cultivates a sense of “moral superiority. . . . We will not flourish as an exclusive, tribal church.”

Throughout the conference, speakers drew on Scripture and experience to wrestle with how the identity of the church is lived out in practice.

Bryan Born, president of Columbia Bible College, Abbotsford, B.C., added more food for thought with his presentation on what it means for the church to be missional. He cautioned against emphasizing worship at the expense of mission. He called on the church to join God, who “is already at work,” suggesting that the way of Jesus is to serve those who are most in need.

He said the tension between evangelism and social action is a “fruitless divide.” Instead, he called for holistic biblical discipleship that cares for physical, spiritual, personal and social needs.

He said the church has “tremendous opportunity” to minister in at least two areas of its “highly polarized” and “isolated” context. In response to Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) calls for justice, and those struggling with mental illness, the church can sensitively navigate by listening well and communicating how to live in hope. 

Sheila Klassen-Wiebe, associate professor at Canadian Mennonite University (CMU), led a Bible study on the parable of the great banquet in Luke 14, exploring how Jesus engaged in “table talk.” Noting that “eating is never just about food” in the Bible, Klassen-Wiebe suggested that in this parable Jesus unsettles the assumptions of those with privilege and power by emphasizing the “radical hospitality and generosity” of the host who invites even those who are “not enough” to the table. 

Gerald Gerbrandt, president emeritus of CMU, highlighted the Jewish festival practices described in the Old Testament as helpful biblical resources for understanding worship. As important times in community life, festivals celebrated what God had done, welcomed strangers as friends, and encouraged generosity to those in need. 

Jesse Nickel, a Columbia professor, explored worship in the New Testament through the lens of the Christ hymn in Philippians 2:5-11. In retelling the story of who God is, the hymn equips the church by presenting a “strikingly distinct world-view” on which to build community, he said. 

Irma Fast Dueck, associate professor at CMU, used stories from her experience to remind listeners that worship is a spiritual practice that “asks something of us.” She cautioned that Christians “domesticate worship and God” if they make worship in their image, to meet their needs. 

Jeremy Bergen, associate professor at Grebel, suggested that worship can transform worshippers despite their cynicism, criticism, fear and uncertainty. In spite of themselves, they can be surprised when Jesus shows up. 

Bergen’s use of the metaphor of a “push-me/pull-you,” that fictional two-headed creature of Dr. Doolittle stories, served to highlight some creative tensions around the character and mission of the church:

  • Testimony with conviction versus deep listening.
  • Decentralized versus centralized organization and leadership.
  • Loyalty to God versus working with governments.
  • Boundedness versus universality.
  • Service versus self care.
  • Continuity versus change.

The elephant at the table was COVID-19 and its oversized impact on the church. Speakers and participants acknowledged the fear, uncertainty, limits and disruption of the pandemic, and how much it has unsettled people’s sense of normal. In response, many suggested a focus on neighbourhood ministry, small groups and being real with each other. They also drew on the deep promise that God is with them. Wenger Shenk, using the metaphor of the church as a “womb of joy,” suggested that joy is “an act of resistance against despair.”

Doug Klassen, executive minister of MC Canada, opened and closed the conference with prayer and reflection, and offered thanks for the rich feast. 

Presentation recordings are available through CommonWord.ca.

Do you have a story idea about Mennonites in Eastern Canada? Send it to Janet Bauman at ec@canadianmennonite.org.

Related story:
Does the Church have varicose veins?

Wenger Shenk, plenary speaker for MC Canada’s virtual ‘Table talk’ study conference, on Oct. 25, addresses the question ‘Why church?’ in one of two talks she gave. (Screenshots by Janet Bauman)

Kim Penner hosted and helped plan the inaugural MC Canada virtual ‘Table talk’ study conference on Oct. 25. (Screenshots by Janet Bauman)

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Does God still have legs? Idle worship in the 21’st century

In the article “Feast of metaphors served at “Table Talk,” Canadian Mennonite’s Janet Bauman reports on the on-line Mennonite Church Canada conference in response to the question Table talk: Does the church still have legs?” (CM Nov. 04/20). The responses reported by the various academic/religious presenters seem to all be in a similar vein, a resounding affirmative that “of course” the church still has legs, how could we think/respond otherwise to such a question?

Plenary speaker, Sara Wenger Shenk, president emeritus of the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana, uses metaphors such as the North Star, to keep Mennonite Church Canada “oriented Godward,” and stresses the importance of being in right relationship, right relationship being paramount to effect the church being a “river of healing.”

Bryan Born, president of Columbia Bible College, in Abbotsford. B.C. calls for a missions’ focus of emphasizing that the “way of Jesus is to serve those who are most in need.” Sheila Klassen-Wiebe and Gerald Gerbrandt, both affiliated with Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, emphasize that the church needs to engage in radical hospitality and generosity. Jesse Nickel of Columbia Bible College, Irma Fast of CMU, and Jeremy Bergen of Conrad Grebel, all seem to focus on various aspects of worship that can “transform worshippers despite their cynicism, criticism, fear and uncertainty” (Bergen).

Altogether, the responses from the academics/religious’ to the question “Does the church still have legs?” is a resounding, although typical affirmative. What other answer could be given to such leading, rhetorical question by scholars/believers who have invested their careers and their lives in the continuity of “the church.”

This kind of exploration and verification of the integrity and legitimacy of “the church” as represented by Mennonite Church Canada has been asked and answered before, namely the Being a Faithful Church process of 2009-2015, and will most likely be asked and answered again in the near future (5-10 years or so), as once again we seem to need to pat ourselves on the back to ensure our continued existence as a church.

This kind of questioning and response is somewhat reminiscent of Einstein’s definition of insanity, namely expecting a different result from a repeated action, although I am unsure whether or not we were expecting a different result in response to “does the church still have legs?”

To my mind, humanity of the 21’st century is deserving of the church posing a different question to its faithful. The question “does the church still have legs?” needs to be restructured to ask, “does our God still have legs?” The theology and the God we have shaped over the past 2000 years needs a drastic makeover in order to serve all of humanity profitably.

I believe that in order for humanity to benefit from Christianity, we need to jettison some of theological flotsam and jetsam that accompanies Christianity in its efforts to benefit humanity. I am in favour of jettisoning the concepts of sin/original sin, as well as the salvation/atonement concepts. I think the absence of these concepts would help us have faith in a God who loves us unconditionally, sin or no sin, just a pure “God loves all of humanity” concept. Discarding the salvation/atonement theology would follow from discarding the sin theology. Discarding these aspects of Christianity would help to dispense with the creation of “the other,” and the binary choice of Christianity of you’re either “in or out,” a binary which only divides humanity.

Twenty-first century humanity needs a “God make-over” and the next legitimate question posed by Mennonite Church Canada to its constituency, can only be “does our God still have legs?” That is the real “elephant in the room.”

Thanks for now
Peter Reimer
Gretna, Manitoba

Mr Reimer, I appreciate your God centred critique of MC Canada’s table talk. I would go as far as to say the ‘doing church’ images being creatively presented are ‘make work themes’ for those who still think God is dependent on us in the church. No. No. My recent Bible reading seems to point way beyond our labels. and considerably more to Jesus.

Does God still have legs? Good question except even there we might be careful of our anthropomorphism. God is larger also than our language or any images, as my Old Colony Mennonite uncles and my Muslim imam friends would remind us. Thank you so much for your thoughtful response.

My apologies for the above slightly incomplete. While rereading, suddenly I found myself proving I was not a robot, and next day it showed up published! My intent was to add a Bible reference, Romans 11:33 -36. Even Romans the book often referred to by the ‘professional theologians’ (more so by Reformed and Systematic theologians than the Anabaptists we just heard) provides a doxology which suggests to me (to us?) that God’s ways are in fact moving perhaps to another Reformation. We shall emerge out of Corona with new knowledge, perhaps even wisdom. Even as Donald Trump’s America will never be great again, neither will the church. Jahweh, Allah, Creator God is indeed larger than our church language.

And my Old Colby Mennonite reference was a bit misleading. My uncles are all dead, peace be upon them!

Janet Bauman’s article seems to fairly reflect what happened in the virtual conference on Oct 24. Perhaps some reflections are in order. I’ve had questions about the theme question since it was announced and I’m not sure the group of presenters ever got around to actually dealing with the rhetorical question. It is not enough to affirm that the church has legs. (Peter Reimer has restated the question and dubbed it ‘the elephant in the room’.)

I agree with Peter Reimer that all presenters were invested in the church as institution; there were no prophetic, challenging voices to be heard. Who will dare to voice concerns re the Bible, our understanding of atonement, our beliefs about God, and the challenge of diversity. There was little if any challenging of assumptions from within, even though there are a number of examples of this reality in Scripture.

Centuries ago there was another conference (Nehemiah 8) This was in person and outdoors. We have no list of metaphors to remember it by, but we do have an outcome of the event. Israel had been through the exile, people were confused and disoriented since their assumptions about ‘land and king and temple’ had been shattered. Their future was uncertain and they asked that Torah be read to them.

Ezra and others read the ancient words “with interpretation.” They revisited the ancient text in the light of their difficult experiences and an uncertain future. At the close of the event they had a joyful celebration, a BBQ! They celebrated the gift of new understanding; they regained some hope.

How I wish that our scholars would have paid attention to this amazing text. This seems to be an example of the People of God engaging in reflection on their past, their theology and their future. Not as guardians of what they once had, but seemingly as gardeners tending new possibilities. Did they receive and accept a new set of wineskins? At the end of their conference the leaders encouraged the people to rejoice and to celebrate, to have a BBQ. Did any one prepare a BBQ on October 24 because they had received new insights?

Where among the feast of metaphors were our current understandings challenged? At which ‘conversation table’ do we pay attention to Peter Reimer’s questions and others’. The study of Luke 14 could have been the springboard for this, but it didn’t happen.

Where was the voice of Jonah, those startling words in Jonah 4, challenging the status quo? Where was the voice of Peter speaking tradition-challenging and theology-altering words in Cornelius’ home (Acts 10-11) and then trekking back to Jerusalem to explain his actions to the leaders? Have we ignored or overlooked the voices that challenge? Jesus stood in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets. He repeatedly challenged those committed to preserving their precious status quo. There was virtual silence about our Lord’s way and his teaching. Very sad. We had an opportunity to create new wine skins for the embodiment of the faith, but it didn’t seem to happen.

Thank-you John for your observations. I always rejoice when MC Canada seeks to study Scripture.

The Nehemiah text is intriguing. The Jerusalem Temple had sought to serve as a conduit between YHWH and the people of Israel. That structure failed. The prophets bore witness. Clerics defended. Political and military events brought idle conversation to a standstill. After 70 years, new structures were needed--clearly the old was not coming back.

What does it mean to declare the sovereignty of God in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary? It means in the first instance we will be called peculiar.

Perhaps the first observation we can make is that institutional Christianity in NA has struggled to serve the cause of Christ? Hence our sense of dislocation. We Anabaptists thought this was the way forward? A parallel to exile and the returning exiles? Our institutions are distressed for lack of funding and participation. Will anyone ask why?

And the clerics of Jerusalem had no answer. Perhaps the answer does not lie with clerics? Where is God's Word to come from... we do not know.

Perhaps it lies with the one in the cistern?

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